In December 2000, Ireland’s most notorious gangland figure John Gilligan went on trial for the murder of the Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin. He was also charged with running a multimillion euro drugs empire. Gilligan was acquitted of the killing but was convicted of running the biggest drug-trafficking operation ever seen in Ireland, and sentenced to 28 years. In this extract from his new biography of Gilligan, Paul Williams tells how in the 1990s the gang leader forged links with John Traynor, to develop a vast criminal enterprise
John Gilligan needed a partner he could trust. It had to be someone with a proven criminal track record who would help him to organise a drugs business, raise the seed capital and have the connections to launder the proceeds. There was one obvious choice — John ‘the Coach’ Traynor. His timing could not have been better.
The Coach had already arrived at the conclusion that drugs were the future and was also seeking out a partner. Traynor had different requirements for his prospective collaborator. He wanted someone who had plenty of clout in the underworld and would be the de facto public face of the organisation.
Traynor enthusiastically agreed to the partnership. The pair were natural criminal accomplices. In temperament and intellect they were, however, poles apart. That was reflected in their physical appearances. Traynor was a big, strong man, over 6ft, who was frequently mistaken for a policeman. The inveterate opportunist often posed as one.
Gilligan, by contrast, was described by one acquaintance as “a small little man who wears a big Crombie overcoat”.
The pragmatic Big John was happy for the pugnacious Little John to be the overall boss while he would pull the strings from the shadows. In a conversation with this writer in 1995, Traynor described Gilligan in glowing terms although he was careful to distance himself from the drug trade: “He is the best grafter I have ever met. In criminal terms, he is a great businessman. He can turn money into more money, no problem, and is prepared to be hands-on, if necessary. But he is very dangerous if you f**k with him.”
Gilligan had established his name as a large-scale burglar known as “factory John”, renowned for robbing factories and warehouses. But he turned to the drugs trade when the break-ins became too risky and he was imprisoned in Portlaoise in 1990.
Like his future partner, Traynor’s conversion to narcotics began while he was serving a lengthy prison sentence in the UK. He had fled to London in 1987 as the Serious Crime Squad in Dublin prepared to charge him with receiving the equivalent of €130,000 worth of goods stolen by Gilligan. He was regarded by other villains as a man of ‘respect’ thanks to his role as an advisor to the ‘General’ Martin Cahill — equivalent of a Mafia consigliere.
In November 1992, the Coach qualified for temporary home leave from Highpoint Prison in Suffolk, England, where he had been transferred as a low-risk, model prisoner. Gardaí then agreed to drop the outstanding charges for receiving stolen goods against Traynor after Cahill returned a highly sensitive stolen garda investigation file.
The deal gave Traynor a clean slate in Dublin. He had been due to return to Highpoint on November 23 but did not arrive. Traynor had learned valuable lessons from his time inside. Serving his sentence in a range of English prisons, the charismatic chancer made invaluable underworld contacts. He befriended major players from England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Spain and Morocco.
New generation of dealers
Organised crime in the UK and much of the rest of Europe had already made the transition from robberies to drugs. Traynor listened and learned a lot about the inner, complex workings of the business. The profits they discussed had the greedy Coach drooling. When he returned to Ireland, he began conducting his own market research, socialising with the city’s new generation of drug dealers.
Both heroin and cannabis were in ever-increasing demand with the guarantee of prodigious profits. Gilligan and Traynor were reluctant to dabble in heroin. Their reticence had nothing to do with moral qualms about the devastation it was causing on the streets of the capital. While very profitable, they felt it was a business that attracted too much political, media and police attention
The most pressing requirement for gangland’s latest narcotics entrepreneurs was hard cash. The ‘General’ Cahill didn’t want to be a drug dealer but was interested in becoming a silent investor. He agreed to lend Gilligan and Traynor the bulk of the money they needed to get started, handing over £100,000 of seed capital. It came from Traynor’s paltry share of the proceeds from the kidnapping of National Irish Bank executive Jim Lacey. Gilligan added to the pot with two armed robberies.
The next priority was to find a reliable drug supplier with whom they could do business. Gilligan recruited an old friend from Ballyfermot, Denis ‘Dinny’ Meredith, to assist in the new venture. Meredith was also closely associated with John Traynor. Dinny, who had grown up with Gilligan, was a member of his Factory Gang, driving the container trucks used in their many robberies.
Traynor used UK prison connections to seek out potential contacts in Amsterdam. The Dutch capital had become the operational hub of Europe’s drug trade, where every producer in the world came to sell their wares. The ‘Dam’, as Gilligan and his cronies called it, was to drug traffickers what Wall Street was to stock market dealers.
Traynor travelled to Amsterdam where he was introduced to a representative of one of the country’s biggest drug traffickers. Simon Ata Hussain Khan Rahman was a major league criminal who made gangsters like Gilligan, Traynor and Cahill look like pickpockets. His criminal tentacles stretched out to South America, Europe, the former Soviet bloc countries, the Middle East and north Africa.
Born in the former Dutch colony of Surinam, Rahman had moved to The Hague. From there he ran a criminal empire which, apart from narcotics, dealt in smuggling, fraud, firearms and money laundering.
In 1994, Dutch police intelligence estimated that Rahman was worth up to €100m in today’s money. He nurtured a veneer of genteel respectability and was chairman of Jamaat Al-Imaan, a Muslim cultural association.
Rahman sourced his cannabis in Nigeria and Morocco and had supply routes organised throughout Europe. He would export container loads of rice and nuts, for example, to Gambia. When the containers returned, they would carry imports of foodstuffs and furniture to conceal shipments of thousands of kilos of hashish.
In November 1993, Gilligan and Dinny Meredith flew to Amsterdam to follow up on Traynor’s initial approach. Rahman agreed to meet them to hear their proposition. He told them each consignment would have to be paid for in cash, upfront. The prices of the first shipments were equivalent in today’s value to €2,600 per kilo of hashish, but it would be cheaper depending on the quantities being ordered, falling to an average of €2,400 per kilo. They struck a deal for 170 kilos.
Acting on Traynor’s advice, Gilligan joined the Aer Lingus Gold Circle Club before his first flights to Amsterdam. Using the business class frequent flyer card, he could book a seat on an aircraft minutes before it was scheduled to take off. Catching a plane without warning enabled him to shed unwanted police surveillance.
The morning after their meeting with Rahman, Gilligan and Traynor arrived back in Dublin on one-way tickets they had purchased in Schiphol Airport. The previous day in Dublin they had paid for two open return tickets on Gilligan’s Aer Lingus card. The trip marked the beginning of the biggest drug trafficking operation in the history of the State. Traynor put knowledge he had acquired from his cellmates in the UK prison system into action and drafted the gang’s business model. Each large consignment should be followed by a smaller one, in case the route was discovered and the drugs seized.
On December 5, the first portion of the consignment of drugs arrived in Dublin Port on a transport truck. The 150 kilos of hash were packed into six boxes, specially sealed, labelled as leather jackets and addressed to an engineering works in Chapelizod, Dublin. The following morning the boxes were picked up by a courier and sent to another address in Chapelizod. When the truck stopped at traffic lights, Gilligan henchman Brian Meehan knocked on the window and told the driver he had been sent to collect the boxes for the engineering works. The deal went off without a hitch.
Later that same day, Gilligan and Dinny again flew to Amsterdam with money for Rahman and returned the following afternoon. On December 12, the second part of the deal, 20 kilos, arrived on a transport truck from the same company.
Over the following months the operation expanded rapidly as the gang began filling a huge demand in the market. They were soon the biggest wholesale supplier to dealers throughout Dublin and later to gangs across the country. The proceeds of the sales were collected for Gilligan and Traynor who then sent cash to Rahman for the next order. Following the first successful arrivals in Dublin, each subsequent shipment was preceded by one or more trips to Amsterdam, most of them by Gilligan, to place another order.
Less than four months after walking through the gates of Portlaoise Prison, he was well on his way to achieving his ambitions to hit the big time. On February 15, he took the 7.25am flight to the Dutch capital. Dressed in an expensive overcoat and carrying a briefcase, he relaxed in the comfort of the business-class cabin, rubbing shoulders with people whose companies and homes he would probably have robbed four years earlier.
Drug dealing was an infinitely more civilised and lucrative way of making a dishonest living than breaking into factories on a frosty winter night.
Later that day, Gilligan visited a bureau de change in central Amsterdam and changed £44,845 into Dutch guilders. The money was part payment for 100 kilos of hash.
The previous day a container truck from a legitimate transport company had arrived in Hoofddorp, near Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The innocent driver had been instructed to pick up several pallets of computer parts for a company in Ireland. The truck had to make a further pick-up from a warehouse near Antwerp port in Belgium. At the warehouse, a pallet containing two boxes of ‘oil coolers’ was loaded. The driver was asked to hang on — there were other boxes for Chapelizod to be delivered to the same warehouse. About an hour and a half later the extra boxes, also labelled as oil coolers, were loaded on his truck.
As the truck arrived in Dublin on the morning of February 17, members of the Customs National Drug Team decided to conduct a routine search. They discovered that the ‘oil coolers’ were not what they purported to be and seized the truck and 100 kilos of hashish. The driver was questioned but the officers were satisfied that he was unaware of his secret cargo.
The North Central Divisional Drug Squad and the customs officers removed most of the hashish and released the truck the next day, where it continued to its original destination, a warehouse in Bluebell Industrial Estate. The following Monday at 10am, Dinny Meredith arrived in a red van to pick up the ‘oil coolers’ from the warehouse. The officers later learned that the van was also under surveillance by Gilligan’s mob. The cops watched as Meredith drove to Chapelizod but failed to make a delivery. He made a legitimate delivery and then returned the ‘oil coolers’ to the warehouse in Bluebell.
Gilligan and his old friend had smelled a rat and decided to pull back. The loss of the consignment was a big blow but not fatal to the operation. Gilligan and Traynor decided that they needed a new, safer route. The business was expanding at a dramatic pace and there were dealers to be supplied.
Meredith contacted John Dunne, whom he had known for over four years. Dunne, originally from Finglas, west Dublin, lived in Cork with his family. He was operations manager with the Seabridge shipping company at Little Island in Cork Harbour. He was perfectly placed to ensure shipments from the Netherlands were collected and transported safely to Dublin. If Customs swooped, he could warn the gang.
Lucrative smuggling routes
In a meeting with Dunne, Gilligan and Traynor asked for the names and numbers of ‘reliable’ Dutch shipping agents and asked if he would handle the Irish end. Gilligan would arrange to have his goods taken to the agent’s depot in the Netherlands, from where they would be shipped to Seabridge. Gilligan told Dunne that he would be paid £1,000 for every shipment he handled. Dunne suspected the whole business was “shady” but he wasn’t going to ask awkward questions. He would later claim that he thought the boxes he handled were full of smuggled tobacco.
With Dunne safely recruited, Gilligan had arranged the largest deal yet with Rahman. The first shipment was to contain 60 kilos and the second 175 kilos.
The first arrived on April 4, the second on April 25. Dunne called Gilligan when the second arrived and was instructed to drive it to the car park of the Ambassador Hotel just outside Dublin. There, a Gilligan henchman met him and transferred the large boxes to another car. Half an hour later, Gilligan arrived. He smiled and handed Dunne £1,000 in cash.
Gilligan had just established one of the most secure and lucrative illegal drug smuggling routes in gangland history. Between April 1994 and October 1996, over 20,000 kilos of hashish would arrive for the Gilligan gang by the same route. There were 96 individual shipments, none of which were detected. Gilligan had worked out the perfect system.
‘Gilligan: The Mob Boss Who Changed the Face of Organised Crime’ by Paul Williams is out now from Allen & Unwin