Gang leaders thrive thanks to global nature of organised crime
Irish criminals living abroad are managing to stay ahead of the authorities
When an estimated 700 police officers across Europe and as far away as South Africa and Brazil executed a series of co-ordinated searches against the Spain-based Irish cartel led by Christy Kinahan 5½ years ago it became very clear how rich and powerful the gang had become.
Its key members arrested in southern Spain were found in multimillion euro villas a far cry from the streets of the Republic they flood with drugs and the sink estates most of them grew up in back in Dublin.
They drove sports cars with six-figure price tags and had a large team of financial and legal professionals – many of whose offices were searched – advising them how and where to invest.
While the Criminal Assets Bureau had been established in the wake of the 1996 murder by the John Gilligan gang of crime journalist Veronica Guerin to confiscate the proceeds of crime, the globalisation of organised crime has played right into the hands of people such as Christy Kinahan and those around him.
He is one of a group of men domiciled in Spain. They order drugs from major gangs around the world and sell them on to the dominant gangs on the Irish and UK scene.
Some of the gang’s more junior members, such as David Byrne who was murdered in Dublin’s Regency Hotel last Friday, either live in Ireland or move between the Republic and Spain, effectively ensuring the distribution of drugs in Ireland works.
In many European countries the law enforcement authorities only have conviction-based powers to confiscate assets. People involved in criminality in those countries can only have their assets seized on the basis they represent the proceeds of crimes for which the criminals are convicted.
This means that, to date, the Irish who have relocated abroad can spend and invest in countries such as Spain, their favoured bolthole, without worrying whether their wealth is about to be taken from them.
And because much of their crime – mainly drug dealing and the enforcement shootings and murders that go with it – are arranged in one country but take place in another jurisdiction, they have proven very adept at staying ahead of the law.
In that regard, they now operate like the cross-Border crimes that funded the Provisional IRA for decades, exploiting what they believe is the lack of quick and constant co-operation between international police forces.
However, the transnational structures of their criminal activity and the fact they are in a position to pay others to transport drugs and firearms and carry out shootings for them has largely insulated them from law enforcement, though not from their many enemies back in Dublin.
Many criminals in Ireland who have been targeted by the Cab have been served with demands for unpaid taxes – with huge penalties and interest – rather than have their assets adjudged to be the proceeds of crime and seized and sold by the State.
But because men like Christy Kinahan do not live in Ireland, establishing them as a chargeable entity for tax purposes in the Republic would seem to be impossible.
In the face of all of those challenges however, the head of the bureau, Det Chief Supt Eugene Corcoran, says that offshore assets are not untouchable.
Declining to speak about specific current or past cases, he said if there was sufficient evidence to prove property in another jurisdiction was derived from criminal conduct carried out in the Republic then the bureau can move on it.
“If we can establish evidence of an asset held elsewhere, it doesn’t prevent it from becoming part of an Irish case,” he said.
“In certain circumstances, if we can show that the asset in Spain, or wherever it might be outside the jurisdiction, is the proceeds of crime, then we’re entitled to include that in our case provided that we’ve got sufficient evidence to support that.
“It then goes to an Irish court to make a determination. They can in certain circumstances make orders relating to property that isn’t in the jurisdiction. It’s not something that can be ordered in every case. It depends on the strength of the evidence.”
Seizure of property
Chief Supt Corcoran said there was a “reciprocal arrangement” between different jurisdictions which has involved the seizure of property in the Republic by overseas law enforcement agencies pursuing the same agenda.
“There are examples of assets that are located here which the authorities in other jurisdictions have an interest in, and over the years have been able to attach seizure orders to,” he said. “So there is a reciprocal arrangement between countries on this issue.”
The bureau chief also said that co-ordinating with law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions was a feature of almost every case that came across its books.
“There has been a pattern where those involved in serious crime have relocated and in order to investigate crimes of that kind, it’s necessary to liaise directly with the authorities in the various countries concerned.”
Chief Supt Corcoran, however, acknowledges the difficulties that exist, including the job of tracking and retrieving evidence in relation to bank accounts that may be stored on servers in different jurisdictions.
“It’s a feature of investigations and something we’ve observed over the years,” he said. “It’s just a fact of life for investigators in an evidence-gathering process. It’s no different from an exercise like that in another jurisdiction. It’s a reality.
“We take each case as we find it. Each and every case involves a search for evidence. Irrespective of where that evidence might be, we’ve got to take different steps to retrieve it and bring it into the case.”
The Proceeds of Crime Act and the inception of the bureau were designed to radically change the landscape of gangland Ireland. For the first time, the onus was placed on the citizen to prove assets were the proceeds of legitimate activity, rather than on the State to prove the contrary.
“The key part to understand is that the action we take under the legislation is against the asset,” he said. “It isn’t an action against any individual or group of individuals. The legislation requires that we establish that the asset itself is derived from criminal conduct.
“That takes away the requirement to link an individual to a particular crime. It’s not about the individual. Obviously, in each case, the respondent is an individual because they are the people who – if the evidence shows it – enjoy the benefit of that asset at the time. The Act is designed to deprive them of that.
“The case will always run on the basis there is evidence to support – to the court’s satisfaction – that the particular asset we’re talking about, and which will be the central part of the proceedings, is in fact derived from criminal conduct. That’s the heart of a proceeds of crime case.”