ORGANISED crime bosses who run 25 major gangs here are forging closer links with Russian mobsters in order to boost their profits.
The key gangs have now spread their tentacles to every county in the State, as well as building up their contacts overseas. They are already heavily involved with the Russians in importing drug and cigarette shipments.
The strength of the gangs and the threats they pose have been assessed by the gardai as part of a Europol initiative.
The review shows that five of the 25 outfits have "significant international cross-border connections".
The majority of the groups, known as OCGs (Organised Crime Gangs), are centred in large urban areas, such as Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Galway and Sligo.
But senior gardai say there is a huge amount of interaction between the groups throughout the country and that they regularly take part in joint enterprises, including drug importations.
The number of OCGs has risen significantly from the last public garda assessment more than five years ago, when it was reckoned there were 18 of them operating here.
An insight into the workings of the main players in gangland was given to members of the Oireachtas Justice Committee yesterday by Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.
He said those with connections on both sides of the Border were utilising both Northern Ireland and this jurisdiction as transit routes for trafficking in drugs and counterfeit cigarettes, as well as fuel laundering.
Mr Callinan said links between dissident republicans and OCGs continued to cause serious concern. A relationship of friction and facilitation appeared to exist between OCGs in this jurisdiction and some dissident elements. The problems arise, it is understood, from attempts by dissidents to extort money from drug dealers.
Mr Callinan said each of the gangs were structured hierarchically and typically consisted of a leadership, a number of middle managers and low-level criminals, who carry out the day-to-day running of the groups.
The commissioner said it was difficult to quantify the groups as they tended to merge, diversify and often have a cross-over of personnel for particular enterprises. But, generally, a gang would consist of an inner core of six to a dozen people, with an outer layer and then a network of family members or associates on the fringes.
Irish OCGs continue to forge and develop links to international criminal networks, with the Netherlands, Spain and the UK the favoured locations for foreign liaisons as they were established drug-transportation routes.
But garda intelligence has more recently noted growing links with Russian organised crime groups. The presence of Russian OCGs in Spain is said to be influencing the activities of Irish criminals there.
Targeted intelligence-led operations using the national specialist units and crime and security branch, in partnership with divisional and regional resources, are used to disrupt and dismantle the OCG networks, Mr Callinan said.
He pointed out that a number of the gangs were also engaged in residential and commercial burglaries, robberies and distraction theft.
Legislation introduced in July 2009 to tackle organised crime has resulted in 179 arrests. Six people have been charged with taking part in or contributing to gang activities and two with directing the activities of a criminal organisation.
The arrests have also resulted in charges for firearms offences, drug-trafficking, violent disorder, obtaining money with menaces, threats to kill, theft and aggravated burglary with firearms.
It was also revealed that drug seizures in the first nine months of this year exceeded the total for all of last year and have now topped €90m.
This year's figures have been boosted by the capture of over 400 cannabis growhouses. The demand for heroin and cocaine has not waned significantly, he said, and heroin usage is increasing in some small pockets around the country.
Mr Callinan said Operation Stilts, which was put in place in June 2010 to tackle drug dealing along the boardwalks on the River Liffey in Dublin city centre, had resulted in the seizure of 250,000 prescription drugs, mainly bought through the internet, and over 14,500 illegal drugs. Gardai carried out searches of 10,000 people and brought over 2,500 suspects before the courts.
The commissioner defended the decision, taken by a senior officer, not to immediately intervene to take on those responsible for a paramilitary display, including firing a volley of shots, at the funeral of Real IRA faction leader Alan Ryan because of the danger of injuring neighbours and friends of the Ryan family, as well as children among the mourners.
He said huge efforts were being made to identify and charge those believed responsible for breaking the law and there was no question of "taking the foot off the pedal" in tackling dissident republicans.
Mr Callinan also indicated that considerable progress had been made in the cross-border inquiries into the murder of prison officer David Black and said this would be further advanced in the coming weeks.