Families are being pressured to remortgage their homes to pay off alleged drug debts, with attempted extortion demands by organised crime gangs sometimes running into hundreds of thousands of euro, a Garda inspector has said.
Garda Inspector John Moroney said drug-related intimidation, where criminals pressure people to pay off often “inflated or fabricated” drug debts, was a “significant issue”.
The intimidation often sees criminal groups use violence and threats to force people to pay off drug debts, or the debts of a family member or loved one.
The amounts demanded by drug dealers can range from “€100 to a couple of hundred thousand euro”, Insp Moroney told The Irish Times.
“What we want victims to do is before they pay anyone, look at their options. The consequences of paying may be further demands. A lot of these people can’t pay their way out of it,” he said.
Often criminals seek to set up a “payment plan” with families targeted, which then became an “income stream” for the organised crime group, he said.
The inspector, who is based in the Dublin Metropolitan Region north division, said investigating gardaí had come across demands from criminals that families remortgage houses to pay off debts.
It is often the parents or grandparents who are threatened by criminals to pay off the debts of a family member, he said.
Efforts to force people to pay include assaults, arson attacks on houses and criminal damage, as well as threats to kill.
“It’d have a big psychological impact on the families, a car driving up the road is no longer just a car driving up the road. If there’s a perception someone has money that can leave them more at risk,” Insp Moroney said.
Where people were unable to pay, criminals sought “payment in kind”, such as the person having to store drugs for the gang in their home, he said.
In one case where gardaí secured a conviction, criminals had fabricated a debt of €25,000, and then smashed house windows and damaged cars to try to force the victim to pay the money, he said.
There had been 226 instances of drug-related intimidation reported in the Dublin north region between November 2020 and December 2022. However, owing to the fear of retribution the crime was known to be “under-reported”, he said.
An Garda Síochána had invested a “significant amount of resources” to tackle the problem, he said.
Inspectors had been appointed to each Garda division to focus on the problem of drug-related intimidation, he said.
If people who were being threatened over debts came forward to gardaí the cases would be investigated thoroughly, he said.
Ruairí Ó Murchú, Sinn Féin TD for Louth, said he had heard of families who took out credit union loans and cashed in pensions to pay off debts.
“I’ve seen cases where grandmothers have made arrangements to pay off debts bit by bit … I couldn’t overemphasise how big a deal this is,” he said.
Demands for payments from criminal gangs that he was aware of had run up to €40,000, he said. “In some senses they see it as there’s more money to be made chasing the drug debt, than selling the drugs,” he said.
“Once a debt is paid off the drug dealer will have no difficulty letting the debt run up again,” he added.
Mr Ó Murchú said he had seen houses of the “most impoverished” families burnt out, to send a warning to others in the community to make payments.