Gardai fear tiger gangs will shift focus to small firms
Gardai and security experts expect no let-up in tiger kidnappings as 'protocols' put in place to try and reduce risk and stop the robbers fail to prevent terrorised people from putting their families before their employer's cash.
The majority of the main tiger raid gangs in Ireland are on holiday in Spain, giving some relief to the gardai and staff of banks and cash handling companies. However, the guards firmly believe that on their return the gangs intend going back to their work of stalking the vulnerable families of people working in businesses that handle large amounts of cash. There was a recent alert when a leading member of one of the gangs returned from Spain unexpectedly but it appears to have been only for family reasons.
The gangs, responsible for some of the most cruel kidnappings in recent years, have been examining new security systems and protocols put in place by banks and security companies, testing their effectiveness and working out new strategies.
Gardai now believe that their new strategy will be to target a wider range of businesses. Banks, and the Bank of Ireland in particular, have reduced the amount of cash being held in branches. Businesses that need large amounts of cash are no longer collecting the money in banks but having it delivered by security companies.
This, gardai say, has lifted some of the threat to bank staff but increased the threat to staff of the cash delivery companies.
Protocols announced last November by the Minister for Justice, the Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy and the banks were supposed to have stopped the kidnap-robberies, but they continued through the first half of the year and gardai are certain that more are planned.
Announcing the new protocols, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said: "We recognise the pressure employees are under when they see their families at risk and they are warned by gangs not to tell gardai. But in fact it is in the interests of the people concerned to involve the gardai at the earliest possible stage. Otherwise they are putting the fate of their loved ones completely in the hands of the gangs."
However, there are other views of whether or not any security protocols are effective to overcome the natural human terror felt by staff whose wives, parents and even young children have been abducted. The kidnappings continued with three cases reported in the first half of this year, two involving banks, and gardai believe that other kidnappings involving small sums of money also took place but were not reported because the victims were too terrified of retaliation.
One of the worst in recent years was in 2005 in Carlow where a wife and two children aged three and five were abducted. The kidnappers tied the children's hands with cable ties before dragging them and their mother barefoot to a car. The children were ill with fear. No charges were brought in the case but details emerged in a compensation claim by another member of staff who was forced to hand over cash on behalf of his colleague whose family's lives were being threatened. The case ended in a private settlement in January.
A former senior garda, now retired, who now carries out security audits of cash-handling firms said the problem now is the conflict between the protocols and "human nature".
"What do you do when some of these devils kidnap a young woman and her children? It's human nature to take pity on people in that awful situation.
"This is a detestable and frightening type of crime which has been on the increase over several years."
He added: "Publicly, the gardai talk about the security protocols devised and put in place with the agreement of the various financial institutions. It is obvious that there is a great reliance on these covert arrangements.
"However, the reality is that while acknowledging that the protocols have operated effectively in some instances, there were many instances where they proved ineffective as the criminals were able to make off. And it was after the cash was delivered by someone coerced into doing so under pain of causing death to a loved one or workmate.
"That is the part that makes it so difficult: whether or a woman or child is injured or killed by accident or design."
His view, shared by gardai and others in the security industry, is that with the increase in security around banks and cash-in-transit companies will, in turn, pass the threat down the line to smaller companies like bookies, pubs or retailers, which by their nature also handle large sum,s are the next set of targets.
This view is shared by Leo Harris, director of the Glenevin security company, which advises on methods to counter tiger kidnap raids. "My view would be that it is going to start moving down the chain, softer targets for lesser amounts. They are constantly watching and gathering information to identify targets.
"There has been a great deal of work down in hazard and risk assessment but any firm that handles cash needs to ensure their staff are taking precautions over personal security and are trained in counter surveillance."
Dermot Benn of Risk Management International said that advances in security, particularly in the countering of "blocker" equipment used in the past 18 months to break through security alarms, would almost certainly divert the raiders back toward kidnapping.
"We have seen it develop in the North, particularly where more and better security by big companies has led the raiders to target smaller operations but with equal use of terrorisation. I would see the same development taking place here especially as the new kids on the block enter the game."
Garda sources said that despite a series of successes against the kidnap-raiders there are still a considerable number of gangs capable of using terror against families of people working in companies that handle cash. One problem, they concede, is that detection rates are not high enough. One said that "intelligence is the key", having prior knowledge of raids and either intercepting the gang or catching them red-handed.
Gardai are working out their own protocols whereby local gardai are brought into operations by centralised surveillance units in order to ensure better co-operation on investigations. Up to last autumn there had a number of breakdowns in communication between specialist units like the Emergency Response Unit and the Organised Crime Unit and local gardai.
The system in place was that once a call came into local gardai about a kidnapping and robbery they had to contact the Crime and Security Section at Garda Headquarters who then directed the specialist units. The problem with this, gardai said, was that local gardai and detectives with good knowledge of local criminals were excluded from the early stages of investigations. This was underlined in one case where, hours after a report of money being handed to a bank official whose family had been kidnapped, local gardai began checking likely out-of-the-way places for a handover. They succeeded in arresting a man and recovering all the money.
In other cases where the kidnapper succeeded, local gardai were annoyed that once the specialist units withdrew they were left to carry out investigations, having been excluded from the vital initial stages. Few of these investigations resulted in charges. Improvements in the communications protocols are now in place.