Fears over Christmas car crime spree after 'Divis Hoods' return to threaten terror on streets of Belfast
A notorious west Belfast car crime gang has resurfaced and is causing terror across many parts of the city.
Calling themselves the Divis Hoods Liberation Army (DHLA), the gang - mainly made up of teenage boys - is believed to have been responsible for a number of recent hijackings and violent car thefts across Belfast.
The cars have been used for so-called "joyrides" before being abandoned, smashed up or burnt out in the west of the city.
In the space of just nine days this month, 21 stolen cars were discovered burnt out in the Divis area of the lower Falls Road, according to community workers.
Those responsible are believed to be a number of gang members recently released from prison.
It is understood they have been hijacking and stealing vehicles mainly from streets across south and east Belfast and have most recently been targeting the Glengormley area. The cars are then driven through the streets of west Belfast, often in broad daylight, until they crash or run out of petrol.
A few weeks ago a mother and her young children narrowly escaped serious injury as they walked home from school after a stolen car mounted a kerb and almost knocked them over, according to eyewitnesses.
Many of the gang members had previously been jailed following a major police operation three years ago in response to a spate of high-profile carjackings in Belfast city centre. The majority of the offenders have been released from prison due to time served.
Some gang members have recently armed themselves with machetes and crossbows and it is feared they are planning to attempt a Christmas car crime spree. However, police and community workers have joined forces to monitor the gang and are intent on disrupting their activities.
"Everyone in the area knows who these car thieves are. They are boasting about it all over social media because they know they either won't be caught, or if they are they'll only serve a few weeks in jail," one community representative said.
"These people are ruining lives in the area and they are ruining people's livelihoods," He added: "The police seem to be powerless against these thugs.
"They arrest them, bring them to court, and they are out after a few weeks. These people need to be stopped. They are going to kill someone."
PSNI statistics show that in the last year there were more than 2,200 car thefts or related car crimes across Belfast - more than 40 a week.
More than 80 of those crimes were hijackings. Police in west Belfast have acknowledged that "vehicle nuisance behaviour has been particularly problematic in the Divis area".
As part of the area's policing plan, the PSNI has said that "police have been working to reduce this anti-social behaviour through robust patrolling, youth education and deployment of specialist teams focusing on car crime".
Sinn Fein councillor Fra McCann, who lives in the area, said he believed a recent surge in the gang's activity had been due to the release of a number of offenders from prison.
"They terrorise people in the area. We are continually trying to get on top of this. New Year's Eve was one of the worst nights. They took over the Falls Road.
"We are working with residents groups and the police to make sure they don't get a chance to do the same this year," said Mr McCann.