Nineteen held in raids on Traveller 'rhino-horn gang'
NINETEEN suspects are in custody after a series of police raids on both sides of the Irish Sea as part of a major investigation into organised crime involving members of Traveller families.
The Criminal Assets Bureau raided homes in three areas here as well as solicitors' offices in Limerick and Cork.
The arrests of 17 men and two women were all made in England and the North.
The suspects are alleged to be linked to several crime gangs – including an outfit known as the Rathkeale Rovers, which has been blamed for the theft of rhino horns across Europe.
The stolen horns are estimated to have a black market value of more than €40m.
One of the thefts was carried out last April at the National Museum's collections resources centre at Balheary Road, Swords, in north Co Dublin, when eight horns, worth €500,000, were taken during an armed robbery.
Members of the bureau, backed up by armed officers and local gardai, swooped on houses in the Raheen area of Limerick city, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, and Newmarket, Co Cork.
Gardai said the bureau had been involved in a Europol initiative, which was set up specifically in 2010 to target the criminal activities of an international network of Traveller criminals.
Over the past three years, there have been more than 60 thefts of rhino horns and rare Chinese cultural artefacts from museums and private collections throughout Europe.
The garda operation focused on the assets and financial affairs of suspects who were also alleged to be involved in counterfeiting fraud, labour exploitation, tobacco smuggling and tarmac scams, as well as the rhino horn robberies.
As a result of the raids, gardai seized a large haul of documents, a small amount of cash and a number of artefacts.
Chief Supt Dave Sheahan, who is in charge of policing in Limerick, said those arrested in England were predominantly Irish people with English addresses.
He said the searches in Limerick and Cork were the culmination of a large policing operation in several countries and a very positive response by the gardai to targeting the assets of people involved in the crimes.
"While the operation was mainly carried out by the Criminal Assets Bureau, there was a large local input, which will feed into the system to help our colleagues across Europe to dent the activities of these criminal organisations," he added.
Hundreds of police officers from 25 forces in England as well as the PSNI, and the Serious Organised Crime Agency carried out around 40 searches and seized cars, cash, suspected stolen property and documents from addresses in Essex, Cambridgeshire, London, Sussex, the West Midlands and the North.
Five men and two women were detained in London, four men in Cambridgeshire, two in Essex, one each in the West Midlands, Sussex and Nottingham and three in the North.
All were held on suspicion of conspiracy to burgle, apart from a 54-year-old woman who was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and assisting an offender.
The English investigation was linked, in particular, with six crimes over a four-month spell at museums and auction houses.
Police said that while much of the stolen property had since been recovered, several high value items, particularly the Chinese artefacts, were still missing and a substantial reward had been offered for information leading to their safe return.