Dissident republicans are generating significant sums of money for their terror campaigns from fuel laundering and tobacco smuggling.
They have also been increasing their funds through armed robbery, drug smuggling, tiger kidnappings and counterfeiting.
The annual report of the Organised Crime Task Force — published yesterday by Justice Minister David Ford — said that “despite denouncing organised criminality” dissident republicans “remain largely dependant on organised crime to fund their terrorist activities”.
They are also heavily involved in extorting those suspected of involvement in organised crime, particularly the drugs trade.
Some loyalist paramilitaries remain involved in organised crime, however it is unclear how much of the activity is sanctioned by the leadership, according to the OCTF report.
Up to 180 organised crime gangs are believed to be in operation across Northern Ireland, the report revealed.
Over the past year the PSNI dismantled 23 organised crime gangs. It also either disrupted or frustrated more than 100 more.
The main threats posed by the gangs have included armed robbery, illegal money lending, fuel laundering, tiger kidnapping, human trafficking, the drugs trade and fraud.
Major police operations against human trafficking resulted in the rescue of 33 potential victims within the space of 12 months who had been forced into prostitution or trafficked for labour exploitation. Shockingly eight of those victims were children, seven of whom were UK nationals trafficked within Britain for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
The report also revealed that police last year seized illegal drugs valued at £13m.
In addition, the PSNI and Customs officials seized more than 23 million counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes.
During the past year 30 fuel laundering plants were closed down and 863,000 litres of illegal fuel with a street value of £1.3m was seized.
Over the past 12 months assets worth a further £4.5m were also seized from criminals. Of this, £1.5m was distributed among a variety of law enforcement agencies for investment in projects aimed at reducing crime and the fear of crime.
Almost £800,000 was given to community projects across Northern Ireland for a range of activities aimed at reducing crime.
Nearly 300 people were intercepted last year attempting to use Northern Ireland’s ports illegally.
According to the task force's report, in the last year detection of illegal immigrants increased by around 60% overall with 281 people intercepted attempting to abuse or help abuse Northern Ireland sea ports to illegally travel across the UK.
“Behind virtually every successful raid, every successful seizure, is a law enforcement investigation, often complex and resource-intensive and often involving more than one agency,” said Mr Ford, who is also the OCTF chairman.
“We should not lose sight of the actions taken by the various enforcement agencies. They have saved lives. They have rescued victims of human trafficking, removed illegal drugs from the streets and disrupted numerous crime gangs.”
How the rackets operate
Eight children have been rescued by police from the clutches of organised crime gangs involved in human trafficking in Northern Ireland.
The Organised Crime Taskforce said that seven of the children rescued were UK nationals, trafficked within the UK to work in the growing sex trade.
The children were among 33 people from the UK, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Slovakia, China and Austria who were rescued in the province over the past year. Seventeen were women who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation and another who had been forced into labour. Seven men were trafficked for labour exploitation.
In recent years the local vice trade has become more organised and has largely moved off street into private residences, apartment blocks and hotels, according to the OCTF report. Intelligence shows that an increasing number of brothels operating in the province have links to organised crime gangs. Human trafficking, involving crime gangs mainly from China and eastern Europe, has become a growing area of concern in Northern Ireland.
The report states there are an increasing number of cases of trafficking for labour exploitation in restaurants, hotels and the food industry.
An area of growing concern to the OCTF is illegal money lending. The economic downturn has led to alternative lending options such as credit unions, pawnbrokers, doorstep lenders, pay day loan companies and loan sharks. “Northern Ireland has been identified as a personal debt hotspot and has the highest rate of economic inactivity in the UK. Analysis carried out by the PSNI last year indicated a number of loan sharks were operating, with victims ranging from vulnerable people with drug or alcohol dependencies, to those on benefits, to small businesses,” the report said.
Benefits books and post office cards are often held as collateral against the loan. Failure to pay results in threats, physical attacks, seizure of goods or in forcing the client to carry out a crime on behalf of the loan shark.