Drug dealers now better at beating Criminal Assets Bureau

Gangs have factored the Cab into the way they operate and taken new evasive measures

Members of the Criminal Assets Bureau and armed gardaí removing vehicles from a car garage in Bluebell Business Park, west Dublin, during an operation in March. Photograph: Alan Betson

Members of the Criminal Assets Bureau and armed gardaí removing vehicles from a car garage in Bluebell Business Park, west Dublin, during an operation in March. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Incredible as it seems, next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of Veronica Guerin. The journalist’s shooting by the John Gilligan gang in June 1996 resulted in a tremendous Garda clampdown on organised crime.

Doing most of that damage – or certainly hitting criminals where it hurt most – was the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab).

It has always been put forward as the legacy item brought about by Guerin’s murder that would stand the test of time. And it has proven successful.

But criminals have always responded to the State’s efforts to beat them.

For example, those smuggling drugs into prisons switched to undetectable pills when sniffer dogs were introduced. And when extra security was placed on banks, gangs targeted cash deliveries instead.

With the passage of two decades since Cab began its life, it is unrealistic think the criminal fraternity has not watched its modus operandi very closely and factored the bureau into the structure of its wealth and investment.

And while there have been many calls over the last week after the murder of Gareth Hutch for mini, or localised, Cabs around Dublin to seize smaller-value assets, the concept already exists. Hundreds of Garda assets profilers already work at local level.

The worrying truth is that gang members like those involved in the Kinahan-Hutch feud have upped their game in concealing their wealth.

Take one recent high-profile Cab operation as a case in point: the seizure in March of a fleet of luxury vehicles from a car garage in west Dublin owned by associates of David Byrne.

The 33-year-old father of one was a mainly Dublin-based member of the international crime gang led by Christy Kinahan from Spain. And his shooting dead in the Regency Hotel, Drumcondra, in February was the first in the six killings in Ireland in the Kinahan-Hutch feud.

Display of wealth

A US-style casket reportedly costing thousands was used to bury him and a fleet of stretch limousines was hired.

The display sparked outrage and the Garda hit back with a series of raids less than a month later targeting the wealth of Byrne’s associates. But the fact they owned and ran a profitable business – a car sales garage – is now typical of how the gangs are trying to frustrate Cab.

If they own businesses, it is much more difficult for the Cab to separate their legitimate income from their drug income during High Court asset-confiscation cases.

The salaries taken from the business are run through the books, providing a documented income that can be used by the men to explain away assets – from houses to holidays, cash and jewellery – if and when the Cab comes to call.

The favoured industry in which to bury drug and armed robbery money into allegedly legitimate and profitably business has been the car trade. But any cash business will do, however small.

And when many established criminals in the late 1990s saw a number of senior underworld figures being forced to reach multimillion-euro settlements with Cab, they left the jurisdiction for the Costa del Sol.

Continental Europe

And because Cab cannot target assets abroad owned by Irish criminals who live abroad, these criminals are safe from Irish confiscation cases.

Spain, where most of the Irish are, is a country with lots of international mafia groups and so the Irish are not a priority for law enforcement there.

Most European countries have opted for conviction-based asset-confiscations laws rather than the civil law ethos on which the Cab is founded.

It means that unless Irish criminals in Spain are convicted of drug dealing there, the wealth they have accrued via drug dealing cannot be touched.

Crude steps

Many simply do not lodge their money in banks, opting for a cash lifestyle instead. Some Limerick criminals were known to keep money in a wheelie bin.

Many remain living in the working-class areas they grew up in, with the only obvious signs of their wealth extensions to their homes and the purchase of fast cars.

For many, taking and winning personal injury compensation claims has proven a useful technique; using the money they were awarded to explain assets or expenses that may be queried later.

But once criminals engineer a business scenario – even owning a taxi plate – which they can run their drug money through, the Cab faces a very trying task in proving to the High Court where the criminal component to the assets starts and ends.