Belfast Telegraph

The battle of wits against drug world's Mr Bigs

PSNI: the minnows can be replaced, but we are after the ones at the top

By Deborah McAleese

Police in Northern Ireland seized more than £9m of illegal drugs last year during a series of successful sting operations against organised crime gangs involved in the worldwide narcotics trade.

Millions of pounds worth of cannabis, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy were taken out of circulation by teams of officers from the PSNI's Organised Crime Branch who are dedicated to bringing down the crime bosses involved in the mass transportation and distribution of drugs.

"Our focus is on those involved in importation, supply and distribution of controlled drugs into Northern Ireland. Our main aim is to try and prevent the drugs from hitting the streets in the first place," said Detective Chief Inspector Shaun McKee.

Cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy are widely available throughout Northern Ireland. However, the crack and heroin markets remain much smaller here than in other parts of the UK or the Republic of Ireland.

DCI McKee and his teams of detectives are involved in the investigation and infiltration of the gangs involved in the drugs trade.

The province's gangsters are active at all levels of the local drugs trade, from importation to street level distribution.

A large number of foreign nationals are also heavily involved in trafficking drugs into Northern Ireland from Colombia, Peru, South Africa and many European countries.

"The gangs are complicated and they use tight networks of trusted associates and runners to do the dirty work because the people at the top of the ladders of the criminal gangs don't tend to be hands- on. They have others doing the running for them," said Mr McKee.

In order to catch the drug bosses police have to identify the routes the smugglers are taking and the methods being used.

"The routes they take, the methods of importation, the vehicles they use, are all very cunning. It takes them maybe a few years to establish a tried-and-tested route that they are comfortable with," explained DCI McKee.

"The difficulty for police is that it can sometimes take a year or two to identify the route, the drivers and the methods of concealment.

"The drugs are being hidden in false compartments in lorries, false fuel tanks, false floors; they are panelled into cars that have been stripped down and welded back together.

"We track these guys from the time they leave Northern Ireland, go purchase the drugs and bring it back in. We want to see who the drugs are coming back to," he added.

The crime bosses keep themselves removed from the dirty business of smuggling and distributing and it can be difficult to secure enough evidence to ensure a successful prosecution.

That is when police go after their assets.

"Where financial benefit is believed to have been accrued by a crime gang we go straight into their bank accounts, look at their incomes and lifestyle and ask how does that person pay for their lifestyle when they cannot explain it," said DCI McKee.

He said financial investigators build up a picture to show these gangsters are "sitting at the top of the criminal tree".

"There was a case recently where the chap kept himself a fair distance from the drugs, but he ended up taking £40,000 in a suitcase on his way to Spain.

"He was convicted of money laundering and attempting to remove what we said was criminal property.

"He got 18 months in jail and we took £80,000 off him, as well as seizing the £40,000," the top officer said.

He added: "It is easy for us to take out the local, low-hanging fruit - the people running a kilo of cannabis up the Antrim Road-type thing. But we are trying to focus on the big guys. The minnows can be replaced.

"There is someone else willing to come in and do a run up the road for £200.

"We are going after the Mr and Mrs Bigs, that is our job and that is what we are about."

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