A GANG of Romanian criminals is behind a sinister prostitution racket that has turned a well-known part of Limerick city into a red-light district, a Sunday Independent investigation reveals.
The growing problem of prostitution in Limerick was highlighted last week when official parking signs were mysteriously altered, branding the Catherine Street area as a 'Red Light District'.
Former international rugby player Jerry Flannery, who runs a pub in the area, also made headlines after he suggested that if Irish men washed more regularly and dressed better they may not have to pay for sex.
However, business owners fear trade is being seriously blighted by the red-light notoriety of the area and describe the women, who sometimes start work from as early as 6.30pm, as "aggressive, blatant and intimidating".
The Sunday Independent has learned that the operation is being run by Romanian criminals based in Limerick.
Through their work with the Romanian embassy and Interpol, gardai have established that most of the women working in this operation come from a town in northern Romania.
They are aged between 18 and 36, and have been brought to Limerick in recent years to work in the sex trade.
A 40-year-old Romanian woman living in the area runs the day-to-day handling of the operation while her husband, based in Romania, brings the girls over. A mother of three, she has been living in Ireland for the past 12 years and has already been prosecuted by gardai for organising and living off the means of prostitution in Limerick. She received a fine and a suspended jail sentence.
She doesn't engage in the work herself but she facilitates the operation by acting as translator and setting the girls up with accommodation.
"She speaks very good English. If you passed her walking down the street you wouldn't associate her with prostitution. The girls have very poor English; she negotiates the price and sorts out phone numbers and it's her who tells the punters where to turn up."
Online rates for women working from this premises range from €80 to €130 for half an hour of full sex.
When the online business is quiet, the women work on the streets where a half an hour of full sex is offered from €30 to €50.
According to sources, the women can make anything from €500 to €1,000 in cash a night. Every morning the cash is wired from different internet cafes, mostly through the Western Union facility.
"If a girl makes €500 then she probably gets to keep about €100 after she has paid into a central fund for accommodation and wires the rest.
"The people behind this operation are clever; if you have 10 or 12 different women wiring small enough amounts of money then there is nothing that can be done as it is a legitimate route of transferring funds," the source told the Sunday Independent.
It is a long and painstaking process, but in order for gardai to get to the organised criminals behind prostitution operations here, they have to follow the money.
In order to do this they need to get the girls to co-operate – which is not always easy due to pressure from pimps, who are often their husbands.
A disturbing split recently developed between some of the Romanian prostitutes working on two different streets in Limerick when one group started offering customers sex without condoms.
This has obviously led to increased health concerns and highlights the continued need for services such as those offered by Doras Luimni, a Limerick organisation for migrants in the midwest, which is part of the Turn off the Red Light campaign to end prostitution.
The HSE also became involved in a recent case involving a pregnant Romanian prostitute who was arrested several times by gardai while heavily pregnant and who continued to work up to three weeks before her baby was born.
The baby girl, born six months ago, was put into care shortly after she was born. She remains under the care of the health executive.
Gardai are also monitoring the activities of another Romanian girl working on the streets in Limerick who is believed to be four months pregnant.
Also last week, gardai sought Anti Social Behaviour Orders against eight Romanian women allegedly involved in prostitution in the city.
It is the first time gardai have adopted this approach in dealing with the problem of prostitution and follows Operation Freewheel in 2011, where 21 men were arrested and prosecuted for soliciting sex from undercover gardai in a sting operation.
Over 40 brothels have been shut down in Limerick over the past number of years and one high-profile figure, considered the main orchestrator of the whole brothel scene in the south of Ireland, is currently before the courts.