Maeve Sheehan: 'Fear stalks feud town as gangs 'tax' families over children's drug debts'
Terrified mothers have been cowed into silence amid a turf war between Drogheda's rival dealers, writes Maeve Sheehan
The feuding drug gangs that caused lockdown and terror in the bustling town of Drogheda, Co Louth, grabbed headlines last week. But behind those headlines is an arguably more insidious story struggling to get out - families being subjected to extortion and intimidation over the manufactured drug debts of their children.
This is not a new phenomenon and it is not unique to Drogheda. Declan Breathnach, a Fianna Fail TD, believes that the town is a microcosm of what's happening across the country.
Drogheda, like other towns, has had its long-standing drug problems. It was only this year that Breathnach began hearing rumours that the two local drug gangs were extorting huge sums from families over their children's drug debts.
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Then over the summer he got confirmation by way of a phone call about a young lad with a cocaine habit who had run up a debt ramped up with 'taxes' and 'penalties' to €15,000. Mother and son came to Breathnach in desperation, too terrified to go to the Garda. The dealers threatened the mother that her house would be burnt to the ground. Breathnach said the gardai helped the family, and two others but, as he told the Dail last week, what is happening in Drogheda "is being experienced in all the smaller towns and villages in County Louth and beyond into which these thugs' tentacles have expanded".
Breathnach knows of two more families who have also been intimidated. Pio Smith, a Labour Party councillor, has direct knowledge of more than €50,000 being paid to dealers by between five and 10 families since September. Although he knows all cases in great detail, he doesn't want to give precise information so as to protect the anonymity of those involved.
They include a mother who had no idea that her son was smoking cannabis until one day a young a man called at her front door. He was demanded payment of a "debt" of several thousand euro.
Other stories include families being petrol bombed in their homes and relatives being warned that the gang had informants in An Garda Siochana and if they should report the intimidation, the gang would find out.
Debts that start out at a paltry few hundred euro were 'taxed up' by the drug gang by many multiples to more than €20,000. None of the families reported the intimidation to gardai.
There is no question that these families will speak to the media, the Sunday Independent is told. But Smith, a drug counsellor, believes that he also has a "public duty" to highlight a campaign of terror that is very much below the radar.
"What I've seen in the phenomenon in Drogheda is that it is women and mothers who are targeted. This is an issue that I believe has to be addressed by the State," he said. "Targeting mothers is an easy hit. The mothers want the best for their children. Some mothers have no idea that their children have run up a debt or are involved in drugs, even at a young level. Some mothers are not even aware that their children are being used to ferry packages around to different areas of town. There has to be conversations around this whole issue."
What is happening in Drogheda is indicative of what is going on in other provincial towns. Drug use has increased since the recession receded, according to figures from the Central Statistics Office, and even though the depleted Garda force is being strengthened, the numbers are not increasing fast enough.
As demand grows, drug gangs are fighting turf wars. In Drogheda, it's a case of two rival gangs fighting to control the trade, a battle played out around the vast Moneymore housing estate of some 2,000 people, and the surrounding streets.
The turning point came in July when one of the suspected kingpins was shot six times outside his home at a halting site in the town. Since then, there have been pipe bombings, petrol bombings, beatings, arson, car rammings and shots fired into homes, escalating to almost daily occurrences. Last Sunday night, a gas cannister was packed into the exhaust pipe of a car used by a woman linked to one of the feuding gangs. Shortly afterwards, gardai burst into a vacant house on the Moneymore estate to find a 20-year-old man bleeding profusely in a bath. The skin on his face had been partially flayed off with a Stanley knife, according to sources, and he would have been killed. Gardai responded swiftly, cancelling overtime to ensure a full deployment on the streets, including armed units.
The community is, as ever, caught in the crossfire.
Chief Superintendent Christy Mangan, who is responsible for policing Louth, said: "Drug intimidation is central to what's going on. We have targeted these groups for the last 12 months. We have seized €270,000 in cash, we have seized cars. When we put the squeeze on gangs and take their money and assets off them they move down the food chain to people who might owe them money and demand payment. They also put what we call a 'tax' on them. If the debt is €5,000, the debt might be €10,000 or €20,000."
The problem, Chief Supt Mangan says, is that families have been reluctant to report the extortion. His advice is for affected families to contact gardai. He said he would be willing to meet them in person, in confidence, away from the garda station. He said he could offer practical advice on safety, security precautions, threat assessments and a plan of action. "I understand that that family is terrified," he said. "What I would say is come in to us, talk it through with us, and when we know who the drug dealer is, then we can put a plan in place as to how we are going to deal with this."
But the intimidation of families operates below the gardai's radar. A Garda drug intimidation reporting programme was launched eight years ago in conjunction with the National Family Support Network, a community-based advocacy organisation. But the numbers that have contacted the programme over the last five years is minuscule, according to sources - although gardai won't release the figures to protect the anonymity of the families.
"While there are anecdotal reports of how pervasive drug-related intimidation is within our communities, unfortunately, as a result of low reporting to An Garda Siochana, statistics do not reflect this situation," a Garda statement said. The programme is currently being "evaluated" by the force and the National Family Support Network - which says drug debt intimidation is a "national epidemic".
Sinn Fein TD Imelda Munster told her local radio station, LMFM, there was a "public perception" that gardai had "turned a blind eye" to the main drug dealers because they were informers.
Chief Supt Mangan said her statement was "unfair". "I have met Imelda Munster and she never put that theory to me. I would invite her to make a statement outlining exactly the information that she has and it will be dealt with head on," he said.
The Garda investigation into gang members has intensified. Ged Nash, the Labour Party senator from Drogheda, has been in regular briefings and claims that arrests are imminent and gang members are under heavy surveillance. He estimates that there are three to four "kingpins" directing 20 to 30 gang members in the town.
"We have in theory very strong anti-gang laws available to us," he said. "But I am very concerned to see that there have been very few if any cases of people being brought before the Special Criminal Court specifically for directing organised crime."
The gang members are rightly the focus. But gardai also need to break through the fear that silences families subjected to their extortionate demands.
"If we ignore this stuff, it grows and grows and grows under the radar. Then how does the State tackle it?" said Pio Smith.