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Sunday 23 July 2017

Latest gangland hit shows we must do more to tackle drugs

In the past 20 years, gangs have become more violent and invasive in our society, writes Jim Cusack

Latest gang victim Noel Kirwan with Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch
Latest gang victim Noel Kirwan with Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch

More than 600 gangs are operating in Ireland, with almost all involved in one way or another in the illicit drugs trade.

Among the significant emerging groups are border-based 'IRA' gangs involved in cannabis and cocaine for the first time and recently-arrived Polish and other Baltic State gangsters supplying heroin in Cork.

The view among senior detective sources is that while some gangs, mainly in Dublin, have been continuously active in the drugs trade for two generations, most of the gangs exist only temporarily and go out of business usually because of violence and garda disruption.

The State has less than 200 Customs officers and only a handful of gardai to police air and sea ports which explains why drug supply remains largely uninterrupted and prices remain steady, even falling in the case of heroin.

The single biggest gang which supplies the bulk of illicit drugs to Ireland is headed by Christy Kinahan, the ex-patriate head of a network of families from Dublin's south-inner city. He also has alleged links with the main bulk suppliers of narcotics: the Italo-Corsican Camorra, North African, Russian, Anatolian and Central American cartels.

These mafiosa and cartels have laundered billions through major banks and now control legitimate front corporations in a large number of industries, including food production and shipping around the world, which both assist in their drugs networks.

The 1,000pc profit on drugs like cannabis, cocaine and heroin, from production to street price, guarantees the continuances of the drugs trade despite every effort thrown at it over more than four decades by international law and order.

The farmer in Morocco who grows, harvests and makes cannabis resin is reported by EU and UN agencies to receive probably less than €20 per kilo. By the time the drug is sold to the end user, the price is €20 per gramme.

Access to major suppliers and control over their home market is the Kinahan mob's key to success. The Kinahan 'turf' now covers almost all of Dublin and now across Ireland. At the top of the business pyramid are a small number of inter-related groups of families in the city. The heads of some of these families have been known to gardai since their days as armed robbers in the 1970s and 1980s, and one, at least, was lucky to survive being shot by a garda during an armed robbery.

Some of these families have well-established, tax-complaint businesses as fronts which have allowed them to have comfortable lives here but spend extravagant holiday time abroad.

Beneath these families are the next layer of distributors who can rake in between €3,000 and €5,000 a week selling heroin or cocaine and maybe half that from cannabis, now mainly supplied in herbal form. These are mainly young men, many hardened through working their way up the food chain. They are the group most responsible for, or victims of, gang-related murder and violence.

The average age of the 17 murder victims this year was 36, higher than normal due to the number of murdered associates in age as well as business of the northsider Gerry Hutch, including his friend, 62-year-old Noel Kirwan, shot last Thursday evening.

In some instances the so-called feud murders in Dublin are by younger criminals working for the Kinahan mob who see a reward in taking over the dying Hutch gang's valuable territories on the northside of the Liffey.

Beneath this bloody realm, at the bottom of the supply chain in heroin and cocaine is a group known as the 'labour day junkies' who use their weekly benefits to buy around €140 worth of drugs to cut into 10 or maybe 15 €20 "bags". These are the down-at-heel addicts who throng Dublin city centre and now a familiar sight in every town on the island.

While those further up the chain are rarely if ever captured by gardai, it is the end users, the mainly young people who buy a tenner's worth of cannabis or cocaine, who usually get caught. On average, gardai arrest around 15,000 people for drugs possession each year and about three-quarters or more of these are for simple possession for personal use of €10 or less. They receive suspended jail sentences or probation but are still registered on the PULSE data system as criminals.

Government is well aware of the situation. It was presented with a highly detailed picture of the trade in the 2014 report from its own agency, the National Advisory Council on Drugs and Alcohol. Researchers, Anne Marie Donovan and Johnny Connolly, paint the most comprehensive picture to date of the lower and mid-level drug trade in Ireland. Their findings must make uncomfortable reading for anyone whose career has been staked in "the war on drugs".

The Illicit Drugs Market in Ireland highlights the fact that the 'key performance indicators' (KPIs) set by garda, netting around 15,000 arrests and charges a year, is having next to no deterrent value. 'Major' seizures, the subject of almost daily press releases from the gardai, lead to unpayable debts among distributors, as drugs are often traded 'on tick', according to the report, and this is a frequent cause of violence and murder.

The current campaign by the Kinahan cartel to eradicate all figures associated with the Hutches, began with a debt after €2m worth of drugs was seized in England on its way from Spain. This led to the murder of Gary Hutch (34) in September last year in Marbella and the dramatic revenge attack in the Regency Hotel in February in which David Byrne (34) died. Since then, there has been a remorseless campaign to eliminate the Hutches, the score now 10 or 11 to one for the Kinahans.

This year, despite the increased publicity since the dramatic images captured by INM journalists at the Regency, has not been particularly bloody by Dublin or Kinahan mob standards. The Kinahan organisation implanted itself in the city in a five-year takeover war which culminated in nearly 30 murders in 2009, the bloodiest year to date. At least half the murders by Kinahan associates were carried out by a single assassin currently in prison but due to be released in the coming year.

This year's murder patterns have been skewed by the single big feud. There have been five feud-related murders in north-inner Dublin after four years with no gun homicides since the end of a prolonged local feud that led to six deaths.

In the past 20 years since the murder of Veronica Guerin, there have been more than 200 gun homicides related to gang activity in Dublin and as many stabbing or bludgeoning deaths among the lower orders of the drugs trade as well.

Of gun homicides, one garda district, the 'K', which covers Finglas, Blanchardstown and Cabra, holds the record at 51 for the highest number, as well as the highest number unsolved. The two districts that cover Ballyfermot, Clondalkin, Ronanstown, Lucan and Rathcoole have had 41 murders, mostly unsolved. The 'R' District, which covers Coolock, Artane and Ballymun has 26 mostly unsolved murders. Tallaght, the 'M' District, has had 19 and the south-inner city district, the 'A', has had 23 gun murders and also the highest detection rate in the city. Store Street, which includes much of the former Hutch power centre, has had 15 murders since 1996, with a very low detection rate.

The change in 20 years since the outrage over the murder of Veronica Guerin has been that the drug gangs have proliferated and have become more violent and invasive of Irish society. In 1996, there were seven murders aside from Veronica's, including the IRA's murder of Det Garda Jerry McCabe. Then there may only have been a few dozen small gangs, few with access to firearms.

Gardai are now regularly finding firearms similar to and even more modern and deadly than the weapons the force's own special units are using. Teenagers in Dublin have access to handguns. The spread of heroin across the country is prompting much of the savage robberies of vulnerable elderly in rural areas.

Some experienced gardai are sceptical about the effectiveness that the new 50-strong armed unit in the city - which must also supply armed support at Dublin Airport in case of terrorist attack - will have. They believe it will have little impact on the Kinahan or other gangs. Noel Kirwan's murder suggests they may be right.

Sunday Independent

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