Sunday, 16 May 2004

The coast is clear for drug smugglers

Sunday Tribune

John Burke
Ireland's coastline is vulnerable. With the second largest maritime area in the EU, the resources available for patrolling these waters by the authorities is relatively minuscule.

Experts say that the equivalent on land would be two garda cars for the entire country.

This lack of capacity in the naval service ? and the lack of will at government level to address the situation ? has not gone unnoticed. Expatriate Irish criminals, and the increasing number of ethnic gangs to which they are allied, have realised that the lonely waters off the Irish coast and many secluded bays and inlets in the south and west offer a perfect transit point to bring cannabis, heroin and other drugs into the state and from there to mainland Europe.

Last week's seizure of precursor chemicals with a potential street value of .500m at a Walkinstown warehouse is just the latest sign that Ireland is increasingly seen as a soft target for the transit of illegal drugs.

Figures for seizures of illegal drugs indicate increased activity by smugglers. Last year, gardaí and customs seized over .100m worth of illicit drugs entering the state ? virtually double the amount for 2002.

While gardaí have always said it is impossible to value the illegal drugs trade accurately here, international experts estimate that national law enforcement agencies intercept about one-tenth of domestic drugs traffic.

In 2002, this calculation would have valued the illicit drugs trade here at around .500m. Last year, that value had spectacularly doubled to .1bn. Last week's seizure has seen the figure increase fivefold in the first six months of 2004.

Michael Colgan, director of the Customs National Drugs Team (CNDT), who was central to last week's success, said intelligence available to his agency ? and supported by arrest figures in relation to trafficking offences ? indicate that West African gang members are becoming strongly established in the Irish drugs trade, creating a new dynamic for law enforcement bodies.

There is also growing evidence that Chinese Triad gangs based in Ireland and the UK are rapidly becoming the leading criminal gangs directing drugs trafficking.

Gardaí reluctantly admit that they know far less about the activities of the Chinese Triads than about other European criminals.

Garda sources say it is believed that at least three Triad factions are operating in Dublin at present, and are heavily involved in running brothels, in addition to their involvement in trafficking drugs to and from the UK and China.

"Both intelligence information and statistical data show that a new phenomenon is emerging that suggests drugs gangs are becoming increasingly globalised. This presents significant new challenges for us, " Colgan said. "In terms of defending our coast against illegal drugs trafficking, we started from a position of high risk due to the size of our coastline." The precursor chemicals found by gardaí last week had the capacity to manufacture 50 million ecstacy tablets, worth half-a-billion euro on the street, and .37.5m worth of amphetamines. Garda sources said the drugs were possibly diverted here after significant success by Dutch customs in seizing large volumes of precursor chemicals.

Last week's seizure, while successful from an intervention perspective, suggests a worrying prospect for law enforcement agencies here ? the paucity of information on the movements of emerging non-national gangs combined with the influence of Irish criminals on the continent.

One senior garda at the national bureau of criminal investigation (NBCI) said it was proving increasingly difficult to build up effective intelligence against suspected non-national criminals.

"Obtaining information on non-national criminal gangs based here is a new phenomenon. We are reliant on information from other EU police bodies who can point to the movement of someone into the state, " he said.

However, there is increasing intelligence indicating the route that drugs entering the state are taking. Heroin, originating primarily in Afghanistan, is being trafficked via Turkey, and from there on to Holland or the UK for laboratory processing.

The bulk of cannabis originates in north Africa and is trafficked into Spain from where, like heroin, it reaches Ireland at the end of a long international chain.

Ecstasy, on the other hand is primarily trafficked from China and the Orient and then channelled through Ireland into the UK, where it will be processed before some of the consignment is sent back here for sale.

"What we have is a large number of expatriate Irish criminals, most of whom fled here after the excellent work done by the criminal assets bureau (CAB). Irish criminals based in the Netherlands and Spain are now heavily involved in trafficking drugs back into Ireland, and have extensive local knowledge to aid their criminal efforts, " Colgan said.

The growing incidence of drug trafficking on Irish shores is worrying, but hardly new. As long ago as 1994, it emerged in evidence given by the naval service at a major drugs trial that traffickers were 20 times more likely to enter Europe by transiting through Irish waters.

The eight-vessel naval service fleet, charged with protecting the country's 2,700-mile coastline, is ageing.

Only two new ships have been commissioned in recent years.

Surrounded by Europe's second-largest maritime area, Ireland's patrol capability has been described as the landbased equivalent of around two garda cars for the whole island.

It is unknown whether international drug barons read government white papers but, if they do, many will read with interest the white paper on defence. The 2001 white paper acknowledged, in paragraph 2.3.10, that the "single most important area of externally based crime arises from drug trafficking", but crucially stated that this is primarily a policing issue.

Naval service sources said this lack of state investment in capacity for patrolling Irish waters against illegal drugs shipments means that two to three vessels are on deployment at crucial times.

In coming weeks, the CNDT will acquire its first sea-going vessel, in response to the use of the south coast as a gateway for criminals bringing drugs into the country. The 21-metre boat has a capacity for a crew of eight.

Colgan admits it cannot compare with the vessels at the disposal of the naval service, but said that its brief does not prioritise patrols against drug shipments.

"The naval service is stretched very far and we need a boat of our own. Kinsale is notoriously unprotected and this is something we cannot leave unaddressed. In terms of a reliable and dedicated antidrugs fleet, we're starting out as an acorn and hopefully we'll become a tree, " Colgan said.
May 16, 2004