The Westies' Spanish exiles might well have met a grisly end. Or they could be regrouping
FOR A duo that once believed themselves to be indestructible, the 'disappearance' of Westies leader Shane Coates and his sidekick Stephen Sugg may be the latest act of desperation following the crumbling of their drug empire.
Coates and Sugg have kept some dangerous company since they fled to Spain last year, and it is entirely plausible that a disagreement over drugs or money could have led to them being kidnapped and killed as has been alleged during the week. However, a bogus kidnapping could allow them the chance to lay low for a while.
Gardaí have been eager to speak to Coates since he fled from Ireland after a shootout with officers of the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) in Cavan last May.
Coates recently got into a series of rows with Spanishbased criminals. The pair are also believed to be involved with a British drug gang with links to associates of top loyalist Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair.
Some of Adair's associates in the UDA fled to Lancashire in England after being expelled from Belfast during last year's inter-loyalist feud.
They quickly became involved in the drug scene in northern England.
A further twist in the plot emerged when it was revealed that Coates may have received ?50,000 from a Dublin drug boss to pass onto an associate in Spain who was living with the daughter of jailed drug dealer John Gilligan. The associate of the Dublin drug dealer has since died, and there have been allegations that this money may not have been passed on, leading to further potential friction in the criminal underworld.
In recent months, Garda sources believe the duo were planning to re-claim their stake in the lucrative drug market of west Dublin, but were playing a dangerous game of buying drugs without the cash to back it up.
If they were kidnapped, or are on the run, and the offence committed was failure to pay their debts, it may be the last west Dublin will see of Coates and Sugg. Spanish police have shown little interest in the case, making it even more difficult to understand what has happened to the Westies' leaders. While initial reports said the duo were dead, an associate of Sugg has since contacted his family to assure them he is fine.
When they ruled their lucrative drugs empire on the west side of Dublin's northside, the Westies operated with chilling ruthlessness, often employing needlessly gratuitous violence against their adversaries. In Alicante and Costa Blanca, it seems, Coates and Sugg were muscle without power.
If Coates and Sugg are alive, it is not for a lack of enemies at home. One theory, almost gaining consensus, is that the assassination last year of Sugg's brother Bernard was carried out by a rival drug dealer based in Donaghmede, north Dublin, who wanted a piece of the Westies' Mulhuddart and Blanchardstown drugs trade for himself. The reality may be less certain. Involvement by republican paramilitaries has not been ruled out, one well-placed Garda source told the Sunday Tribune.
"Their (republican) representatives were sent away with bruises when they came looking for contributions from the (Westies) gang. With something like this, they weren't dealing with the junkies that they normally terrorised into submission." Criminals such as John Gilligan and Dutch exile John Cunningham made more money; the General, Martin Cahill, was smarter; but the Westies were fearless, fearsome and savage, and netted an estimated ?2m a year over three years.
Thirty-one year-old Coates and Sugg, 26, were friends since their teens in the working class Corduff estate on Dublin's northside and had stolen cars together, leading to numerous convictions. In the late 1990s, they saw a vacuum in the hash and heroin trade in northside Dublin and moved in with brutal effectiveness.
For over four years they conducted their affairs with relative impunity. Despite several parallel investigations, gardaí have not, to this date, laid so much as a soft glove on them. At times, gardaí constructed seemingly watertight cases that for various reasons fell apart. The Westies were adept at threatening and attacking those who could give evidence against them long before the concept of witness intimidation reached public awareness during the Limerick feud-related Eric Leamy murder trial last November.
The secret to the Westies' success lay in the level of fear they instilled both in those who worked for them and in their enemies. Junkies and dealers who owed as little as £10 were severely beaten.
One mother of four was tortured by having her breasts burned with cigarette butts, in front of her children. The only people who could finger the gang lived in absolute fear of their wrath.
The Westies' gang encouraged brutality among its network of pushers. One junkie, Derek 'Smiley' McGuinness, from Corduff Park in Blanchardstown, owed the gang £200. He was set upon by two other pushers who, along with Sugg, smashed all his teeth, slashed him across the face and beat him with an iron bar in a public park. McGuinness gave a statement to gardaí identifying Sugg.
Forty-three-year-old rival heroin dealer Pascal Boland had seen tough men when he dealt with the notorious PJ Judge, a particularly violent drug dealer who was assasinated some years ago. He decided to push in on the Westies' turf and between October 1998 and January 1999 he reportedly imported several major heroin shipments.
A Westies' pusher who helped Boland was severely beaten and told to pass a mobile phone number to Boland. When the older criminal rang the number he was allegedly told to get off the Westies' patch or he was dead. He told the gang leader to "fuck off. . . you're nobodies". On 27 January 1999, a gunman fired 11 bullets into Boland's body.
It was the Westies' first big mistake, allowing gardaí in Blanchardstown to mount a special investigation into the gang's activities. Increased surveillance and intelligence gathering generated new leads for the gardaí.
But Coates was no fool and he proved elusive. Neither he nor senior gang members dealt directly with their merchandise and seemed almost untouchable.
But gardaí got a boost from an unexpected source when, in October 1999, Westies henchmen shot 18-year-old Blanchardstown local Paul Dempsey in his bed, disconnecting his right calf muscle from his leg with one shot.
His offence? The teen was so bold as to date Sugg's 16-yearold sister Frances without the elder brother's permission. Dempsey's brother Robert was a friend of Sugg's but he was beaten with an iron bar. Dempsey and his brother agreed to give evidence in court.
Evidence from both Dempsey and McGuinness could put the senior gang members away for a long time, and hopes were high that stronger prosecutions might emerge once the pair were off the street.
Coates spent 14 months on remand. But by October 2000 the cases against the pair were in shreds. Nobody forgot for too long that to mess with the Westies was to invite a painful death. Neither Dempsey nor McGuinness would give evidence in court.
Between the end of 2000 and late 2002 the gang brazenly stamped their authority on the west Dublin territory. Three small-time drug pushers were tortured and shot over bad debts. Gardaí believe a large number of people who fell foul of the gang were beaten and tortured with knives, vice grips and iron bars.
But by the middle of last year, things had gone almost irrevocably wrong for Coates and Sugg. They had stepped on someone's toes once too often and had clearly come up against a rival who was unimpressed by their terror tactics.
Sugg panicked after an attempt on his life 12 months ago and fled to Alicante. He was joined there by Coates three months later, after he was injured in a shootout with members of the Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU) at a safe house in Cavan. Gardaí believe the pair have some loose connections to a number of expatriate Irish criminals in Costa Blanca, most of whom are small-scale compared to the north African and eastern European gangs that run hashish, heroin and prostitution rackets via the Mediterranean country.
The final strike against the Westies' empire occurred in their absence, when Bernard Sugg was assassinated in a Blanchardstown pub last August. Another drug criminal, republican paramilitaries, or both? Either way, someone else had decided that the Westies were finished.
Whether Coates and Sugg expected an easier ride in their Spanish exile is uncertain, but last week, there was a sense of inevitability in their failure to frighten hardened Alicante-based criminals into submission, in the same manner that they brutalised west Dublin's junkies.
CRIMINALS IN EXILE
THE growing fraternity of Irish expats living in Spain and Holland includes some of the most notorious names in the Dublin drugs scene of recent years.
Among these is Dubliner Peter Mitchell, 34, based in Fuengirola, Spain. Mitchell is wanted in connection with his alleged role in what was believed to be the largest drugs gang in the capital in the 1980s.
George 'The Penguin' Mitchell, 51, allegedly continues to run his hash business from Holland. He was a suspected member of the £30m Beit art robbery gang led by Martin Cahill in the 1980s.
Tommy Savage, 53, was arrested last month in Amsterdam amid claims that he was selling drugs into Ireland and Greece. He was a prominent dealer along with Michael Weldon, 49, who also . ed the country fearing a Garda investigation in 1993.
Weldon reportedly has his own plane and pilot's licence, and frequently flies to South America. He is believed to be living in Spain, as is John 'The Coach' Traynor.
Some Irish drug dealers have met horri. c deaths facing foreign gangs. In May 2000, two young men from Tipperary and one from Ennis ? who were involved in drug manufacturing in Schevingen in Holland ? were tortured and killed.
February 15, 2004