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Recession forces cocaine gangs to move into the booming illegal cigarette market

contraband tobacco

First published: February 22, 2010

Source: Irish Times

THE SMOKE SMUGGLERS: In the second part of our series, Crime Correspondent CONOR LALLY looks at the role of former republicans and organised crime gangs in the counterfeit cigarette industry

WHEN GARDAÍ and Customs officers staged a major raid on suspected cigarette smugglers in Monaghan last November they found something there weren’t expecting.

Instead of the usual large boxes of cigarettes – either fake imports or legitimately produced smokes on which import duties had not been paid – the authorities found evidence of a very sophisticated operation.

A search of a truck parked in a yard in smuggling country near Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, yielded enough tobacco, cigarette paper, filters and packaging for 12 million cigarettes.

“It would have been processed into finished packets of smokes at an illegal processing plant somewhere along the Border; that’s how sophisticated the smugglers are now,” said one well-placed source.

The haul, which was valued at €5 million and has been traced back to a Danish port, had entered the Republic by car ferry from Holyhead.

Customs officers checked the container freight using an X-ray scanner at Dublin Port. The X-rays showed that whatever was in the 40ft container was not the paper products mentioned in the shipping documents.

The container was placed under surveillance, and after being collected at the port by a truck driver, was followed to the townland of Creevy, near Carrickmacross, where it was due to be collected by those behind the smuggling operation.

They obviously suspected the authorities were on to them and didn’t turn up to receive the drop; the truck’s lucrative cargo was left to the Garda and Customs team.

The lorry driver was questioned and released. There wasn’t any evidence to identify the borderlands gang behind the haul.

A massive shipment had been taken off the streets, but nobody was caught. It’s a familiar pattern in the booming and expanding cigarette smuggling trade, which cost the exchequer €400 million last year in taxes and duties forgone.

Senior gardaí who spoke to The Irish Times said that during the Troubles the contraband and counterfeit cigarette trade was dominated by the Provisional IRA. Many of those involved were based in Co Louth, across the Border in South Armagh, and at a number of other locations along the Border.

The proceeds of the trade – and that of diesel laundering and smuggling, which the Provisional IRA also specialised in – mainly went to “the movement”.

“At the height of it they weren’t only funding a terrorist campaign both here and in Britain – they also had to find money to look after their people, prisoners’ families and so on,” said one Garda source.

The same source said while republicans were responsible for sourcing and importing the cigarettes, they worked with “ordinary decent criminals” in the distribution of the contraband around the country.

“You had drivers delivering the stuff to places like markets in towns and villages, to street dealers mainly in Dublin and the other cities, and to shops that would take them and sell them,” said another source.

Senior officers familiar with the trade say since the disbandment of the Provisional IRA, many former members who had organised the cigarette smuggling, and those criminals they had worked with, continue to dominate the illegal trade, working purely for personal gain.

“Some of the drugs gangs are involved, but we still pretty much see a separation between what you could define as smugglers on the one hand and what the media calls gangland,” said a Garda source.

A number of former members of the Provisional IRA based in Co Louth who are now centrally involved in the Real IRA were heavily involved in cigarette smuggling for years, and remain so.

When haulier Ciarán Smyth was shot dead aged 39 in Co Louth in 2001, it emerged he was a key player in the cigarette smuggling trade, who worked with the Real IRA.

The Provisional IRA’s alleged former chief of staff, Thomas “Slab” Murphy, has also been linked to cigarette smuggling. A large quantity of cigarettes was found on his lands during a major Garda raid in March 2006.

The former Provisional IRA men, current Real IRA members and the “ordinary decent criminals” they work with have built an impressive network of contacts internationally – from the US to Eastern Europe and the Far East – from whom they source massive shipments of cigarettes.

The 120 million cigarettes, valued at €50 million, seized in Greenore port in Co Louth last October, for example, have been traced to the Philippines. A criminal syndicate of formerly active republicans and “smuggler criminals” around the Border was behind the haul.

Some gangland figures hit by the recession, mainly due to the falling demand for cocaine from recreational users, have begun to smuggle cigarettes, though the diversification is still in its infancy.

The same small number of gangs has also become involved in growing cannabis plants in industrial-sized growing facilities, a number of which have been found by gardaí in recent months in Meath, Donegal and Wicklow.

“They’re looking to get into anything to make a few extra quid now that the cocaine market has fallen very flat,” said one Garda source.

The Keane gang in Limerick has long been involved in smuggled cigarettes and have had some consignments seized from them.

Some cases taken by the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab) in recent years offer an insight into the wealth that has been amassed by some smugglers.

Last month, Barry O’Brien of Oaktate, Stonetown, Carrickmacross Road, Dundalk, had three houses and €70,000 in cash seized by the Cab. He was also unable to explain the source of almost €300,000 that had gone through one of his bank accounts. O’Brien was once charged with cigarette smuggling in the North, but fled.

Dublin criminal Noel Duggan (49) became so heavily involved in cigarette smuggling he became known as Mr Kingsize. In 2003, the Cab confiscated a five-storey apartment and retail block owned by him that was valued at €4 million.

The Cab presented him with a demand for €4 million in respect of unpaid taxes after a three-year investigation revealed he was involved in smuggling and distributing cigarettes around the State.

However, Garda sources say crime gangs and traditional smugglers who want to build considerable wealth would need to import and sell a constant flow of cigarettes.

Sources point out that smugglers have to pay for the cigarettes and their transport to Ireland from their country of origin.

Once they reach Ireland they are sold by the key players to black market wholesalers. They can then be sold on a number of times to middle men before they reach street dealers.

“All those people have to get their cut, and the packs of 20 only sell on the streets for half the price of genuine cigarettes, so every pack is being sold for peanuts by the guys at the top of the chain here,” said one source.

Another source points out that drugs gangs have been slow to muscle in on cigarette smuggling because the margin of profit is much smaller than with drugs.

“A packet of 20 cigarettes that sells for around €4 on the streets here can be bought at source overseas for around 50 cent.

“But in South America you can get a kilo of coke for around €800 once you buy in bulk. When you get it to Ireland it’s worth €70,000. You just don’t get that sort of profit in cigarettes.”

Another senior Garda officer offers an interesting view: “The recession means the people going to nightclubs and parties doing lots of cocaine definitely don’t have the same spending power as before. So the drugs trade has been hit very badly.

“But the opposite is happening with the cigarettes. The black market smokes are half the price of the ones sold legitimately in shops, so in the recession that means the demand for them is going to be massive.”

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