Gardaí hitting the middle and lower ranks as a tactic to flush out gang bosses

The scene of the Garda raid in Ashbourne. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins.

There’s always a temptation to say a major drugs haul represents a ‘significant blow’ to the crime gang being hit. Researchers have long complained of the tendency of the media, and gardaí, to make such claims, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.

Insiders suggest there are more important issues: The significance of the people arrested (whether they are so-called gillies or major players), whether the operation uncovers a new form of smuggling (such as inside a car engine, as happened recently) or smuggling route, and if the seizure is an isolated success or one of a series of interceptions.

More important is whether or not the seizures are part of a wider strategy to hit all activities of the particular gang — such as arrests and prosecutions for murders and attempted assassinations and investigations targeting their wealth and money-laundering activities.

And, if the strategy is both a domestic one and an international one, it means police agencies are hitting the gang on multiple fronts.

Pretty much all of these factors apply to the latest operation and seizure of contraband involving the Kinahan crime cartel.

It’s an international, national, and local operation, with national efforts led here by the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (DOCB) and local activities by the Garda South Central Dublin Division.

The consignment of cannabis and cocaine in two linked units, one south of Ashbourne, Co Meath, and another in The Ward, north Dublin, valued at around €7.3m, is very significant in its own right.

It comprised 314kg of cannabis herb, 100kg of cannabis resin, and 6kg-8kg of cocaine.

Drugs seized by gardaí during searches in Co Meath as part of an ongoing international investigation. Picture: PA
Drugs seized by gardaí during searches in Co Meath as part of an ongoing international investigation. Picture: PA

Two men arrested in the raids are part of the Kinahan gang and were there to pay for the consignment, signalling that they are not bit players, but rather trusted members.

It’s just the latest drug haul hitting the cartel. Last July, the Garda DOCB found up to 200kg of cannabis herb and approximately 3kg of heroin in a drug distribution centre in west Dublin. Gardaí uncovered drug paraphernalia, including weighing scales, a vacuum-packing machine, and a cash counter, as well as a sawn-off shotgun, a semi-automatic pistol, and stun guns.

The cartel was also believed to have supplied criminal gangs with a consignment of drugs valued at almost €4m seized in Co Meath in June.

In early April, the DOCB seized 20kgs of cocaine and seized parts of semi-automatic weapons at an industrial unit in Artane, north Dublin, linked to the cartel.

Last January, the DOCB and the Serious Crime Task Force seized an assault rifle, ammunition, and €3m of heroin and cocaine from a house in Sallins, Co Kildare.

Earlier in January, they seized 1.87 tonnes of cannabis herb (worth €37.5m) in Dublin Port off the cartel — the biggest inland seizure of the drug in 20 years.

On top of the mounting succession of drug and firearms hauls, gardaí have also hit the cartel in their local heartland — which covers the south-west inner city and the adjoining Crumlin-Drimnagh areas.

The Garda Dublin South Central division has a long-running operation, codenamed Thistle, targeting the middle and lower ranking levels of the organisation.

Yesterday, officers from Kevin Street and Kilmainham garda stations arrested three men and conducted nine searches.

This resulted in the seizure of around 4kg of drugs, some €6,000 in cash, and imitation firearms, including an AK47.

These national and local efforts were part of an international operation involving gardaí and Dutch police, assisted by Europol, the EU police agency.

Some six people were arrested in Amsterdam, three of them Irish and known cartel associates.

Cash, drugs, computer equipment, encrypted phones and bitcoins (online currency which can be used to purchase drugs and guns) were seized, hidden in safes, in raids on two apartments.

Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, head of Special Crime Operations, was in the Netherlands to help co-ordinate the operations.

He said the garda strategy has been threefold: To target the threat to life; target the illicit product ( drugs and guns) and target their money laundering activities.

Gardaí remove two vans from an industrial storage unit at Muckerstown near Ashbourne, Co Meath, where €5m worth of cocaine and cannabis was discovered. Picture: Colin Keegan
Gardaí remove two vans from an industrial storage unit at Muckerstown near Ashbourne, Co Meath, where €5m worth of cocaine and cannabis was discovered. Picture: Colin Keegan

The Criminal Assets Bureau has targeted the wealth of the senior ranks of the cartel in Ireland with the seizure of cars, vehicles, and watches, as well as court actions to confiscate the elaborate homes, some of them mini-fortresses, owned by the Irish bosses in Crumlin.

The reference to garda efforts to prevent threat-to-life attacks has seen some 40 such attempted assassination bids foiled, according to Mr O’Driscoll, most of them involving the cartel.

These operations, involving the DOCB and the Armed Support Unit and the Emergency Response Unit, have seen many members arrested and charged.

This is in addition to divisional investigations into the eight murders linked to the cartel (and two by Hutch gunmen) in Ireland which has resulted in numerous people charged with murder.

All these successes have sparked suspicions that gardaí have informants in the cartel, which is driving suspicion and paranoia within the network. Sources say that the cartel is now short of the necessary footsoldiers and middle-level operators.

“They are running out of people to do their work – with the numbers in custody, the numbers charged or abroad,” said one senior source.

“They will need to get a new cohort of people, but they will need people they can trust and who are someway capable.”

He added that, in a global context, drug suppliers in Columbia, the Netherlands, and Spain are increasingly wary of doing business with the Kinahan cartel, given the heat they are attracting.

“Will they do work with the cartel when they see the damage that is being done? The risk is too high,” he said. “The international organised crime gangs will see them as vulnerable.”

But while gardaí continue to hit the middle and lower ranks, they want to snare the bosses, or, as one source said, “cut the head off the snake”.

A source said: “We are tackling the top layer. We are taking their money and their people, so that they will either have to get out or come closer to home and do business themselves.”

He said that the CAB is targeting the homes of the leadership in Ireland.

“This is about community safety and if the community in Crumlin see that they no longer have their big mansions, they will feel they no longer control the streets,” said the source.

“This is part of our effort, and determination, to dismantle the cartel.”

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