Russian gangsters brazenly deal heroin at Belfast's Royal Victoria and City hospitals
A dangerous crime gang known as 'The Russians' are dealing killer heroin in the grounds of two Belfast hospitals, it can be revealed.
The gang, made up of a number of Russian and Lithuanian nationals, are believed to be main players in the city's evolving heroin trade.
In recent weeks brazen members have been actively dealing at a number of very public addresses, including the grounds of the Royal Victoria and Belfast City hospitals.
The Belfast Trust said that criminal activity of any kind on any of its sites will not be tolerated. "The grounds of our hospitals are public areas and we work closely with the PSNI to ensure a safe environment for patients and staff," a spokeswoman added.
Other popular dealing spots in recent weeks have been near the Europa Hotel, Belfast Boat Club, Queen's Playing Fields and Europa Bus and Train Station, according to security sources. The Lisburn Road and Stranmillis areas are currently very active areas for the gang's dealers.
Street level members are known to carry wraps of heroin in their mouths. If they come across police they then swallow them.
Despite the jailing last year of a man described as the "brains" behind the gang's operation - Lithuanian national Gintas Vengalis - police sources have said they are still "very active."
Vengalis is currently serving 21 months in prison after pleading guilty in May 2015 to heroin supply.
The 39-year-old was described by police and lawyers as a "principal member" of The Russians crime gang and the "brains" behind their heroin operation. One of the gang's drug runners, fellow Lithuanian national Roman Michailov, is serving 12 months in jail for supplying drugs.
He is due to be released within weeks and is expected to spend another 12 months on probation before being extradited. Both men were arrested following an undercover police operation in Belfast city centre two years ago.
"Despite Vengalis' arrest The Russians are still extremely active. They kept their heads down for a bit in 2014 after the arrests but today the gang are still very much operating and recruiting. They are a big problem," one officer told the Belfast Telegraph.
He added: "We launched Operation Envimo to tackle heroin supply in Belfast. There have been a number of successes but it's an ongoing battle." The heroin trade in Northern Ireland has become a "major headache" for the PSNI, according to officers.
At least three violent deaths since Christmas have been linked to the trade, including the murder of 28-year-old Stephen Carson, who was shot dead in front of his nine-year-old son at his Walmer Street home in the Ormeau Road area last month.
Detectives have been investigating a potential link between the heroin trade and the murder.
There is also a suspected link between the trade and the murder of 31-year-old Conor McKee, who was shot in his Belfast home in January, as well as the death of 48-year-old Ballycastle man Anthony McErlain, whose body was discovered in an upstairs flat in the town in January.
One senior officer told the Belfast Telegraph: "At least three violent deaths since Christmas have been linked to heroin. It is a major headache and increasingly so. We are seeing criminal gangs from the south now targeting the north."
In recent months there have been a number of police operations aimed at tackling the supply of heroin in the Portadown and greater Belfast areas. Last month eight men and a woman aged between 22 and 52 were arrested as part of an operation against the supply of heroin in the Portadown area.
Police also seized an estimated £4,000 worth of heroin as part of an investigation into the supply of drugs that led to two men being arrested near Hillsborough.
There is currently no hard evidence to show that heroin use in Northern Ireland is increasing, however officers have said there is concern the trade is set to "erupt".
"We are seeing gangs from the south hooking up with gangs here and heroin is where the money is for them", one officer said. Another added: "There have been attempts to play this down but it is becoming a big problem. We are just waiting for it to erupt. We feel as though we are trying to hold back a tsunami."
Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said "the warnings cannot be ignored". "We do not want to see the same explosion in this trade that has been seen in Dublin," the DUP man added.
In February the PSNI Chief Constable revealed that three Eastern European gangs were under investigation for the importation and supply of drugs in Northern Ireland.
George Hamilton said that the deployment of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in Northern Ireland has reinforced the PSNl's ability to actively target international organised crime.
While there is evidence of European drugs cartels targeting the province, Mr Hamilton said the majority of organised crime gangs linked to drugs were "of local origin".
Out of an estimated 140 criminal gangs operating here - almost two thirds are involved in drug trafficking. A handful of those focus solely on heroin.