Cross-border law enforcement operations have netted almost €10m worth of drugs and nearly €1.3m in cash over the last seven months, according to official figures.
The Cross Border Joint Agency Task Force (JATF) conducted over 70 drug searches resulting in the prosecution of 30 suspects.
The joint investigations led to the dismantling of a major Lithuanian heroin network operating across the island and an organised crime gang involved in a spate of ATM thefts on both sides of the border.
The JATF report, covering April 1 to September 30, 2020, said that 15 financial crime investigations were launched as well as six new cross-border human trafficking investigations.
The JATF comprises An Garda Síochána and the PSNI, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the British National Crime Agency (NCA), as well as customs and immigration agencies on both sides of the border.
The report foreword, written by Assistant Commissioner Finbarr O’Brien and the PSNI’s Detective Chief Constable John McVea, said the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted on crime and smuggling and “added to the workload of law enforcement agencies”.
They said there were a “number of challenges and emerging issues” that the agencies were dealing with.
The police chiefs said that to fulfil its role – to tackle organised and cross border crime – that “working together collaboratively” was the most effective way to protect the public.
While not mentioning the impact of possible Brexit scenarios, the officers said: “We are very grateful that all the members of the Cross Border Joint Agency Task Force are strongly committed to achieving this and continue to work together to keep the people and communities on this island safe.”
The JATF, set up under the November 2015 ‘Fresh Start' Agreement, targets six priority areas: rural crime; drugs; financial crime; trafficking in human beings including children; excise fraud and organised immigration crime.
In relation to drug gangs, the report said close co-operation during April and September had resulted in:
- Seizure of €1,282,670 in cash;
- Seizure of drugs worth €9.7 million;
- 18 arrests for drug offences;
- 20 suspects charged
The report said the drug hauls comprised of three major seizures: “The first intervention was in Co Dublin in April 2020, when 36kg of cocaine was located in a van which was driven by a person who resided in Northern Ireland. Two suspects were arrested, interviewed and charged by An Garda Síochána.
“The second intervention occurred as a result of a search at Dublin Port when 62kg of cocaine and 93kg of herbal cannabis was found inside a trailer being driven by a Northern Irish driver.
“The third significant intervention was on the 10th September 2020, when £1m of cocaine destined for Northern Ireland via Dublin Port was intercepted and seized by the NCA.”
The report added: “We also witnessed the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year investigation in relation to a Lithuanian OCG [organised crime group] who had been distributing heroin onto the streets of a number of cities and towns on the island of Ireland.”
It said that an operation coordinated by a Eurojust Joint Investigation Team on August 26 last resulted in 18 arrests and 65 searches across Lithuania, Ireland and Northern Ireland and the seizure of over €700,000 in cash.
In relation to rural crime, the report said that during 2019 there had been a series of ATM thefts on both sides of the border.
“One of the main Organised Crime Gangs (OCGs) had members living close to the border in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland,” the report said.
It said the OCG continued to plan and attempt to commit ATM thefts in the spring of 2020 during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“After the theft of two ATM’s in Dundalk in April 2020, on the ground co-operation, between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI tracked two males to a house in South Armagh where they were arrested and later charged by the PSNI in relation to the ATM thefts," the report said.
"In the Republic of Ireland, five other male persons were arrested and charged with ATM offences linked to this OCG and appeared before the Special Criminal Court, Dublin during this recording period.”
The report said that “a total of 15 financial crime investigations” were ongoing under the auspices of the JATF, conducted by the PSNI, An Garda Síochána, CAB and the NCA, supported by HMRC and the Revenue Commissioners.
They incorporated a range of criminal offending including drug trafficking, cigarette smuggling, modern slavery/human trafficking, theft and fraud.
The report said that in addition to criminal investigation powers, non-conviction based asset recovery powers were also being utilised in both jurisdictions to disrupt gangs and recover the proceeds of crime.
It said that during the reporting period there had been a total of 24 arrests linked to financial crime investigations, in excess of 80 investigative orders granted, two defendants had pleaded guilty to money laundering/fraud offences and one Proceeds of Crime Order had been granted.
It said Covid-19 has had “a significant impact” on the ability of An Garda Síochána and the PSNI to carry out joint operations against human trafficking during the reporting period.
“Nevertheless, six new cross border investigations commenced ranging from the exploitation of sex workers to the labour exploitation of human beings in relation to work at car washes,” it said.
It said the PSNI Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU) and An Garda Síochána Human Trafficking Investigation & Co Ordination Unit (HTICU) recorded 76 persons who have presented during the period as potential victims of human trafficking in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“In August 2020, a major operation was put in place by An Garda Síochána and the PSNI, when eight individuals were arrested; five in the Republic of Ireland and three in Northern Ireland in relation to a Lithuanian OCG,” the report said.
“18 potential victims of human trafficking had been identified as been targeted in Lithuania for their vulnerability and brought to the island of Ireland to sell drugs on behalf of the OCG. Statements have been recorded and evidence shared with the Lithuanian police.”
In relation to organised immigration crime, it said there were five cross border immigration operations ongoing.
“They are being managed effectively by the sharing of intelligence and good collaborative partnerships between the respective agencies," the report said. "The operations include a Kuwaiti national coordinating unlawful immigration into the United Kingdom from mainland Europe via Dublin. He was convicted and sentenced to six years' imprisonment.”
It said that last August further arrests were made in Northern Ireland and Scotland regarding other suspects.
“There is also an investigation into the activities of an OCG facilitating Albanian nationals to enter the Republic of Ireland to claim international protection," it said.
"Additionally, investigative support is continuing to be provided to Essex Police in relation to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese nationals.”
On excise fraud, the report said there were currently seven cross border excise fraud investigations on both sides of the border.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected some OCG’s in terms of their illicit production facilities due to the international restrictions involving the movement of people during the reporting period," the report said.
“This situation is assessed as being temporary and illicit production remains a significant threat. The smuggling of marked Northern Irish kerosene oil into the Republic of Ireland continues to be an issue.”
It said that last May, a multi-agency operation in collaboration with Dutch authorities targeted and searched properties on both sides of the border.
It said three suspects were arrested and two persons were later charged in the North and that 5.6m of Regina brand cigarettes valued at £1.7m were seized. Some 4.2 tonnes of counterfeit tobacco, machinery and €97,000 cash was seized in the Republic.
Also, in May, during another operation, 17.4m of illicit cigarettes were seized by the Revenue Commissioners coming from the Netherlands linked to another cross border gang.
Last September, a search of a lorry at Cairnryan Port travelling to Northern Ireland discovered three tonnes of Flandria and Golden Virginia tobacco valued at £700,000.