In recent years, gardaí targeting drug-dealing gangs have noticed a new trend when searching the homes of dealers.
Aside from the usual material they expect to find – drugs, weapons, designer clothes, etc – officers have been coming across bundles of pristine notes, neatly stacked and still in the branded bank or credit union wrapping.
For investigators, the implication is clear. This is money directly extracted from victims of a scourge afflicting towns and cities across the country: drug-debt intimidation.
It may just be you’re being taxed because you have a nice house or a BMW or Audi in the driveway. You’re being taxed because you have something they want and they’ve decided you have money— Detective Superintendent Sé McCormack
In these cases, victims have “gone to the bank, taken out a loan on the pretext of going on holidays, building a shed or an extension or buying a car. And the money is just handed over to someone who’s alleged they owe a debt,” Detective Superintendent Sé McCormack at the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (GNDOCB) says.
McCormack is careful to use the word “alleged” because in many cases the victim does not owe any debt at all; they are simply unlucky enough to find themselves in the sights of local criminals.
According to research published in 2021 criminals in some areas have such a hold over the community that they will just target a random family for exploitation, safe in the knowledge there will be no consequences.
“It may just be you’re being taxed because you have a nice house or a BMW or Audi in the driveway. You’re being taxed because you have something they want and they’ve decided you have money,” says McCormack.
Quantifying the extent of the problem is extremely difficult, mainly due to large underreporting by victims who live in constant fear of reprisal. But according to McCormack, the problem is ubiquitous: “It’s in every community, every parish, every part of the country, every income level, every type of family. It’s just everywhere.”
It’s also not confined to one particular drug, he says, although a recent United Nations report says cocaine use poses a particular problem in Ireland. Users are able to buy large amounts of cocaine on credit and when they cannot repay the debt, they become “victims or perpetrators of intimidation and violence”, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime stated.
Research and accounts from gardaí and community workers also highlight a scarcely believable level of sophistication, which allows gangs to terrorise not just individual drug users or their families but entire communities
Neither is the issue confined to disadvantaged areas. The 2021 inter-agency report cited examples of houses in so-called leafy neighbourhoods being targeted by criminals who reason that “such families have the money and will pay quickly to avoid distress and the risk of the neighbours finding out”.
Recent research and accounts from gardaí and community workers also highlight a scarcely believable level of sophistication, which allows gangs to terrorise not just individual drug users or their families but entire communities.
Drug debts are bought and sold between criminals just like distressed mortgages are traded between banks and vulture funds, sources said. Typically this will involve a significant “write-down” on the debt. In other cases, the collection of the debt is subcontracted to another criminal specialising in “recovery”.
According to a presentation to Dublin city councillors last October by Insp John Moroney, these “collectors” typically receive about 10 per cent of the debt’s value but may receive more if “extras”, such as assaults or criminal damage, are required to recover the money.
Death, even in tragic circumstances, rarely results in the termination of a debt. Research published by the Policing Authority last month cited a number of suicides in a community, reportedly as a result of drug-debt intimidation. Community members told the Authority “that the deceased’s drug debt typically endures and would likely pass to the family”.
At the lower end of the scale, children as young as six are used to carry out low-level intimidation, according to the Policing Authority research. This can range from kicking a ball against a car to throwing rocks at a house to riding scramblers up and down a street. The Authority also noted reports of illegal dogs being bred for the purpose of intimidation.
The rewards for the perpetrators are minor. Sometimes it will be a designer jacket or trainers (searches by the GNOCB regularly result in the seizure of Canada Goose or Moncler coats). According to McCormack, sometimes the reward “will just be a bag of sweets”. One garda working in west Dublin described a local drug dealer who gives children a popular brand of energy drinks in return for their work.
If the situation gets more serious, criminals may take over the homes of vulnerable people they claim owe them debts, a process known as cuckooing. Not only does this give dealers new bases from which to deal drugs, it also serves to intimidate the general community and demonstrate the reach of the gang.
[ Concern over increasing prevalence of drug-related ‘cuckooing’ ]
“Our research found that gangs potentially target up to a dozen houses at a time so that they are prepared to move to the next home,” the 2021 inter-agency report states.
There is some evidence that criminal gangs operate rudimentary intelligence operations to enable them to them identify targets for drug-debt intimidation. “Research participants referenced dealers observing the post office or credit unions to identify potential targets,” the 2021 research states. “In many cases debts are then manufactured in the knowledge that someone may be in a position to pay.”
One community member told the researchers that vulnerable adults with learning disabilities are also targeted. “It would lead you believe there’s some network going on and they use local knowledge,” they said.
Adding to the fear faced by communities is the lack of consistency from criminals in enforcing debts. Researchers have found the amount of the debt typically does not correspondent to the level of violence or intimidation used to recover it.
The 2021 report recorded debts of between €100 and €80,000, “with no apparent correlation between the level of debt and scale of violence.
“The common view was the scale of intimidation and violence was entirely ‘at the whim’ of the criminal gang leaders, who would often instruct a greater intensity and visibility of violence against smaller debts in order to ‘make a statement’ or ‘send out a warning’ to the rest of the community about the consequences of not paying.”
Similarly the value of the debt and the interest can fluctuate overnight. “This isn’t a mortgage where you might be worried about the rate going up one or two per cent,” says McCormack. “The rates are set by the perpetrator. Today it’s €1,500. Tomorrow, it’s €5,000 and on Friday, it’s 20 grand.”
Community workers have recorded multiple instances of young women being brought to a hotel to have sex with people to pay off a debt. Others face the threat of sexual assault in their homes
Sometimes paying anything at all just tells the perpetrator you are capable of paying more, he says. On the other hand, refusing to pay can result in consequences which go far beyond criminal damage.
A survey in Dublin’s northeast inner city found 67 per cent of people subject to drug-debt intimidation reported direct threats of physical harm. Fifty three per cent said their movements had been tracked while 45 per cent reported “a direct threat of vandalism or takeover of their property”.
At the upper end of the scale there are reports of murder, rape and forced prostitution.
Community workers have recorded multiple instances of young women being brought to a hotel to have sex with people to pay off a debt. Others face the threat of sexual assault in their homes. “They’ll show up in the morning after the kids have gone to school and they’ll be expected to have sex with whoever,” one person told researchers.
Victims are often forced to repay their debt, or their family member’s debt, by holding on to drugs, carrying out intimidation themselves or transporting firearms and drugs around the country. One garda described a gang who would sell drugs to teenagers, only to steal them back later and force the victims to carry out crimes to repay the “debt”.
In other instances, according to the inter-agency report, young men “are forced to admit guilt to a crime and carry out a prison sentence on someone’s behalf”.
So what should families do when faced with such terrible options: pay the debt or go to the gardaí? Each one carries risks, authorities admit. The Policing Authority report cites instances of dealers taking and checking the phone of their victims to ensure they are not in contact with gardaí.
Asked if people are more at risk if they contact gardaí, McCormack’s voice drops to a whisper before answering. “Strictly speaking, yes. But we can’t say for definite.”
But he adds that gardaí will go to every effort to ensure confidentiality. “If you want to talk to me I will go wherever you want.”
In every garda division an inspector is appointed to deal with confidential reports of drug-debt intimidation and discretion is at the core of their work, McCormack says.
He says during his days on the frontline, he has met intimidation victims in the homes of other family members, in hotels and even in different counties when required to ensure secrecy. Gardaí will meet people in unmarked cars and out of uniform and if someone wants to contact them on a different number than their own, that is not a problem either, he says.
McCormack said it is not his place to moralise to someone who has decided to pay a drug debt. “It’s a decision for the family. It’s a very complex area,” he says. But he urges victims to at least talk to gardaí before making any decision.
That is easier said than done. Recent analysis shows only 6 per cent of referrals of drug-debt intimidation to gardaí resulted in the victim making a formal criminal complaint.
Dealers are adept at exploiting the fear among victims that they might themselves be prosecuted if they go to the gardaí, McCormack says. “They sow fear by going: ‘well, you can’t go to the guards, you’ve been involved in the drugs, right?’”
His message in response is: “If you come in and say you owe 20 grand on a drug debt, or your son owes 20 grand, we’re not going to arrest you. We’re going to listen to you and say ‘right, well, what can we do?’”
The tiny numbers of people who do come forward means it is also impossible to get a clear picture of the extent of the drug-debt intimidation problem. A new inter-agency programme called Drug Related Intimidation and Violence Engagement (Drive) aims to address that.
The aim is to create a network of people across the country who can gather anonymous data of drug-debt intimidation in their communities. This information can be collected not just by gardaí but social workers, healthcare professionals, youth workers and others.
This data will be fed into a central database operated by the Health Research Board which will allow for the targeting of resources in areas experiencing high levels of intimidation.
The data will not just inform Garda responses, McCormack stresses. “It might be the banks, credit unions, it might be GPs. It might be the County Councils, it might be the [Office of Public Works]. The information could be used by all the different agencies that exist in the country.”
Because drug-debt intimidation is a deeply ingrained and deeply complex social issue, the response must be similarly nuanced, McCormack believes. “It takes a village to raise a child. So it’s the village that has to respond to the problem.”
[ Drug-debt intimidation: ‘There is nothing they won’t do, pipe bombs, fire bombs, homes are vandalised’ ]
The Drive programme is intended to complement the harder-edge of the criminal justice process, including Operation Fógra, a targeted policing initiative aimed at bringing perpetrators of intimidation before the courts.
In recent months Fógra has recorded some significant progress, or at least the Garda has been more proactive about highlighting its successes. Between November 2020 and June 2022, gardaí in the north Dublin city region identified 195 intimidation incidents and arrested 22 suspects. It’s a drop in the ocean in terms of perpetrators but more than was being done previously.
So far this year eight people have appeared before the courts nationally charged with suspected drug-debt intimidation offences. The hope is news of these arrests will encourage more people to come forward and place their trust in gardaí, even if they may not have positive experiences with the force in the past.
“If we have to build trust, we have to build trust,” says McCormack. “that’s part of what we’re here for. We’re here to help.”