Over 150 gangs linked to paramilitaries

Criminal gangs are netting 'tens of millions of pounds' every year, North's task force finds, writes Gerry Moriarty , Northern…

Criminal gangs are netting 'tens of millions of pounds' every year, North's task force finds, writes Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor

More than 150 gangs with links to paramilitary groupings including the IRA, UDA and UVF are netting "tens of millions of pounds" annually from crimes such as drugs dealing, armed robberies, extortion and racketeering, according to the North's Organised Crime Task Force.

The task force, in its fourth annual report published today, states that over 230 criminal gangs are operating in Northern Ireland with two-thirds, or over 150, linked to paramilitary groupings. The task force identified 85 "top level" gangs.

"These include the most serious, dangerous and well-organised groups. They generate large criminal profits, are violent, and many employ specialist techniques to run, protect and enhance their criminal enterprises. These gangs have international links," the report states.

The task force said 60 of the "top level" gangs were "disrupted or dismantled" by the agencies of the task force, which centralises a multi-pronged attack on crime involving groups such as the PSNI, Customs and Excise, the Assets Recovery Agency and the Inland Revenue.

Its report today effectively corroborates claims by the Independent Monitoring Commission that paramilitary groups are heavily involved in numerous forms of crime.

"All Northern Ireland-based paramilitary groups remain involved in organised crime, particularly in respect of more lucrative areas," the report adds. A spokesman for the body said that crime yielded "tens of millions of pounds" for the gangs. He said that counterfeiting alone was worth over £150 million annually for the gangs.

The spokesman added that it was not clear how much of the money accruing to the gangs was used for personal gain or went into the coffers of the paramilitaries. "It's fair to say that more than 50 per cent goes to the paramilitaries," he said.

The task force reported a number of successes in the past year. As well as disrupting or dismantling 60 gangs, it seized counterfeit goods valued at £7.6 million and drugs worth £12.5 million. There were 1,500 drugs arrests while there was a 38 per cent reduction in cash-in-transit robberies, £1.03 million of criminal assets was confiscated and the Assets Recovery Agency froze £3 million of assets.

Detailing the criminal operations of the different paramilitaries, it said the IRA was "heavily involved in serious and organised crime" such as robberies, hijackings, large scale smuggling and counterfeiting operations, money laundering and tax and VAT fraud.

It said the UDA was involved in drugs, counterfeiting, extortion, robbery and prostitution. It said the UVF was involved in smuggling, robbery and extortion, though less heavily involved than the UDA in drugs. The LVF was engaged in the supply of "large amounts of illegal drugs" and had links internationally.

The INLA was involved in drugs and extortion while dissident republican groups were engaged in "large scale and highly lucrative smuggling operations while many associates use their links with the terrorist groupings to protect and enhance their criminal activity".

It reported that republican groups were heavily involved in oils fraud such as smuggling, laundering and misuse of rebated fuel. Its laundering plants were capable of producing up to five million litres of illegal fuel every year.

It also said that 70 per cent of republican paramilitaries and 60 per cent of loyalist groups were involved in illegal tobacco trade. It added that 70 per cent of loyalist paramilitaries were engaged in extortion.