Sunday, 9 February 2003

As the price of cocaine falls, the number of users skyrockets

Sunday February 09 2003
The drug cartels of Columbia are flooding Ireland with cocaine,the new drug of choice, writes Jimmy Guerin

ON the street and in the pubs and clubs where cocaine is now the drug of choice for thousands, even the slang has changed to fit the times. Once an exclusive 'hit' was described affectionately by its upper-income devotees as Charlie, but today the argot has shifted.

Coke is simply a 'wrap', a word shorn of any glamour, describing merely the package in which the drug is sold.

Today Ireland possesses the dubious distinction of being the third largest consumer of cocaine inEurope.

The drug is more widely available than ever before and a network of distributors preys on cities, towns and even villages around the country.

Coke is no longer an elitist drug. It is not that people have more money, rather that usage has grown because the price has dropped. A deal or wrap can be bought for as little as €40. There are now many more people involved in the distribution of cocaine and it is no longer only controlled by the organised criminals who had established contacts, mostly in Amsterdam in the past.

In an attempt to test cocaine's new availability, I visited one of Dublin's most exclusive night spots, with another reporter from this newspaper. I had been told there were dealers working in the club, where many visiting celebrities mix with the city's socialites.

We arrived at 11.20pm on Thursday last and were told that the club would not be open until 11.30pm as a private function was being held there. The polite and friendly staff told us to return at 11.30pm or any time after that.

On returning to the club, however, we were refused admission despite being on the guest list and told it was a strictly members night. It was obvious, and later confirmed, that they knew who we were, and obviously suspected that we were chasing a story.

I was aware of others attending that night, and was able to make contact by phone. Shortly after 2.30am the information came back. I received a call confirming that my contact had purchased coke from a person known as a dealer in the club.

The fact of the deal was not a surprise to me. What did surprise me was that it had taken so long to acquire the drug, and that it was so expensive. My contact was charged €100 for cocaine which is probably less than 30 per cent pure.

This is just one of many venues around the city where drugs like cocaine can be purchased. Gardai now accept that coke is one of the most widely used drugs in Ireland.

The reasons for the drug's proliferation are not hard to find. Increased prosperity has played its part, but a new arrival in Ireland's drug underworld has perhaps brought the most significant shift.

In the last two years, drug cartels from Colombia have set up gangs in France and Spain with a view to supplying the European market directly. Recent crackdowns in America have led the Colombians to seek new areas to sell cocaine. It is the Colombians who have flooded the European market, bringing the price of cocaine crashing.

Ireland was soon identified as a lucrative market by the Europe-based Colombian gangs.

Traffickers came to Dublin to identify people to act as their distributors and pushers. They befriended people who were both users and petty criminals and soon these were acting as the cartels' Irish distributors.

They would only be supplied with small quantities, normally a few kilos a time.

These pushers would cut and pack their own drugs and then sell directly to users. Today the new distributors are concentrating on night-clubs and pubs to sell their drugs. In some cases a dealer looks after the doormen at a venue, and in return is freely allowed to sell cocaine to customers.

If someone else tries to sell at these premises the doormen remove them, using the drug-dealing as an excuse to bar the interloper. In effect, dealers have established a kind of franchise, and for this they pay a fee.

They can easily afford it. The pushers are making up to €25,000 per week and are mostly unknown to the Gardai. They operate in just one or two clubs and have their own customer base. Their activity is not large enough that it would come to the attention of the drug squad.

The Colombians, who have now established about 60 such distributors in Ireland, have succeeded in cutting out the middleman, and make millions each year from their dealings in this country. Ireland has become one of the most profitable locations for them in Europe.

Their supply chain, too, has become increasingly sophisticated. Cartel members have recruited a number of drug couriers, and have been known to approach innocent holidaymakers abroad and offer them up to €1,000 to carry back a few kilos.

This has proved hugely successful for the drug suppliers, and has ensured more and more cocaine is getting through. They have designed special cloths in which they wrap the cocaine. Under airport X-ray examination the packages are impossible to distinguish from ordinary towels.

The use of people who are on holidays allows for easier passage, because tourists are not often targeted by customs officers. Usually, too, people return from holiday in the early hours when there are few, if any, customs men present at the airports.

Many recent gangland killings can be attributed to the drug business. Young thugs are now fighting for dominance in an ever-growing market, and the drug distributors are happy to supply them with powerful weapons in an effort to protect their share of the market.

However, this fighting is mostly related to street trading.

Cocaine has now replaced a large amount of the heroin which was being dealt on the streets of Dublin.

Once seen as an exotic sideline in Ireland's fight against drugs, the effects of the cocaine explosion are now a significant worry.

Cocaine, freely available and disturbingly cheap, is beginning to be used to make the highly addictive drug crack. It is an alarming development with potentially devastating consequences.

Where this has happened in other countries, there has been a huge increase in violent crime.

The arrival of crack-cocaine in Ireland, gardai admit, could threaten to become one of the most catastrophic drug problems the country has ever faced.