Sunday 17 December 2017

Exclusive: 'These gangs don’t own this city' - Garda unit foiled 15 Hutch-Kinahan murder plots in 2016

* 18 high-powered weapons; over €1million in cash; and drugs worth €22m seized
* Over 120 feud-related suspects arrested
* Young gardaí 'put their lives on the line' in war against gangs
* Hutch Kinahan feud is not a "one-sided bloodbath"

Tony Howard and inset Gerry Hutch (top) and Christy Kinahan (bottom)
Tony Howard and inset Gerry Hutch (top) and Christy Kinahan (bottom)
Cathal McMahon

Cathal McMahon

The elite garda unit tasked with bringing down the Hutch and Kinahan crime gangs foiled at least 15 murders in the last year, a senior detective has revealed.

In an exclusive interview with Independent.ie, Detective Superintenent Tony Howard has also revealed that they have seized 18 high-powered weapons; over €1million in cash; and drugs worth €22m.

In 2016 there were eight gun murders in Ireland, and one in Spain, directly linked to the feud.

Now D-Supt Howard, of the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (DOCB), has revealed that this number would have been significantly higher were it not for the last-minute interventions of gardaí.

Christy Kinahan
Christy Kinahan

He explained: “This year there were at least 15 occasions where we had to react quite quickly because there was an imminent threat to somebody’s life.

“Quite a number of them would have been feud related.”

Asked how close the hits were to taking place, the senior officer responded: “We are talking minutes to a couple of hours away from the attack being carried out. It’s really all hands to the pump at that stage.

“In all of these operations, preservation of life is paramount,” he said.

“We are responsible for investigating drug trafficking, money laundering, firearms but the reality is that our primary focus is on the preservation of life.”

The DOCB was set up almost two years ago when the Organised Crime Unit (OCU) was amalgamated with the Garda National Drugs Unit (GNDU).

Today the DOCB works closely with the newly formed Special Crime Task Force and they have a combined strength of around 150 garda members working out of Garda Headquarters in Harcourt Square.

Although it was busy behind the scenes in 2015 the unit was catapulted into the limelight this year, largely as a result of the events at the Regency Hotel on February 5.

On this date raiders, dressed as gardaí and carrying AK47s, stormed the hotel in Drumcondra, North Dublin and gunned down Kinahan Cartel member David Byrne (33) (below).

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David Byrne was murdered at the Regency Hotel

What followed over the next six months was the brutal murder of eight men, either aligned to the Hutch faction or mistaken for a member of the Hutch gang.

The most recent killing was that of innocent Noel 'Duck Egg' Kirwan, who was gunned down iin Clondalkin on Thursday, December 22. His death followed four months without a feud-related murder.

The DOCB have been tasked with dismantling both gangs, headed up on the one side by multimillionaire crime kingpin Christy Kinahan and on the other by Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch (below).

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Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch

Asked how you bring down such large organisations, D-Supt Howard explained that his unit are targeting the gangs where it hurts most: their money, drugs and firearms.

“Money laundering has been an issue that we have focused in on very sharply this year.

We have seized over €1million in cash. Since the foundation of the unit we have seized over €2m in cash.

“A lot of this would be connected with drug trafficking and serious individuals involved in organised crime. Individuals who we believe are actively involved in the feud.”

The unit have also seized 18 high-powered weapons, including three assault rifles (AK47, AK74s), three sub-machine guns (MP9 sub-machine guns and a Mac 10) and semi-automatic pistols.

They have also uncovered a large number of revolvers, 1,200 rounds of ammunition and, in a new trend, several silencers

“I would regard some of this stuff as being military grade,” D-Supt Howard explained.

Both gangs make their money out of the drugs trade and this is one area where DOCB have been ruthlessly efficient.

Since the start of the feud they have seized €22m in drugs, including 300kg of cannabis herb and 100kg of cannabis resin  worth between €7m-€8m.

A worrying trend that they are noticing is the THC content of the cannabis hitting the streets, which can be up to five times stronger than previous batches.

This has led to a number of young people presenting to mental health services with serious problems.

On top of this the DOCB have seized large quantities of cocaine, heroin, MDMA and ecstasy.

A total of 120 people have been arrested for drug trafficking, money laundering or possession of firearms offences by the unit in 2016

But what difference is this all making?

D-Supt Howard answered: “We are certainly driving a wedge between these gangs. From a strategic point of view, the sooner this violence ends the better.

“Communities are hurting, because it is not like other feuds.”

He continued: “These gangs don’t own the city and my job is to make sure that they don’t”

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Tony Howard

D-Supt Howard, who grew up in Dublin’s North Inner city, explained that this is not just a “northside v southside” feud as people within each community are moving their allegiances.

“We are into them. Every chance we have of driving a wedge further between them, we do. If it’s seizing guns, firearms or drugs and arresting these individuals. Going forward, the gangs themselves are really the ones that need to realise that the communities don’t want this violence.”

He believes that peace can only be achieved if the warring gangs are prepared to stop targeting each other.

“It’s a very personal feud and that [The willingness to find a solution] has to come from within the groups themselves.”

Given that eight of those killed in the feud are linked, either directly or indirectly to the Hutch faction, there is a perception that the feud is one-sided. D-Supt Howard, who has worked in the force for 35 years, argues that this isn’t the case.

“People would have to realise that this is one very large organised crime gang that have got involved in a very personalised feud.

“People have taken sides and there is constant targeting on both sides. Individual members from both sides of the feud have been targeting each other, gathering information and watching the movements of the other gang members.

“There shouldn’t be sympathy for one side or the other. All murder is wrong and these crimes are particularly heinous.

“Not only have individuals been murdered but communities have been torn apart by this feud. The North Inner City has been particularly affected.”

Taking on the criminal gangs and preserving the lives of gangland targets often puts garda lives in the firing line.

And with the murders of Detective Adrian Donohoe in January 2013 and Garda Tony Golden in October 2015 - both in Co Louth - there is a heightened awareness in the force surrounding the safety of members.

This is often felt most acutely in the DOCB where detectives are asked to face down some of the most dangerous criminals in the state and come between these warring crime gangs.

“You really are asking young guards to put their lives into serious danger but they are very dedicated, they are highly motivated and they have had training,” said D-Supt Howard.

“It still doesn’t take away from the fact that you are asking young guards to put their lives in danger.”

As a manager, D-Supt Howard explains that this is something he struggles with.

“Always, you try and rationalise it. We have to catch these people and we have to interrupt them. We can’t allow the feud to go on and lives be taken.

“We do have to interrupt and get involved in these things. It’s our work,” he said.

Asked how he himself might deal with threats, the senior garda responds: “They can threaten me all they like, but it ain't going to make any difference to me. I know who most of them are and they know me.

“They know me and they know I’m fair.

“I have 35 years served, most of them as a detective and most of them in and around the city centre, so I’d have an in depth knowledge of the families involved.”

Almost 11 months on from the Regency shooting there are no signs that this feud is slowing down.

But D-Supt Howard said the DOCB  is not slowing down either.

He explained that in the new year his unit will continue their fight to eradicate “all organised crime”.

“In terms of the feud we will be proactive in how we tackle the individuals involved. I’ll reassure the public that our efforts aren’t going to lessen in 2017.”

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