Sunday 24 September 2017

Twelve years after Veronica's murder, the fight against Dublin's druglords rages on

Veronica Guerin's killers are behind bars or abroad, but the man who tipped them off is back in business and a new breed of criminal is flourishing, says Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

JOHN Traynor, the criminal who gardai believe tipped off the Gilligan gang about Veronica Guerin's whereabouts on the morning of her murder -- 12 years ago on Thursday -- is back in business.

Gardai believe he is still involved in the drugs trade and controls a secondhand car dealership in west Dublin, which is being used to launder drugs money. A convicted drug dealer, who previously worked for the Gilligan gang transporting drugs around Dublin, fronts the dealership for Traynor and his associate and former fellow Gilligan gang member, Peter "Fatso" Mitchell.

Mitchell was tracked down to Puerto Banus in Spain where he was running a pub last month by the Sunday World. The pub has been subsequently closed and both British police and gardai are examining intelligence reports on Mitchell's activities.

It is almost certain that the Gilligan gang, under new management, remains largely intact -- with the obvious exception of Gilligan himself, who is not due for release from prison until April 2013.

Brian Meehan, the only member serving life for murder, has no release date. But given his previous record and his associations with serious crime and trafficking he is unlikely to be considered for parole for a long time.

Patrick Holland, now 69, received an eight-year sentence in London last March after being convicted of conspiring to kidnap businessman Nasir Zahid last year.

Despite his advanced years, Holland had returned to hiring out his services as a gunman and was contacted by the kidnap gang through prison connections. With good behaviour, and Holland is said to behave himself in jail, he will be 75 when he is due for release on parole.

Little is known about brothers Paul and Seamus Ward. Paul Ward, originally convicted of murder, had his sentence overturned and completed a sentence for drugs and rioting inside prison in May 2005. A year earlier, Seamus Ward, along with Peter Mitchell, turned up in an apartment in Amsterdam after police there found 110 kilos of cocaine, two kilos of heroin, ammunition and fake passports in June 2004. There was not sufficient evidence to convict the two, however. The Wards are also believed to be based in Spain, though like the others may be travelling through Europe.

The former gang members proved psychologically weak, particularly Charlie Bowden, who turned State's evidence against Gilligan and Meehan and named Mitchell, Traynor and the Wards as accessories in Veronica's murder.

Bowden had begun to crack as a witness under strenuous cross-examination. It was felt his testimony might not have held up under further examination. But had he unravelled completely it could have led to the successful appealing of Gilligan's and Meehan's convictions.

With the ending of the main trials, one of the most remarkable garda investigations effectively came to an end. The powerful and highly organised force put together by the now retired assistant commissioner, then Chief Superintendent Tony Hickey, was disbanded.

The detectives returned to detective duties in stations around Dublin, and some to specialist units in the Harcourt Square Headquarters.

The Hickey unit tore apart the largest drug smuggling operation ever to have been uncovered and, on Tony Hickey's instigation, this led to the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau.

CAB is regarded internationally as a great success. Although it has not prevented the drugs trade from flourishing in Ireland, it has made resident criminals pay for their crimes with the loss of their homes and assets.

Twelve years on, John and Geraldine Gilligan are still fighting the sale of their equestrian centre, Jessbrook, outside Enfield in County Meath, but it is seen as only a matter of time before it comes up for auction. Although it has over 100 acres of land, the equestrian centre is isolated from main transport links. At auction it is not expected to make much over €2m or €3m. Interest might also be suppressed because of its associations.

To gardai involved in the investigation, there is disquiet about the path taken by the force in relation to organised crime and drug trafficking gangs since.

Newer, even more ruthless gangs have replaced Gilligan's operation. Cocaine and heroin have replaced cannabis as the main drug of choice for traffickers as it has less bulk, and so is easier to hide -- and most importantly, has a much higher profit margin.

The older members of Gilligan's gang never touched drugs, though most of the younger members did. Now, most traffickers -- many of the biggest being still in their 20s -- are cocaine users and that has added to the volatility and violence that has marked gangland behaviour in the past 12 years.

The gardai who broke up Gilligan's gang say that the response of the gardai to the formation of these new gangs has been haphazard. One described Operation Anvil, which has been touted by gardai as one of the most successful in its history, as being totally ineffective.

Colleagues pointed out that almost every major drug or firearm seizure in the past two years has been attributed to Operation Anvil -- though many were made through local investigations by divisional and district drugs units.

After two months of major drugs and firearms seizures this year, cuts in overtime were introduced in several divisions and seizures almost immediately began to fall off.

Since 1996, the gardai have undergone huge examination under the Morris tribunal arising from the corrupt activities of some members in Donegal.

A new system of centralised agent handling recommended by Judge Morris -- which detectives were at first highly critical of -- has turned out to be a success. Informants are handled at two centres in Dublin and similar methods have been introduced in the five garda regions outside Dublin. A new serious-crime task force, made up largely of young gardai who have shown promise as detectives, was set up at Harcourt Square last year by Assistant Commissioner Martin Donnellan after the spate of kidnappings and gangland killings.

But many of the young detectives, who are undertaking dangerous and arduous work, were simply on secondment from other duties.

This meant they were losing out on promotional prospects as they were officially deemed on temporary secondments.

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