‘Vulnerable’ victims were ‘forced to sell heroin on streets of Belfast and Republic’
The High Court is set to hear how a criminal gang has been trafficking dozens of vulnerable people from Lithuania and forcing them to sell heroin on the streets across Belfast and the Republic of Ireland since 2015.
Five suspected members of the gang were arrested late last month on extradition warrants, following co-operation between gardai, the PSNI and Lithuanian police.
In a statement, the authorities claimed the arrests of 18 people across Ireland and Lithuania had “dismantled” the alleged organised crime group.
The gang is alleged to have sought out and recruited at least 65 vulnerable Lithuanians, and lured them to the Republic and Northern Ireland with false promises of legitimate work. When they arrived they were forced to sell heroin in Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Belfast and Tralee.
Some of the vulnerable people were drug addicts themselves and may have ended up before the Irish courts for minor offences, but all 65 named individuals are considered victims of the gang’s activities by Lithuanian authorities.
The five suspected gang members appeared before the High Court on Tuesday, where dates were fixed for their extradition hearings.
Andrius Pagojus (39), who is alleged to be one of the gang’s main “organisers” across Ireland, is accused of trafficking 65 named individuals to Ireland by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities and forcing them to sell heroin through the use of violence.
Furthermore, Mr Pagojust is alleged to have organised the collection, storage and allocation of monies, including his own alleged share to pay for home improvements in Lithuania, and safe storage of tha cash, according to authorities there.
Aurimas Mecius (32) is alleged to have controlled and supervised seven of the exploited street-dealers, particularly in Waterford.
Mr Mecius is alleged to have distributed heroin himself directly and is also alleged to have beaten up one of the street dealers for losing a quantity of heroin and disobeying orders in an unknown flat in Ireland on August 15, 2017.
Donatas Ravickas (28), is alleged to have controlled and supervised at least 15 vulnerable street-dealers in Cork and Belfast and is alleged to have distributed drugs himself.
Furthermore, Mr Ravickas is alleged to have found and recruited a Mr Arturas Bogaciovas in Lithuania, in April 2018, knowing Mr Bogaciovas would be exploited to sell heroin in Ireland. Mr Bogaciovas was found dead of an alleged drug overdose before his suspected trafficking to Ireland could take place.
Rokas Venckus (29), is alleged to have controlled five of the vulnerable street-dealers particularly in Tralee, Co Kerry, and to have distributed heroin himself.
Mr Mecius, Mr Ravickas and Mr Venckus are alleged “supervisors” in the gang. They are each accused of exploiting vulnerable people by forcing them to sell heroin in Ireland, while using violence to intimidate, punish and maintain discipline. They are said to have kept their gang leader informed about the exploited people’s work, their disappearance or behaviour.
The fifth person arrested in Ireland, Sandra Pagojé (31) is alleged to have arranged travel for people to Ireland, knowing they were to be exploited, and is alleged to have laundered the proceeds of crime.
All five are wanted in Lithuania for trafficking in human beings, criminal association and drugs offences.
Mr Pagojus and Ms Pagojé are additionally wanted for money laundering.
A number of other individuals identified in extradition material as being key players in the gang have appeared before the courts in Ireland, north and south, in recent years.
The High Court granted Ms Pagojé bail following her arrest while Mr Pagojus, Mr Mecius, Mr Ravickas and Mr Venckus were remanded in custody.
Ms Pagojé was asked to explain through an interpreter to the High Court on Tuesday (Sept 8) why she had previously denied having a Lithuanian passport, when one was subsequently found in her home country. She undertook not to apply for a passport or book any tickets out of Ireland while on bail.
Hearings into their proposed extraditions to Lithuania will take place in November.
The gang is alleged to have distributed “large quantities of heroin”, which is believed to have been acquired from local suppliers, in Ireland since 2015.
Monies were allegedly smuggled to Lithuania and laundered through the purchase of cars, real estate and other financial instruments, according to the authorities there.
The gang is allegedly led by a Lithuanian national, who initially lived in Ireland before the gang’s activities gained momentum. He was arrested along with nine others in Lithuania as part of the international raids last month.
Three others were arrested in Northern Ireland.