Burglary, kidnapping, smuggling, fuel fraud: Ireland's rising crimes

 

AS THE TRUCK moved from Dublin Port across the city, the undercover Customs team did its best to follow as discreetly as possible.This was the business end of what had been a painstaking surveillance operation and it was vital the driver didn’t get spooked by those tailing him.

Just a few miles from the port, the truck turned from the seafront at Clontarf towards Fairview and on to the Malahide Road, where it pulled in at a warehouse and lock-up at an industrial park in Coolock.

The Customs officials followed quickly in their vehicles, driving into the business park to search the truck and arrest the driver, an Irish man in his 20s.

The target on this afternoon in April had been a consignment of fake cigarettes produced in the Far East and transported to Ireland to fill an order from an Irish crime gang. But when the Customs teams began rifling through the back of the truck and the warehouse it had pulled into, they could scarcely believe their eyes.

Aside from the cigarettes they were looking for, the officers found bags and bags of cannabis herb and cannabis resin. There was more than 450kg in all, with a street value of about €3.5 million. It was the biggest drugs seizure so far this year.

The stash, which had been hidden in electrical goods labelled “for recycling”, was very much a sign of the times. It was owned by a north Dublin crime gang that specialised in importing drugs for sale here. Now, they were also dealing in cigarettes.

According to Garda and Revenue sources, this diversification by drugs gangs away from their core activity into other areas to supplement their drugs income is a pattern being repeated across the country as the recession continues to batter the drugs trade.

Demand for drugs has fallen significantly since the market peaked in 2008. Last year, the total value of all drug types seized by gardaí fell to €31 million, a 15-year low.

Drug arrests also declined nationally by 16 per cent last year, having climbed steadily since the mid-1990s.

The crime gangs that did so well from the drugs trade up to 2008 are now suffering from a drop in their sales. It has left them with a liquidity crisis, meaning they are unable to reinvest in any significant way in further drugs hauls.

With Irish gangs so cash-strapped, they are finding it harder to secure drugs on credit from Irish and foreign drugs wholesale gangs based in southern Spain and Holland. This credit crunch is adding to the contraction in the Irish drugs trade.

With no sign that the wider economy is going to recover any time soon – and the drugs trade with it – gangs are looking to a range of other crime types to get them through the recession.

Cannabis grow houses

THE ONLY DRUG type that gardaí saw an increase in last year was cannabis herb. The Garda seized €11 million of the drug in 2010 compared with €7 million the previous year. This increase occurred in a year when seizures of every other type were considerably down and when total drugs seizures slumped to a 15-year low. Gardaí believe the expansion in the cannabis grow house sector in the State in the past three years has meant higher availability than ever of cannabis herb.

The drug has increased in popularity and is now in such demand that the price of a bag of cannabis herb has doubled or trebled as availability has increased. This is a complete reversal of normal black-market economics, where greater availability of any illegal product normally pushes prices lower.

While cannabis crop cultivation has been dominated here by Vietnamese and Chinese gangs, gardaí believe Irish gangs are sourcing large quantities of cheap cannabis herb from these foreign syndicates.

“A lot of the Irish gangs have seen areas like the cocaine market going downhill, but the cannabis herb trade increasing, so they have switched into that a lot more,” says one Garda source.

Other sources say while almost all of the cannabis grow houses discovered here in recent years have been Asian-run, it is inconceivable that Irish criminals are not becoming more involved in such a lucrative expanding market.

Indeed, when the biggest ever growing operation was found in a warehouse in Co Meath in March, a number of Irish suspects were arrested. That growing operation already had more than 1,700 plants in cultivation and building work was under way to double the size of the warehouse.

This greater capacity would have enabled the growth of 3,500 plants, with a street value of €1.4 million, every six to eight weeks.

So concerned have gardaí become that a specialist operation – Operation Nitrogen – has been established within the Garda National Drugs Unit to deal with the cannabis problem. Some 35 sophisticated large-scale growing operations have been detected in the past 18 months under Operation Nitrogen.

Tiger Kidnappings

THE FAVOURED quick-fix money-making exercise of the average Irish organised crime gang had, for decades, been bank robberies. But a massive investment by banks in branch security has made the traditional armed hold-up raids increasingly difficult.

The presence of CCTV cameras in most banks means any raider would need to be masked to avoid being identified. But security measures at the entrances to many branches, where customers are admitted by staff operating a buzzer, say, means masked men can now not even get through the door.

By the middle of the last decade, cash-in-transit vans delivering money to ATMs were identified by gangs as the weak link in the banks’ operations. This gave rise to a huge number of armed hold-ups on the vans.

However, in recent years the cash-in-transit companies have followed the example of the banks and invested heavily in security technology. Most vans carrying money are now heavily protected by timing devices on safes in the back of the vans, with staff having access to only limited amounts of cash at specific times to facilitate their deliveries.

These security measures have led to a steady decline in robberies on such vans in the past five years.

But having turned from bank robberies to armed hold-ups on cash vans, organised crime gangs have once again changed tack and are now engaging in robberies with hostage-taking.

Known as “tiger raids”, the robberies involve an organised crime gang kidnapping a family member or loved one of a person who has access to cash because of their work in a bank or post office.

Family members are normally taken away at gunpoint, threatened with being shot and or held until the bank or post-office worker goes to their work place, takes a ransom sum and leaves it for the gang at a prearranged drop-off point.

The Garda has worked closely with the main banks in agreeing protocols for such incidents. The main element of that agreement is that banks will not let money leave a branch, no matter how serious the hostage situation, until gardaí have been notified. A reaction operation can then be put in place to try and catch the gang as they collect the ransom.

These protocols have been relatively successful and seem to be deterring tiger raids targeting bank workers.

However, gangs are now increasingly targeting post offices in the belief that security protocols and equipment such as safes are not as robust as in the banking sector.

Most of the tiger raids now occurring are targeting post-office staff, usually in rural areas.

The latest raid occurred just last week, when more than €100,000 was taken from a post office in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, when the post mistress’s adult son was kidnapped at gunpoint and released unharmed when the ransom was paid.

Fuel fraud

THE SPIKE IN the price of motor fuel has created an environment in which cheap, illegally laundered fuel will sell. The sector had always been dominated by the Provisional IRA, with illegal fuel plants often hidden on farms or secluded commercial premises close to the Border.

During the boom, when fuel prices were low and most people were not under financial pressure, the illegal fuel laundering market contracted.

In all of 2009 and the first half of 2010, for example, there were no finds of illegal laundering plants in the State. But in the first five months of this year, investigations by the Garda and Revenue’s Customs officers uncovered five illegal plants. The last one was found a month ago in Co Monaghan, and was the biggest ever discovered in the State. It was capable of laundering an estimated 20 million litres of fuel annually at a cost of some €11 million per year to the Exchequer in taxes and duties forgone.

These illegal plants are known as laundries because they effectively “wash” fuel. Diesel intended for use in the agricultural sector is marked with a green dye in the Republic and a red dye in the North. Once dyed, or marked, it is subject to lower taxes than those applied to motor fuel. This move is designed as a fuel subsidy for farmers and other owners of heavy commercial vehicles eligible to use the green or red diesel.

Those operating the illegal laundering plants source agricultural diesel, usually by the tanker-load. They then “wash” or “launder” the fuel to remove the dye. This is achieved by pumping it through a tank with bleaching chemicals or more solid substances such as cat litter inside. It is then pumped back out, via a filter, to a second tank as laundered fuel ready for use .

They then sell it as regular motor fuel, in some cases to unsuspecting garage owners, who resell it on to motorists on garage forecourts.

In other cases, garages are run by criminal gangs that are aware the fuel they are buying and selling on to motorists is laundered.

The dyed fuel costs about 70c per litre. When the dye is removed, the diesel sells for about €1.40 per litre.

Most of those behind the operations are highly organised and have invested in expensive machinery, including the same modern and high-spec oil tanker trucks used by legitimate multinational fuel companies.

In one case a number of years ago, a gang operating an illegal laundering plant had acquired a new truck and decorated it in the livery of the Shell fuel company, in the belief this would effectively disguise the illegal trade it was involved in.

Cigarette smuggling

IF PLUMMETING disposable income has forced recreational drug users to reduce or cease expenditure on drugs, it is that exact change in spending power that has seen the illegal cigarette market flourish.

Many smokers are now more inclined to buy contraband cigarettes from black-market street deals, market stalls or hawkers in pubs, for about half the average €8.55 retail price of a pack of 20 cigarettes.

This black market is made up of two types of cigarette. Some are contraband, or copied, versions of well-known brands and are passed off as those brands. Others are known as “cheap whites”. They are not a copy of any specific brand. Instead, they are produced in factories overseas specifically for export to markets where they are going to be sold outside the tax net, on the black market.

These contraband cigarettes are given their own branding and packaging in the factories that produce them.

Both the counterfeit and contraband cigarettes are produced in cigarette factories – some legal, some illegal – in Russia, Eastern Europe, China and other parts of the Far East. They are shipped in sea freight in very substantial consignments to organised crime gangs in Ireland and other EU countries.

Because Ireland has the second-highest retail price for cigarettes in the EU – four times higher than many other member States – it is seen as a very lucrative market for the illegal cigarette trade.

One security source says: “These cigarettes can be bought for as little as 10c or 12c at a factory gate and because a pack of 20 costs €8.55 in the shops here, they’d fetch at least €4 on the streets.”

Tom Talbot, a senior investigator for Revenue, says the illegal cigarette trade is costing the Exchequer €250 million per year. He says for every 40ft container of cigarettes smuggled into the State, the Irish gang behind the haul makes €2 million. The number of cigarettes seized last year reached a record 178 million cigarettes, with a recommended retail price of about €75.2 million.

Talbot says of the growing trade: “We are now seeing concealments of cigarettes that would only have been seen with drugs in the past, gangs really going out of their way to hide them, even making up things like concrete posts to hide them in.”

Joe Barrett, an owner and founder of the Applegreen chain of service stations and chair of Retailers Against Smugglers, says 40 per cent of some retailers’ revenue comes from the sale of cigarettes and other products bought by people who visit shops to buy cigarettes. He says the black-market cigarette trade is costing retailers €800 million annually.

In the UK, it is estimated that 25 per cent of all organised crime gangs are funded by cigarette smuggling.