The main suspects behind last week's rhino-horn robbery from the National Museum storage facility in north Co Dublin are a gang from the Traveller community who are also suspected of similar robberies on five continents.
At least 200 such robberies have taken place from museums and private collections in Europe alone in the past four years and EUROPOL, the EU police agency, has specifically identified a Traveller gang based in Co Limerick in regard to several of the thefts.
With a final market value in China – where powdered rhino horn is regarded as an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer – of €500,000 for the four horns stolen on Wednesday night, the gang has netted millions of euro in robberies not only in Europe but North and South America, Africa and Australia, according to EUROPOL.
Three masked men broke into the National Museum's Collections Resource Centre (CRC) on the Balheary Road at about 10.40pm and tied up a security man before leaving an hour later in a white van.
In identifying the Irish gang, EUROPOL, said: "Elements of this group are also involved in a variety of other serious crimes across the EU such as drugs trafficking, organised robbery, distribution of counterfeit products, tarmac fraud and money laundering. Outside the EU, they have been active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia."
The gang has not stolen rhino horn in China but sells there.
Police in Britain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Portugal and France have all linked the theft of rhino horns to "Irish" gangs. Two of the suspected leaders of the gang were arrested in Switzerland two years ago with a large amount of counterfeit euro notes.
Due to the level of the robberies, several museums replaced the real rhino horn with copies and some of these were stolen, one in Germany.
In January 2010 gardai arrested three men, from the Rathkeale area of Limerick, after three rhino horns were seized at Shannon Airport. However, there was no evidence that the horns had been stolen and they were released without charge.
The families suspected of carrying out the rhino-horn robberies have histories of stealing antique furniture during the 1980s and 1990s. They developed close links to unscrupulous dealers here and in Britain. From the 1990s onwards they began moving to continental Europe.