Drug debts: First come bullets in the post. Then the family home is firebombed

Criminals’ primary targets are not the addicts who owe them money but their mothers

Intimidation from local criminals was becoming a fact of life for Margaret since her son Simon ran up a €2,000 drug debt with a local dealer. She had paid off a portion of the money but refused to pay any more. A short time later the dealer’s girlfriend spotted her in a pub and attacked her.

Margaret didn’t expect that the next threat would come from her own son. One day, Simon trashed the house while armed with a knife. Margaret’s young daughter hid under the table as the teenager demanded his mother go to an ATM and withdraw cash to pay off his dealer.

“He said if I didn’t go and get money for him, someone would be down and they would be pulling me out of my house,” she says.

Sandra regularly gets bullets in the post, a message about what would happen if she didn't pay the €50,000 her teenage son's cocaine dealer claimed he owed

Margaret is a young mother living in a large town in south Leinster. Her story is not unique. Sandra, another young mother living near the Border, regularly gets bullets in the post; a message about what would happen if she didn’t pay the €50,000 her teenage son’s cocaine dealer claimed he owed.


One summer a man kicked in the front door of her house. He stood in her doorway with a crowbar demanding cash as her young child screamed at the top of the stairs. More recently someone set a van ablaze and drove it to the front of her house, causing the building to catch fire.

“The fire brigade came and turned off the gas. They said if they had been any later, the house would have exploded,” Sandra’s sister says. “They still owe the money. My sister is living on her nerves. She doesn’t know what’s going to come.”

Brenda, who lives in Dublin, recently noticed her son coming in with bumps and bruises. He won’t tell her what happened but she knows they’re related to the money he owes his dealers.

At one point she had asked gardaí if they could arrest her son; at least in custody he might be somewhat safer. She was told the most they could do was admit him to a juvenile diversion programme.

Coercion and control

Drug debts have been around as long as there has been drug dealing. Dealers are happy to give out their product on credit; it grants them a sort of power over their community and allows them to force debtors to commit crimes for them – anything from holding and selling drugs, to murder.

“It’s a tactic that has been used for years. If some young lad is using and they get into even a relatively small debt, they would force him to hold drugs,” says Det Insp John O’Flaherty, who until recently was the contact point in Drogheda for families suffering drug-related intimidation.

Research by Prof Sean Redmond and the University of Limerick shows debt is used deliberately to coerce and control impoverished communities. The ever-present threat of violence associated with the debt keeps people in control and, most importantly, keeps them from talking to the gardaí.

“What they want is for you to keep your head down and just shut the f**k up and accept that that’s your life, full stop,” one Limerick resident told the authors of a 2011 report on drug problems in the city.

The problem is getting worse, says Áine who works with the Solas Project, a inner city Dublin youth outreach project. Like the family members who spoke to The Irish Times, Áine does not want her real name used.

“It’s becoming more frequent. I’m doing this for 10 years and the drug debt intimidation has become much worse in the last few years, particularly for the younger age cohort.”

All mothers love their sons. The dealers hope that by targeting Mam they'll get the rest of the family to club together and come up with whatever debt is owed

The methods used to enforce payment are also more vicious. Addicts and their families report not just physical violence but also sexual assaults and being forced into sex work to pay off debts.

One dealer, interviewed in prison by drug researcher Johnny Connolly in 2015, recalled a simpler time: “I would never go around as they do now, f**king like tapping on doors, looking for the aul’ fella, looking for the fathers or mothers to pay but I was never like that.

“I would write it off – more times out of 10 like if I got out of pocket from doing it, but I would never use violence.”

Rua is a programme run by the Solas Project for repeat offenders, teenagers deemed not suitable for the Garda’s juvenile liaison programme due to the seriousness or frequency of their offending. Of the 19 teens in the programme, 11 owe someone money for drugs, says Áine.

It’s not just working class Dublin that’s affected. Rural and middle class areas are also seeing an increase.

A violent logic

Áine recalls two parents, both professionals in well-paid positions, who were told by dealers they had to pay off a relative’s drug debt.

“They told us about it and my response was ‘Yea, you have to pay it.’ They couldn’t believe it, although there was a part of them that I think was relieved because I didn’t shame them.”

The bullet in the post, experienced by Margaret, is a regular tactic employed by debt enforcers. Another one is what gardaí call “the dead door”, where a shot is fired through a front door to intimidate the family.

There’s logic behind the violence. Criminals don’t just want to intimidate the person who owes the money, usually a young man. They want to intimidate his family, since they are the ones most likely to pay up.

“All mothers love their sons,” says O’Flaherty. “They target that and they hope that by targeting Mam that they’ll get the rest of the family to club together and come up with whatever debt is owed.”

Áine in the Solas Project recalls a boy who was recently beaten up in front of his family because he owed money. “They could have beaten him up anywhere. It wasn’t about giving him a bunch of slaps. It was about kicking in the front door in front of the family. They were actually more traumatised than the young person.”

According to a 2016 survey by Citywide of drug taskforces nationwide, aside from the drug user themselves, mothers were by far the most likely to face debt intimidation.

Enforcers don’t just target immediate family members. Dealers have threatened to send people around to Sandra’s sister’s house because they suspected she was hiding her son there.

The amount of money owed also has little bearing on the dealers’ response. “I’ve been dealing with a young fella who was taking about taking his life over €200,” Áine says.

“I’ve had a lad who owed €60 and couldn’t leave his house. They put the windows through of his house over €60.”

O’Flaherty says debt enforcement usually follows a predictable pattern. First come threats, then the windows of the family home are broken and then the place is firebombed.

“It’s organised and it’s staged. It’s designed to build up and build up. And with a bigger amount of money, they’ll do anything.”

Áine says families sometimes ask Solas for the money. “When you hear it’s only €100, €200, you want to give it to them but you can’t.”

The power of fear

Many teenagers buy drugs on credit so they can deal themselves on the street. And when the gardaí seize the drugs, the teens are left with no means of repaying the money.

“If it’s confiscated by the guards, you need a charge sheet to show you didn’t rat,” says Sorcha, another Solas Project worker.

“A big fear is if you’re arrested and not charged. Then they will assume you gave the guards someone’s name,” adds Eddie D’Arcy, who runs the project.

“The message has to go out that talking to the gardaí, or even being suspected of talking to them, will lead to far worse consequences than not repaying the debt.”

One of the young people in the project was recently arrested for drugs but not charged. After his release, two houses were raided by the Garda, leading the local gang to assume the teenager had talked.

“He didn’t, but the word was out there,” says D’Arcy. “The young fella was absolutely terrified. That’s the power of fear. They will burn that place out. We’ve had youngsters who have threatened to have their ear cut off.”

Dealers will often make teenagers hold on to large consignments of drugs for lengthy periods. It can often prove too much of a temptation for those who are addicted. Last year Sandra’s son and his friend were ordered to hold onto €50,000 worth of cocaine to pay off their dealer.

“They ended up taking all the drugs. They had some left and tried to mix it with other stuff but whatever they had mixed it with made it no good to sell,” his aunt says.

Afterwards the other teen fled. “So my sister was told she owed 50 grand. They were trying to put this on her.”

Just beaten, or shot?

Speaking to D’Arcy and his colleagues in their cramped office in the south inner city, it becomes clear drug debt enforcement is not black and white. Many of those enforcing drug debts owe money themselves further up the chain, the team says.

The more money you owe, the more likely you are to be shot instead of just beaten; or to have to shoot someone rather than just hold drugs.

“We deal with people at various stages of the chain,” D’Arcy says. “We can’t be judgmental. The fellas doing the intimidation are caught up in the same chain. And they’re caught further up the line and they’re under more fear.”

Part of the job of those in the Solas Project is to offer advice to those with drug debts. And that advice is invariably “pay it”.

“I know people are going to read this article and say, ‘What, paying a drug dealer?’ But you have to understand it’s not a threat of violence they are under. It’s a fact of violence,” says Áine.

“You’re talking about violence when there’s young children in the home, where there’s vulnerable women living on their own. It’s a horrible reality; it’s a moral versus a practical thing.”

Pay-day lenders may charge 50% interest, Áine says, but they don't break your legs if you don't pay

Áine says she will try to look for legitimate ways the client can find the money, even if those methods come with their own problems. Pay-day lenders may charge 50 per cent interest, she says, but they don’t break your legs if you don’t pay (“most of them don’t anyway”).

Another common avenue is the pawn shops which she has noticed springing up around Dublin. And there will always be those who resort to robbery, she says. “Phones and pushbikes would be the big thing.”

That advice – “pay them” – is also what the gardaí tell people, D’Arcy says, “though they would never admit to that officially”.

Det Insp O’Flaherty rejects that. “We don’t advise people to pay. Some people who come to me have already paid and then they come back to me because [the dealers] have come back looking for more and more money.”

The gardaí are usually the last port of call for families affected by drug debt, says D’Arcy. “Eighty per cent of people reading this will ask why don’t they just go to the guards.”

There are a few reasons. “First, the young person who owes the money has usually committed an offence themselves so that’s obviously an issue.

“And two, the guards are very clear that they can’t provide 24-hour protection.”

Even if they arrest one of the gang and charge him with demanding money with menaces or a similar offence, there will be many others who can take revenge on the family, D’Arcy says.

“I just couldn’t see a family [who spoke to the guards] being able to stay in their estate. There is this sense of fear that if you are ever caught reporting to the guards, then forget about it, you’re dead.

“Even rehousing them from here to Ballyfermot, that’s not going to make them safe. You’d have to be rehoused over to Westport or something, and even then you’d be worried about it.”

Margaret says when she informed local gardaí her son Simon was in debt to dealers, the gardaí informed the council her son was dealing from their house. Now she fears she will lose her home.

We conduct a threat assessment and give the appropriate amount of policing that we can. Some get more and some get less

It’s a common problem, says D’Arcy. “There is that fear that if you go to the council and say my son owes three or four grand because he’s been selling drugs, that the council will say ‘You’re admitting you’re dealing, on with you.’ People are terrified of that so it’s a vicious circle.”

O’Flaherty concedes the gardaí are limited in what they can do. “We can’t give 24-hour protection and we don’t offer to. You couldn’t build up someone’s hopes that you’re going to be there 24/7.”

However, he insists they aren’t powerless. Garda patrols around the homes of people in danger are stepped up, and their details are lodged with the dispatch office so they can be prioritised if a call comes in.

“We would be limited but we have a certain amount of expertise and a certain amount of knowledge of the characters who are involved and their likelihood of carrying through on threats.

“We conduct a threat assessment and give the appropriate amount of policing that we can. Some get more and some get less. And that’s renewed and reviewed regularly.”

If families don’t want to make a formal complaint, the gardaí can still give them advice on how to keep safe. “We tell them to call us if you see anything out of place.”

Eighteen and back in danger

Sandra’s son is now “roaming the streets, doing whatever”, his aunt says. Over the years his mother has received varying degrees of help from the State. In his late teens, with the support of the local Garda juvenile liaison officer, Tusla agreed to put him in bed and breakfast to hide him from those demanding money.

He was soon kicked out for causing trouble. The Garda then put him in a “place of safety”, a hospital emergency department, before his mother eventually got him a bed in a residential drug treatment centre.

There, he “thrived”, according to his aunt. He put on weight, stopped taking drugs and found some part-time work in a local business.

I don't have the money. I've small girls. I'm a lone parent. I've tried to get loans out online or from the credit union just to clear it

“All that stopped when he turned 18. They wanted to keep him because they knew he wasn’t ready to leave, but the HSE wouldn’t give them the funds so they had to let him go. Within three months he had OD-ed on benzos.”

Margaret’s son Simon has recently been given a bed in a treatment centre. He’s clean of tablets but still smoking cannabis. “He turned around the other day and said ‘I’m sick of it’,” she says. “He’s seen the light and he wants to sort himself.”

But he can’t leave because he still owes money to his former dealer. Simon can’t leave Margaret to face the consequences of him not paying it.

“I don’t have it, I’ve small girls. I’m a lone parent. I’ve tried to get loans out online or from the credit union just to clear it,” Margaret says.

She says her son’s drug issue and the associated violence, much of it from him, has made her life “hell”.

She hasn’t given up however. “I did put him out after the last time but we’re working things out. I want to give him a chance. I feel like if everybody just gave up on everybody, no one would ever have a chance of getting through life.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times