The Garda crackdown that followed the death of crusading journalist Veronica Guerin showed gangsters that they were not untouchable. Numerous arrests and the seizure of €50m of assets and €150m in taxes followed that brutal killing, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

CERTAIN moments, certain images, from gangland, are etched into the nation’s consciousness.

Like Veronica Guerin’s distinctive red car, marooned on the Naas Road, its windscreen covered with Garda evidence bags, after she was shot dead 20 years ago, on June 26, 1996.

Like the two men, dressed as elite gardaí, about to enter the Regency Hotel, brandishing military assault rifles, earlier this year.

How much has changed; how little has changed.

1996 and 2016 mark dark periods, perhaps the darkest, in gangland in Ireland.

There were warnings then, as there are now, of the State being under threat. Its ability to protect communities is in doubt.

The summer of 1996 was heady. There was an uprising in working-class communities in Dublin. They had been abandoned by society, as a second heroin epidemic carved through flat complexes and estates.

Local organisations, such as the Coalition of Communities Against Drugs and Inner City Organisations Network, took to the streets, and marched on the homes of local dealers.

Journalist Veronica Guerin’s car surrounded by gardaí on the Naas Road, on the Lucan dual carriageway, in Dublin, after she was shot dead on June 26, 1996
Journalist Veronica Guerin’s car surrounded by gardaí on the Naas Road, on the Lucan dual carriageway, in Dublin, after she was shot dead on June 26, 1996

Then came the outrage in Adare, Co Limerick, on June 7, when the IRA riddled Detective Garda Jerry McCabe with bullets during a robbery.

Just weeks later, on June 26, the Gilligan gang executed Guerin.

CATALYST

“They [the two murders] were a catalyst,” Assistant Garda Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan told the Irish Examiner.

“It was a catalyst for everybody: a catalyst for the public, a catalyst for the politicians. Everybody realised that if the guards are to combat this level of violence and crime, they needed additional resources.”

But in addition to more resources, the armoury of the State needed to change.

“The old structures and processes were outdated,” said O’Sullivan.

“We needed something and it took that [the murders] to bring around the Criminal Assets Bureau, because we had unemployed people living in mansions. Nobody was allowed to ask them, or draw any degree of interference.

“We had people who never worked a day in their life living lavish lifestyles.”

People like John Gilligan, who owned Jessbrook, a 90-acre site, with a sprawling equestrian centre, in north Kildare.

The head of a massive drug-importation gang, he spent €1.5m on the site between 1994 and 1996 — not a high price, given his estimated €20m in profit in that period.

In July, 1996, the Dáil heard that Veronica Guerin had “died in vain” if people were allowed to accumulate “vast and unexplained wealth”. The murder of Guerin resulted in a massive garda investigation and the creation of the Criminal Assets Bureau.

These measures seriously disrupted drug (particularly cannabis) distribution and resulted in the exodus of most of the top-level drug dealers, particularly to the Netherlands and Spain.

“The Criminal Assets Bureau greatly enhanced investigations and the investigative powers of An Garda Síochána and the State,” said O’Sullivan, who heads the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau.

“It had a huge effect on criminals. They had to work differently and lots of them fled. People who fled were the ones focused on by the guards and the extra resources of the Veronica Guerin investigation and CAB.”

New laws included the Proceeds of Crime Act, 1996, and the Criminal Assets Bureau, 1996, which operated on a civil standard of proof (balance of probabilities) and not criminal proof (beyond all reasonable doubt).

Moreover, the burden shifted onto the individual to demonstrate that his or her assets or income came from legitimate income.

That year also saw the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, which massively extended, to a maximum of seven days, the detention period for trafficking. (Three years later, a ten-year, mandatory minimum sentence for dealing in drugs worth over €13,000 was introduced, attracting some criticism).

Not long after Guerin’s murder, the garda investigation had dismantled the Gilligan gang and the boss man was extradited back from Britain.

While Gilligan was not convicted of her murder, he was given a 28-year jail term (reduced to 20 on appeal) for drug trafficking.

His right-hand man, Brian Meehan, was sentenced to life for Guerin’s murder.

GANG LANDSCAPE

The unintended consequence of the success of CAB and the Guerin investigation was that the major drug dealers who fled set up massive importation networks in Spain and Holland.

These criminals created sophisticated contacts with local trafficking gangs, and with drug exporters in Morocco and South America.

These included Christopher Kinahan, now a household name, because of the feud with the Hutch gang. The massive expansion on the supply side coincided with a surge in demand for drugs like cocaine, on top of the traditional cannabis, heroin, and ecstasy.

Gangs back in Ireland involved in high-risk kidnappings and armed robberies were seduced by the money and lower risk associated with drugs.

“What you have now, compared to the mid-1990s, is a bigger market and, with the Celtic Tiger, people had money,” said Assistant Garda Commissioner O’Sullivan. “The population is bigger and there’s a greater consumer base. There are more drug dealers.”

He said there were a number of “big operators” abroad. “It’s gone global. People know people everywhere,” he said.

“They know guys in Columbia, guys in the south of Spain, they know British criminals. When the Iron Curtin came down, they got to know Eastern European criminals, and are getting guns from them. The world’s a smaller place. They’ve contacts everywhere.”

Back in 2012, then commissioner Martin Callinan estimated that there were 25 major crime gangs, with five that had “tentacles” to European or international gangs.

The Irish Examiner reported last April that garda bosses estimated there were ten top-level Irish gangs dominating the trafficking of drugs from Spain and the Netherlands into Ireland.

Four or five of these syndicates have direct connections with exporters in South and Central America. They operate alongside British traffickers, or a wider conglomerate in multi-tonne shipments. This is replicated in Ireland, where major gangs club together to import consignments.

The decision by Garda HQ, in 2015, to merge the Garda National Drugs Unit and the Organised Crime Unit reflected how gangs engage in all sorts of criminality — from drugs, to armed robberies, to firearms, to cigarette smuggling, to money laundering.

 An Taoiseach Enda Kenny looking at Veronica Guerin’s pen at the Journalists’ Memorial in the Newseum museum of news in Washington
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny looking at Veronica Guerin’s pen at the Journalists’ Memorial in the Newseum museum of news in Washington

And the profits have mushroomed. Back in 2010, Operation Shovel, the European investigation against the Kinahan cartel in Spain, Britain, and Ireland, estimated the assets of the network — engaged in drugs and firearms trafficking and global money laundering — at €200m, including investment properties across the world.

Senior gardaí estimate that the Kinahan cartel, directly or indirectly, controls 70% of the Irish drug market.

The UN has estimated that the Irish heroin market is worth €600m annually, although Irish experts believe it is half that.

“Some groups have made a lot of money, but they are in the minority,” said O’Sullivan. “Some groupings have lost a lot.”

GARDA RESPONSE

“We are constantly undermining, dismantling, and arresting criminal groupings. We are seizing greater quantities of drugs,” O’Sullivan said.

UN research, revealed in the Irish Examiner last February, provided grim reading, with estimates that just 3% of heroin being shipped into Ireland is being seized.

Irish experts, and internal garda estimates, suggest the percentage is higher than that, between 5% and 8%.

But it’s still just a fraction of the total and a stark reminder of what law enforcement is up against.

Not that Ireland is unusual, with the UN report estimating typical interception rates in western Europe being between 2% and 6%.

O’Sullivan said he did not know how these estimates were calculated, given the hidden nature of the market.

“We are certainly seizing more. I don’t know what percentage of the total. We work very hard to seize as much drugs as possible and we’re very successful.

“A lot of criminal enterprises have been set up and we have them caught on their first shipment or second, or before they kick off. Huge numbers of people are arrested.”

He added: “There are seizures throughout Europe that we are responsible for. I’m not saying we are going to stop the trade.”

Irish seizure figures fluctuate and depend on various factors, including ‘freak’ seizures and the amount of resources deployed to the fight.

Resources play a significant part in garda work against organised crime, from gathering intelligence to conducting surveillance, from search operations to long-term operations, from murder investigations to mounting armed checkpoints and patrols.

O’Sullivan said the Guerin investigation showed — as have the Kinahan-Hutch investigations this year — the benefits of pumping resources into the gardaí.

“You put big resources into any investigation, not only will it be more effective, but you’ll also inflict collateral damage on other criminal organisations.

“You’ll get a lead that one guy is getting drugs from another guy, and another guy you’ll find out had a bank account. It just spreads out like a web, as long as you keep pumping in resources.

“It’s a bit like what we are doing now, after the Regency [Hotel]. It’s the same thing.

“You starve an organisation of resources and we become less-effective. It’s just natural, whether you are talking about the Guards or the HSE.”

And the force has haemorrhaged its lifeblood under austerity, with a ban on recruitment and the removal of 2,500 gardaí from the force, together with a slashing of its overtime budget.

The Department of Justice estimates that it will take until 2020 to bring garda numbers to 14,000 (they were 14,500 in 2010).

The threat posed by organised crime, in terms of gangland murders and the danger to the State, peaked in the mid- to late 2000s.

If one image summed up that threat, it was the two-fingered salute Limerick criminal, Liam Keane, gave outside the courts in 2003, when a murder prosecution against him collapsed after six witnesses recanted statements implicating him.

Gangland murders reached 21 in 2006, and 20 in 2010, the two worst years on record.

It was a time of the continuing Limerick feud and the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud, and the murderous Eamonn Dunne gang.

Just like 1996, the threat then posed by organised crime resulted in a swath of new laws, often attracting criticism, and concern, from legal experts and human rights groups.

The measures included:

  • *Criminal Justice Act, 2006 (allowing statements to be used if a witness recants, a new definition of a criminal organisation, a new offence of participation in a gang, and mandatory minimum sentences for firearms)
  • *Criminal Justice Act, 2007 (higher mandatory sentences for repeat offenders; changes in accused right-to-silence; seven-day detention expanded from drugs to include firearms)
  • *Criminal Justice Act, 2009 (organised crime offences automatically referred to Special Criminal Court, new offence of directing a criminal organisation, higher penalties for intimidation of witnesses and jurors, and further extension of seven-day detention)
  • *Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act, 2009 (legal power to conduct surveillance on permission of court, and, in emergencies, by senior officer).

The murders of innocent people by gangs played their part in these new measures. These victims include: Donna Cleary in August, 1996, Baiba Saulite in November, 2006, and Anthony Campbell in December, 2006, all of them in Dublin; and Shane Geoghegan in November, 2008, and Roy Collins in April, 2009, both in Limerick.

VIOLENCE

Since the mid-1990s, gardaí have had to deal with several worsening trends in gangland, both of them often interlinked: violence and feuds.

“The violence is worse,” said assistant garda commissioner O’Sullivan. “If you look at gangland murders in recent years, they have gone up and down, and, at the moment, we have an intensification, but they have access to more weapons.

“We are seizing more weapons. Guns are coming in with drug shipments.”

Crime gangs have attempted to import rocket launchers, including foiled separate efforts by gangs in the Limerick feud and the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud.

The terrifying reality of the firepower available to gangs became the seminal image of 2016: two men, dressed in false garda riot gear, and brandishing two military assault rifles outside the steps of the Regency Hotel, in north Dublin, on a Friday afternoon in early February.

“It was a Veronica Guerin moment,” said O’Sullivan. “It’s another milestone in criminal history, one that you could look back on and say ‘do you remember that’.

“It was unprecedented to see them do that in the middle of the day. Was it unprecedented to have guys with machine guns in the middle of the day going to do some sort of crime? Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t.”

The Chester Beatty Library, in Dublin Castle, to mark this week’s 20th anniversary of Veronica Guerin’s death, were Miriam O’Callaghan,Jimmy Guerin (Veronica’s brother) and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald
The Chester Beatty Library, in Dublin Castle, to mark this week’s 20th anniversary of Veronica Guerin’s death, were Miriam O’Callaghan,Jimmy Guerin (Veronica’s brother) and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald

Indeed, an AK47 was the weapon used on Garda Jerry McCabe, 20 years ago.

While one person was shot dead at the Regency Hotel, the toll could have been an awful lot higher.

The response to that ‘declaration of war’, as some gardaí have described it, by the Hutch gang on the Kinahan cartel, could not have been predicted.

Within three days, the cartel went into the Hutch heartland, in the north inner city, amidst a high garda presence, and shot dead Eddie Hutch, brother of Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch, an infamous figure from the time of Veronica Guerin.

But the murders did not end there: four more were carried out on the orders of the Kinahan cartel. And gardaí don’t think the onslaught is over.

Recently, a suspected hit team was apprehended on its way to kill someone else in the Hutch gang.

The intensity of the feud is unprecedented.

The two other major feuds, lasting over a decade each, were the Limerick feud, which claimed 12 lives, and the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud, which claimed 16.

“Feuds are part and parcel of criminal life. It’s the nature and mindset of the people you are dealing with,” said O’Sullivan.

“Criminal groups get together and they implode [like the Crumlin-Drimnagh gang and the Kinahan cartel]. They are friends one minute, then they shoot each other.

“The thing about feuds is they tend to drag on for a long time and they [the murders] are difficult to solve. These are difficult and dangerous people and it can become generational [like the Limerick feud].”

Gardaí have gone beyond the call of duty, policing these feuds: having their lives, and their families, threatened; having pipe bombs placed at their homes; having guns pointed at their faces; having shots fired at them and in, some cases, having been killed.

Just like Garda McCabe before him (the previous officer to be slain on duty), Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe wasn’t given a chance to draw his weapon on the night of January 25, 2013. He was protecting a cash delivery

A member of a criminal gang, comprising dangerous young men from both sides of the border, blasted him at close range in the car park of Lordship Credit Union, outside Dundalk.

Just a couple of years later, on October 11, 2015, Garda Tony Golden, an unarmed, uniformed member, was shot dead as he intervened in a domestic situation — and again was given no chance to protect himself.

It’s all part of a trend, since the mid-1990s, of violent young men having access to high-powered weapons.

“One of the difficulties, now, is that they use cocaine when they go and do a shooting and, sometimes, they are just incompetent,” said O’Sullivan. “They fire five or six shots at someone and miss them. Mad stuff.”

Or, worse still, an innocent person is killed, such as homeless man Martin O’Rourke, who was shot dead last March in a reckless shooting by a ‘gun for hire’ working for the Kinahan cartel.

“People got shot in the mid-1990s, but people are more violent now and more ready to shoot than in the mid-1990s,” said O’Sullivan.

“They have got more guns and they are certainly more violent. The dynamic has changed.”

And that dynamic has hit the most disadvantaged and troubled communities the hardest, inflicting murderous feuds, drug-related intimidation, and widespread fear among individuals, families, and localities.

Attacked, on one side, by gangs and drugs, these communities were attacked, on the other side, by the dismantling of hard-fought structures and funding programmes under austerity.

All the while, local gang bosses bought multiple properties, built them into mini-fortresses, purchased top-of-the-range vehicles, holidayed with their families throughout the year, went to foreign sporting events, and sent their children to private schools.

Vulnerable young people are brought into a lucrative, but deadly, trade, where the odds of making it into your 40s, even your 30s, sometimes even your 20s, are long.

All of this under the noses of community workers.

UNTOUCHABLES

So, 20 years on, what has changed? What is Veronica Guerin’s legacy?

“It’s like nothing has changed in 20 years,” Graham Turley, Veronica’s husband, said recently on the Sean O’Rourke Show.

“Crime in Dublin is exactly the same. Nothing has changed, there’s a shooting every week.”

He said the fact that new gardaí now start on a salary of €23,000, which is less than people in supermarkets and restaurants, was “scandalous”.

Resources should be “limitless” for the gardaí, he said.

He said gardaí should have “everything they need,” and cited the resources given to retired assistant commissioner, Tony Hickey, and the Lucan team investigating his wife’s murder.

As in 1996, journalists in 2016 are living with threats, this time from Kinahan bosses in Dublin.

When the Gilligan gang murdered Veronica Guerin, John Gilligan was considered untouchable.

In much of the 2000s, the McCarthy-Dundons thought they were untouchable.

And in 2016, the leaders of Kinahan cartel appear to be untouchable, ordering from abroad the most intense murder campaign ever seen in gangland in Ireland.

But garda investigations brought down the Gilligan gang and jailed the leadership of the Dundon, Collopy, and Keane gangs.

The Criminal Assets Bureau has hit all the bosses of these outfits.

Back in 2010, Operation Shovel rattled the Kinahan cartel, including boss, Christopher Kinahan, but has failed to deliver body blows in terms of prosecutions in Spain.

Last March, the assets of the gang were hit again, this time the ‘higher echelons’ of the cartel in Ireland.

Some 29 luxury cars and six, high-powered motorbikes, some worth up to €75,000, were taken away from fortified homes and garages linked to the syndicate.

The images stunned much of the nation and gave a sharp reminder of the wealth being enjoyed by gang bosses.

Since it was set up, in 1996, CAB has seized €50m worth of property from criminals and collected €150m in taxes.

Not that CAB’s task is easy, as Gilligan’s continuing fight in the courts demonstrates.

CAB’s reach has not satisfied many local communities, who, for decades, have called for mini-CABs to target local bosses who openly display their wealth.

A Special Crime Task Force is being set up to target these individuals.

And another task force for the north inner city is being set up to address some of the fundamental factors feeding the gang and drug trade.

But O’Sullivan is firm on the supposed invincibility of gang bosses.

“Nobody’s untouchable, however far they are away. People who thought they were untouchable were caught.

“A lot of people left this country and thought ‘I’ll be alright’ and some people amassed wealth and believed their own propaganda and thought they were invincible.

“The next thing they realised ‘Jesus, I’m not’, my empire is falling down around me.”

So could the leaders of the Kinahan gang face the same fate as Gilligan and Meehan?

“Absolutely. This idea some guy made a lot of money and is living outside the jurisdiction, and ‘ah he’ll never be caught’, absolutely not. No. No.”

Perhaps, that is the legacy of Veronica Guerin.

Plaque in the Chester Beatty library garden, in Dublin Castle, honouring Guerin
Plaque in the Chester Beatty library garden, in Dublin Castle, honouring Guerin

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