14 arrests as anti-Mafia police help PSNI smash triad gang's £1m 'skunk' cannabis smuggling
A powerful triad gang is at the centre of a lucrative drug trafficking operation from Italy to Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
More than £1m worth of dangerous 'skunk' cannabis is believed to have been smuggled into Northern Ireland by the Asian mobsters.
A major international police investigation led by the PSNI and involving the National Crime Agency and Italy's anti-Mafia police has smashed the drug trafficking ring open.
Four men and two women, aged between 26 and 33, have been arrested at addresses across the region by detectives from the PSNI's organised crime branch in relation to drugs smuggling and money laundering.
Eight arrests have also been made in Italy by the anti-Mafia police unit, the Carabiniere.
A seventh person, a 37-year old man, was arrested in Birmingham last night.
Detective Inspector Andy Dunlop from PSNI's Organised Crime Branch said: "It is expected that the 37-year-old man will be brought to Northern Ireland for questioning tomorrow.
"Two women, aged 29 and 26, who were arrested earlier today, have since been released on police bail pending further inquiries.
"Four men, aged 33, 32, 30 and 29, all currently remain in custody assisting police with their inquiries."
A source close to the probe said that the attention of law enforcement agencies is "very much focused on a triad gang".
The PSNI has described those who have been arrested as "significant members of a crime gang".
It is understood that the gang has successfully smuggled large amounts of herbal 'skunk' cannabis in from Italy.
In a major breakthrough for the international policing operation on Tuesday, PSNI officers seized a haul of skunk worth an estimated £800,000, along with an undisclosed sum of cash, during 10 planned searches in Belfast, Greenisland, Bangor, Newtownards and Ballywalter. Italian police also carried out searches in the Prato and Bologna areas of Italy as part of the same operation.
Skunk cannabis can be particularly dangerous as it can significantly increase a user's likelihood of experiencing a psychotic episode.
Mr Dunlop said police "have established the source of a major supply of herbal cannabis trafficked into Northern Ireland".
"This is a substantial multi-agency international investigation which has involved various investigative tactics and methods - resulting in these searches, seizures and arrests," he added.
"We have seized £800,000 of herbal cannabis, but our inquiries lead us to believe that much more has already been sent from Italy to Northern Ireland. In recent months, officers in Organised Crime Branch and local districts have seized £1.2m worth of herbal cannabis as part of this operation."
The investigation is ongoing and the PSNI is maintaining close contact with Italian officers and other law enforcement agencies in the UK and Ireland.
Mr Dunlop said: "Our objective is to ensure we identify and apprehend as many of those allegedly involved in this criminality and bring them before the courts, as well as seize drugs and as many criminal assets as possible."
Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said it was a major success for the PSNI.
"Drugs have for too long been destroying the lives of children, young people and adults across Northern Ireland," he said.