From a warning painted on to the side of an isolated rural home, to houses burnt out and threats to rape mothers and daughters, staff in addiction services warn violence from criminal gangs over drug debts is escalating.
Drug-related intimidation, where families are threatened to pay often inflated drug debts of a loved one, has left communities across the country living in fear, says Jackie McKenna, who runs a support network for affected families.
McKenna, co-ordinator of Dundalk-based Family Addiction Support Network, said families had remortgaged homes, sold farms, took out large credit union loans or second jobs to pay off debts.
In previous decades a gang would threaten to maim the individual who ran up a debt, to pressure them to pay. Now, more commonly where a son or daughter owes money, the family is targeted, allowing the gang to extort at times tens of thousands of euro.
Intimidation can include bricks through the windows of the home, properties being fire bombed, cars destroyed, as well as threats of rape and murder.
The amount sought is often significantly inflated to the debt owed, or even fabricated, and can range from €100 up to more than €50,000.
It could be the mother, or grandmother, who was threatened into setting up a “payment plan” to a dealer for a loved one’s alleged debt, that then became a regular source of income for the criminal gang.
“People will try to deal with it themselves, rather than reaching out because of the shame. Or they won’t report it to the gardaí because of the fear of reprisals,” McKenna said.
“There is nothing they won’t do, pipe bombs, fire bombs, homes are vandalised ... A lot of people are in fear of their lives,” she said.
The support worker said some families had become homeless, deciding to leave their homes as a result of the intimidation.
“How the hell would anyone cope, the anxiety, the stress, the shame, the panic ... The break-up of family relationships as a result is unbelievable,” she said.
McKenna said she was aware of women being coerced into providing “sexual favours” to settle debts.
One source working in addiction services said they had heard of cases where mothers were threatened with rape if the family failed to pay.
Social media and messaging apps have also been used to convey threats.
In one video sent as a warning, seen by The Irish Times, a man is shown with his hands bound by cable ties and tape covering his mouth. An individual leans forward and cuts the top of the man’s ear off with a knife, before moving to cut part of his other ear, as the victim screams.
The video is captioned with the name of a man, purportedly based in Co Wicklow, stating: “You’re next”.
A Garda source said they believed the footage was likely linked to drug-related intimidation, however it was unclear where or when the recording was made.
A spokeswoman for An Garda Síochána said they were aware of the video, however they were unable to comment or verify its authenticity.
Many people were “petrified” of seeking help, says Louise Mahony, manager of the Red Door project in Co Louth.
The addiction support service in Drogheda had heard of numerous instances of people seeking up to €10,000 in loans from the credit union to pay off family member’s debts. Staff working in the service had heard of demands for payments as high as €50,000, she said.
Mike Walsh, team leader of Community Substance Misuse Team, a service in the midwest that works with young people and their families, said intimidation over drug debts was a “massive problem”.
Intimidation is very pervasive, it’s one of the ways the drugs trade sustains itself— Dr Johnny Connolly
The threats could be subtle, such as a car parked outside a home, or overt. In one instance Walsh said a home in rural Co Limerick had a warning to “pay up or else” painted on the side of the house during the night.
Sometimes the perpetrators carrying out the intimidation were themselves young men trying to service a debt. In this way debts were used to coerce people into becoming involved in criminal networks, Walsh said.
If an individual cannot pay, they could be forced to store drugs in their home, or transport drugs or firearms, leaving them suddenly “stuck” working for the gang, he said.
The practice of storing drugs in someone else’s home, known as cuckooing, limits the risk to a gang in the event the property is raided by gardaí.
Where teenage boys ran up debts of several hundred euro, gangs could use this leverage to groom them into becoming the “next group of runners, holders, dealers”, he said.
As such the gang can keep replacing cogs of its operation when those on lower rungs were prosecuted and imprisoned. “You can always get someone who owes you something ... The gaps get filled,” Walsh said.
‘No easy answers’
One community worker, who did not wish to be named, said criminals also used debts to coerce people into supplying information from their workplace, if the gang deemed it potentially useful to their operations.
Garda Inspector John Moroney is tasked with tackling drug-related intimidation in the Dublin Metropolitan Region north division.
The senior Garda warned that if a decision was made to pay a debt, the criminal group would allow the family member suffering from an addiction to run up another one, or simply use threats to extort more money from the family.
“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.
Inspectors have been appointed to each Garda division to focus on drug-related intimidation as part of renewed efforts to address the problem.
People are being challenged over debts that are not even owed. Your mother, your granny, everybody is being threatened…— Paddy Murdiff
In the north Dublin division there have been more than 200 reports of drug-related intimidation since late 2020, with a number of convictions secured and gardaí pursuing about 20 investigations.
However, Dr Johnny Connolly, criminologist in the University of Limerick school of law, said there were “no easy answers” for how to tackle the problem.
“One of the ways law enforcement success is measured is through seizures and prosecutions,” he said.
The academic, who specialises in drug and gang-related crime, questioned what that meant for someone who had been intimidated into storing drugs in their home.
“If they are holding drugs and the drugs are found and they are prosecuted, that might be seen as a success from a law enforcement perspective,” he said.
“People who are higher up aren’t touching anything, they’re not touching the drugs, they’re not involved in the dirty work,” he said.
“Intimidation is very pervasive, it’s one of the ways the drugs trade sustains itself,” Dr Connolly said.
Moves to decriminalise drugs for personal use and treating addiction as a health rather than criminal issue, would not abolish the “hugely lucrative” trade for criminal gangs, he said.
There were obvious challenges to gardaí securing prosecutions over intimidation, such as victims being unwilling to give evidence in court over fears for their safety, he said.
In Dublin’s north inner city, a drugs taskforce to co-ordinate community groups has been stood down for a year and a half, due to a dispute with the Department of Health.
Department officials objected to the selection of a new chair of the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force in June 2021.
Paddy Murdiff, a community representative on the board tasked with leading the regeneration of the northeast inner city, said the area was “suffering” due to the absence of a working drugs taskforce.
Drug debts and associated intimidation was an “unspoken” problem plaguing the community, he said.
“People are being challenged over debts that are not even owed. Your mother, your granny, everybody is being threatened ... They’re going to credit unions or moneylenders to try to get money,” he said.
A department spokeswoman said it was expected the drugs taskforce would be back up and running before the end of March.
Following consultation with local groups, politicians and agencies, a report was being drawn up on how to set out “effective, inclusive, and transparent governance” for the taskforce, she said.
Ruairí Ó Murchú, Sinn Féin TD for Louth, said the current approach to drugs policy had been an “abject failure”. Local addiction services were underfunded and being held together by a “ball of twine” in many cases, he said.
Ms McKenna said the “stigma” of having a family member struggling with addiction remained a “real barrier” to people seeking help over intimidation.
Gardaí had to work with communities to build up trust, and increase victims’ confidence to report threats, to try to get a handle on the problem together, she said.
The alternative was people would be left to “live in fear” in communities increasingly run by “gangland rules,” she said.