Tuesday 28 January 2020

Gangs rake in cash as war on drugs fails to halt trade

Gardai admit battle has been lost as illegal profits flow out, writes Jim Cusack

EXPERIENCED gardai now privately admit that the State has lost the war against illegal drugs which has fuelled the murderous organised criminal culture of the past 20 years.

Commenting on the recent discovery of cannabis grow houses across Ireland, a senior garda said that the cultivation of the plants had become an "epidemic".

The economics explain why. The "street" value of the cannabis that could be produced by the 6,000 plants recently seized by gardai in the latest set of grow-house raids is, at current rates, approximately €3.6m. Each plant produces around two ounces (56 grammes) of cannabis. The growers sell this at around €150 an ounce to middle men who at least double their price when selling to local dealers. They sell on the drug at around €13 a gramme to Ireland's large constituency of "weekend users", as they were referred to in a recent spat between pro-legalisation TD Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and Dublin Mid West TD Derek Keating.

Last year gardai raided 600 grow houses and by July this year they had seized plants in 574 raids. The industrial-scale grow houses are organised by Chinese Triad gangs who use enslaved labourers, usually Chinese or Vietnamese nationals, to tend to the plants. Some of those arrested were working to pay off gambling debts or were recruited with the promise of payments of as little as €1,500 a month on delivery of their crop.

Mr Keating TD expressed the prevailing political view that the possession and cultivation of drugs should remain a criminal offence.

"Casual drug use at weekends is what fuels the drugs trade, keeping it alive. If we want to bring an end to the scourge of drugs, it is the responsibility of everyone to co-operate fully with the gardai and the authorities to stamp out the proliferation of drug use and the dreadful heinous crimes that accompany it," he said.

The debate over legalising Class B or "soft" drugs such as cannabis has not progressed since the Seventies when the drug first came into widespread use in Ireland. Gardai say that since cannabis began arriving in significant amounts in the Sixties and harder drugs like heroin and cocaine appeared in the Seventies and Eighties, they have lost the war against drugs. One garda asked the same question which Mr Flanagan, TD and self-confessed user, has been asking: "What's the point of us busting people for grass? Couldn't we legalise it and tax it?"

Nearly 18,000 people were arrested for drugs offences last year, 13,000 for possession of drugs for personal use. In 2004, just under 10,000 people were arrested, 7,000 for possession for personal use, the majority of those, gardai say, for cannabis.

The "economic" argument in favour of decriminalisation is fairly straightforward. Gardai say the profits from Ireland's recreational drug use mainly go off shore to criminal organisations such as the Triads who have branched out from heroin, for which there is a limited market, into cannabis cultivation across Europe. Money from the heroin trade here also goes to groups like the Taliban. Cocaine users also finance the blood-soaked cartels of Central America.

About half the homicides committed here each year are now drug related. Since Dublin gangs began importing weapons with their drugs in the mid-Nineties, more than 200 people have died in drug gang-related murders. Eddie McCabe, a 30-year-old drug dealer from south inner Dublin, was shot dead in a row with another drug dealer along with his companion, Catherine Brennan, aged 28, at a filling station in Tallaght in November 1995. Eleven years and one month later, McCabe's 21-year-old son, also Eddie, who had followed his father into the trade, was beaten to death by one of the Crumlin-Drimnagh drugs gangs.

Detectives say the murderous criminality surrounding the drugs trade in Ireland has become "self-perpetuating". Gardai are watching as yet another generation of gangs emerges, even more recklessly violent than their predecessors. Gardai predict that there will be innocent deaths as these young gangs become more heavily armed.

More than half the homicides in the country every year are drug-related gangland executions. The murders are the tip of an enormous criminal black economy that moves huge amounts of money out of the country and causes only damage within. A deal of heroin sells now for as little as €12. A gramme of hash or herbal cannabis sells for a little more. Synthetic opiates and the methamphetamine, ecstasy, sell for €5 or more.

The street dealers are generally users who buy in larger quantities at slightly lower prices and use the profit to feed their habit. Above them are the "runners", the lowest rank of the organised-crime gangs in Ireland who, gardai estimate, sell maybe a couple of thousand euro worth of drugs a week. When the economy was flush with cash, the top earning "runners" could shift €10,000 to €15,000 of cocaine a week.

One of Gerry Ryan's suppliers reportedly bought half an ounce of cocaine for around €1,400 from a 20-year-old runner working for a south inner city gang each week.

If the people in the next tier have 10 or 20 runners, the amounts of cash flowing to them obviously increases and their main concern, aside from paying the gang leaders, is in hiding and laundering the cash. For every drug runner they employ, they also employ the services of family members and other people they have a hold over to launder the cash. These people are known as "smurfs", after the hard-working cartoon characters.

The smurfs do a variety of jobs. Little old ladies can go to foreign exchange counters in banks and exchange euro for sterling if the drugs need to be sourced in Liverpool, as has been the tradition of the heroin dealers based in west Dublin. Other smurfs get paid with cheap holidays to Spain, carrying maybe €30,000 in cash outward to the gang members resident there. This is a popular form of work for smurfs who can also make money on the side by buying cheap cigarettes to sell on their return. Elderly couples and families who pack cash into their children's luggage have been detected by customs officials. Cash also flows out of the country via ferries and cars to Holland which is the other centre of supply.

The most notorious of the ex-pat Irish drugs barons were targeted by a pan-European police operation in the summer of 2011. Christy Kinahan, who rose from an impoverished background in the Oliver Bond flats complex in Dublin, was arrested along with 40 other people. Spanish and other police forces are still examining the extent of Kinahan's property portfolio which they estimated at a net worth of half a billion and which included an entire holiday complex in Brazil.

When deals go wrong and large shipments of drugs are seized at the upper level of the trade, the knock-on effect causes deaths and devastating injury at street levels. A combined US Drug Enforcement Agency and European police operation led to the seizure of a massive cocaine haul, organised by a group of Dublin criminals, in 2008. Gardai say the criminals, headed by a man in his mid-30s from north Dublin, had to find €4m to pay the Mexican suppliers for the balance on top of €6m they had paid up front. In order to raise the outstanding amount, the Irish traffickers insisted that their gang representatives in Ireland and Liverpool call in all outstanding debts. This sparked a campaign of violence and intimidation that reached the whole way down to street level where runners and user-dealers in hock for only a few thousand were viciously beaten or threatened with murder. The debt reclamation was pushed right down to families who had to go to credit unions or money lenders to raise the few thousand needed to stop their loved one being killed or suffering crippling injury.

At points like this, the costs are pushed all around society. Hospital casualty departments have to deal with terrible injuries to young men. Some, unable to meet the demands, commit suicide. Those who can steal from others do so. Suspects arrested by gardai claim they were forced to take part in armed robberies as a way of settling their debts. Many of these amateur criminals end up in jail.

The one constant in all this, gardai say, is that it is still a totally cash business; nothing but the massive burden of policing, healthcare and social damage accrues to the State, and the bulk of the profits flow out of the country.

Sunday Independent

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