Bank records showing a large number of cash transactions, including separate deposits of more than €100,000, were seized in police raids last week linked to a gang of Irish Travellers suspected of involvement in the international theft of Chinese artefacts.
The records and financial statements seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) are likely to lead to tax demands against the prime suspects in a series of international robberies of valuable rhino horns and other artefacts sold to the Chinese market.
The organised robberies have been linked to a large Traveller family suspected of involvement in burgling treasures worth around €40m from museums across Europe, America and Australia.
The gang has been under investigation by the CAB for three years.
According to Garda sources, last week's dawn raids on homes and offices in Limerick and Cork resulted in the first haul of bank records that can be linked to the gang, paving the way for a full-scale financial investigation tracing the proceeds of the robberies.
Irish Traveller gangs have made a grand tour of Europe in the past four years, hoovering up rhinoceros horns from museums in response to the massive demand for powdered horn in China.
Rhino horn is prized – incorrectly, it has been scientifically proven – as both a cancer cure and aphrodisiac in some east Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam. The price per kilo when powdered and sold is put at €60,000. The rhinoceros has the highest level of protection under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), to which 173 countries are signatories, including the United States and Ireland.
As of the end of last year the EU police agency, Europol, reported that there had been 67 robberies of rhinoceros horn in the EU in the previous two years, including 15 thefts in Germany, eight in the UK, eight in Spain and six in Italy.
Europol said the gang responsible was "an Irish and ethnically Irish organised group, who are known to use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends". As well as operating across Europe, this group was "active" in Asia and North and South America.
All the robberies across Europe were from natural history museums and collections open to the public. The modus operandi in the robberies were very similar. Staff were distracted and two men prized or smashed open display cases and sawed the horns off with hacksaws. In one museum in Offenburg in south-west Germany, in March last year, one man stood on another's shoulders to saw off a horn from a head on display 12 feet above the floor, while their accomplices distracted staff. Police later recovered the horn and another stolen from a museum in Bamberg, and two unnamed Irish men were sentenced to three years' imprisonment in February this year.
Aware of the trend across Europe, the National Museum of Ireland removed eight rhino horns from public display in March last year and replaced them with replicas. The real horns were put in the museum's storage facility in Swords. This was robbed last April and the horns, valued at €500,000, taken. The raiders overpowered a security man and escaped in a van.
The thefts earned those involved, a gang from Rathkeale, the nickname, the "Dead Zoo Gang".
Thefts attributed by Europol to the gang have taken place in Stockholm and Gothenburg in Sweden; Budapest and Pecs in Hungary; Prague in the Czech Republic; Poznan in Poland; Turin and Florence in Italy; Zurich and Geneva in Switzerland; Marseilles and Perpignan in the south of France and other locations in the north and west of the country; and Barcelona, Malaga and Valencia in Spain.
In Germany, there is a visible travel line for the 15 thefts stretching from Hamburg southwards down through the country via Wolfsburg, Bamberg, Munich, Frankfurt and Stuttgart – and then on to Switzerland.
In all, Europol estimates the total end value of the horns stolen over the past four years at around €40m.
At the same time, the robberies were taking place in countries where police reported other crimes that they attributed to Irish nationals. Around the time robberies were taking place in southern Germany, police had to be called to Munich central square when a massive brawl erupted between members of the Rathkeale gang and a rival Traveller family who happened to be there.
Investigations led police to identify an Australian man living in Portugal as the middleman for the Rathkealers. He and another Australian, neither named by Portuguese police, were arrested in September 2011 trying to fly out of the country with six horns valued at €400,000. The horns were en route, police said, to Vietnam. The two were released after a brief period of detention and left the country.
Gardai say it is not clear how the Rathkeale gang came to dominate the rhino horn trade in Europe, but say it is no surprise. They say the gang is extremely adept and alert to trends in all forms of growth in the illicit trade in artefacts.
The gang has been involved in the robbery and sale of stolen artefacts for three generations. Members of the same family were responsible of stealing Georgian silverware, highly prized around the world, from big houses around Ireland through the Seventies and Eighties to the point where they had almost cleaned out the country of any significant private collections.
Gardai had a number of successes against the gang, which moved to England in the mid to late-Eighties and began robbing similar big houses there.
Gardai say the rhino horn market has become less productive for the gang as museums and collections across Europe have begun removing horns from their displays, replacing them with replicas.