A gang specialising in the use of high-powered cars to carry out burglaries and robberies across the country are now the number one targets on gardai's most-wanted list of serious criminals.
Referred to as the 'RS4 gang' – because of their preference for the Audi RS4 – they are the most prolific of the dozen or so organised burglary gangs currently terrorising private residents and the owners of small businesses throughout rural Ireland.
Detectives are involved in a nationally co-ordinated operation, codenamed Fiacla, in a desperate bid to catch the gang, who have been responsible for up to 30 robberies across 10 counties in the past six weeks alone.
Since the beginning of the year, the 'RS4 gang' have struck up to 100 business premises and homes in practically every county in Connacht, Leinster, Munster and the border region.
Garda management has issued warnings to officers in every district in the country to be on the look-out for the gang.
Sources close to the ongoing investigation say the criminals involved are "extremely violent" and have attacked gardai and smashed up their squad cars several times over the past few months.
"They are a really violent and dangerous outfit and it is only a matter of time before they seriously injure or even kill innocent civilians or unarmed gardai who confront them. That is why they are a top priority," said a source involved in the nationwide manhunt.
The 'RS4 gang' use stolen top of the range, high-powered cars, which easily out-run even the fastest garda squad cars available.
Earlier this week, the Irish Independent revealed that the gang recently added a "super powerful" BMW M5 to their fleet of motors.
The car was stolen on April 5 from a house in Ticknock, south Dublin. Gardai believe that gang members spotted the car and followed its owner to his home.
Around 2am in the morning, two members of the gang smashed through the front door of the house and threatened the car owner and his family before grabbing the keys and driving off in the M5.
The Irish Independent has also learnt that the well-organised group are also buying high-powered cars in Northern Ireland and the UK which are brought into the Republic and fitted with false southern plates.
"This was a good example of how these thugs work. They use pure intimidation and violence on their victims," said a garda source.
The gang regularly travel in convoy in the middle of the night using the country's motorway network to strike shops, filling stations and private homes in towns and villages with relative impunity.
A garda intelligence source revealed: "They can literally strike anywhere in the country. They can make the journey from Dublin to Galway in less than an hour using the motorway and we have nothing available to us to catch up with them, apart from the helicopter."
As well as terrorising their victims, these ruthless thugs are forcing already hard-pressed business people in towns and villages to close their stores.
One shop owner in the south east who has been targeted several times and did not want to be identified, told the Irish Independent: "Apart from scaring people, they are leaving us in a situation where we cannot afford to stay open because our insurance goes through the roof and we have to replace stolen stock and cash.
"That is on top of the fact that business is bad anyway and we are struggling to pay the mortgage. It is making our lives just impossible. The gardai do the best they can but I don't know where this country is going."
According to intelligence sources, the 'RS4 gang' consists of up to 10 members who are centred on a well-known Traveller crime family with addresses in Dublin and a number of other counties.
A profile of the country's most-wanted gang shows that they are extremely well-organised.
Operating in teams of between four and eight members, they carry out raids with military precision.
When they arrive in a town to do a robbery, part of their modus operandi is that the driver of the getaway car remains in the vehicle with the doors open and the engine running.
Another member of the gang, armed with rocks or bars, acts as a look-out from the shadows, staying within view of the car and the targeted premises.
The other two or more robbers break into the shop or house they have targeted.
The Irish Independent has also learnt that they use hi-tech electronic equipment to jam local mobile phone systems which carry alarm signals.
The look-out attacks anyone, including gardai, who may turn up to confront them.
On several occasions over the past three months, the gang has smashed up squad cars and threatened unarmed officers responding to their robberies. Their modus operandi is very similar to that used by the gang responsible for the murder of Det Gda Adrian Donoghue in January.
And that is why there is a real fear among the country's already over-stretched police force that the 'RS4 gang' will escalate their activities and eventually kill or maim gardai.
A garda source said: "They (the gang) take their time during a robbery and make sure they get what they came for. In some instances, they have ripped out the hard drive for the CCTV system.
"On several occasions since the start of the year, gang members have openly challenged the gardai when they arrive on the scene. They show no fear.
"Then they get in their cars and speed off and we have no chance of catching them. On a few occasions they have driven off and then stopped to threaten the pursuing squad cars."
The Irish Independent can also reveal that the gang uses night-sight goggles to get away from pursuing garda cars.
Following a recent burglary in Maynooth, garda cars gave chase to the gang. But as they drove into the countryside the robbers switched off their lights, taking off at speeds of up to 160km per hour.
This time last year, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan ordered the setting up of a special operation to target countrywide burglaries and robberies, codenamed Fiacla. A similar investigation was established in Dublin, Operation Acer.
The two investigations, which are under the overall command of Deputy Commissioner Noreen O'Sullivan, are co-ordinated by the Organised Crime Unit in Dublin.
And while the operation has not yet snared the 'RS4 gang', the ongoing initiative has resulted in a levelling off in the number of burglaries – which had jumped by 25 per cent between 2007 and 2011.
Last year, there were 27,774 burglaries recorded across the country – or 72 per day – which is a staggering figure. However, gardai point out that the figure showed an increase of just 0.3pc on the 2011 figure.
By the end of February this year, 4,226 suspects had been arrested and 2,327 people charged in both operations.