MASS killer Ronan Hughes honed his people-trafficking skills transporting millions of pounds worth of illegal cigarettes for a convicted IRA bomber.
The logistics boss, who is facing life in prison for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese immigrants, was introduced to international smuggling routes by Aidan Grew.
The Co Armagh republican is the biggest player in the criminal tobacco trade in Ireland and was once fined £500,000 for evading customs duty on illegal cigarettes.
Crooked lorry drivers like Hughes play a key role in transporting the 64-year-old's counterfeit, tax-evaded tobacco from China to these shores.
Sunday Life understands that a massive £927,000 cigarette haul Hughes was caught with in England in 2009, and for which he was jailed for 30 months, belonged to Grew.
He refused to implicate his boss, winning favour from dissident republicans in the border area.
"Ronan Hughes started off smuggling cigarettes for Aidan Grew and that was how he made contacts with people traffickers," a source told Sunday Life.
"Grew was too wise to get involved in that. It was a step too far even for him, but the money involved turned Hughes' head."
After being freed from prison, Hughes (42) set up a logistics firm and started smuggling desperate Vietnamese immigrants rather than cigarettes. The work was more dangerous but the cash rewards were far greater as each paid people traffickers up to £13,000 for safe passage to the UK in the back of lorries.
Hughes' involvement in the shameful trade was an open secret among truckers along the border, so much so that his gang was known as the 'Middletown Mafia' after the small Co Armagh village where they would often meet.
But the racket fell apart in October 2019 when 39 Vietnamese immigrants suffocated in a lorry driven by Portadown man Mo Robinson (25). Both he and Hughes pleaded guilty to manslaughter and people-trafficking offences earlier this year.
A third lorry driver Eamonn Harrison (23) (circled top), from Mayobridge in Co Down, was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter after his trial in London ended last Monday.
Another member of the Middletown Mafia, 24-year-old Christopher Kennedy (circled bottom) from Keady, Co Armagh, was found guilty of conspiring to assist illegal immigration.
Our source added: "It was an open secret that Hughes was smuggling people. You only had to look at the lifestyle he and his drivers were living to see it wasn't just biscuits they were driving from Europe to England."
Hughes' wealth was detailed during a bail hearing in the Irish High Court last April while he was fighting extradition to England.
Detectives explained how €200,000 had been frozen in 33 bank accounts linked to him, that he had recently spent €100,000 on a top-of-the-range BMW X5 jeep and owned a time-share on a property in Florida.
It was also revealed that lorry driver Mo Robinson, in whose trailer the bodies of the 39 immigrants were found, claimed Hughes paid him £25,000 after an earlier successful smuggling run.
In statements to police, Robinson further alleged he was given £1,500 for every person trafficked.
Hughes oversaw the entire operation, working closely with Romanian crime boss Gheorghe Nica (43) planning logistics. CCTV images obtained by police showed them walking together with a bag stuffed with £50,000.
The 39 immigrants were picked up by Eamonn Harrison and herded into a trailer to Zebrugge which was then shipped to the UK.
They suffocated inside, with Robinson discovering their bodies having collected the load in Purfleet after it had sailed to the UK. He waited 23 minutes to ring 999, instead first phoning Hughes and Nica for advice.
Temperatures inside the trailer had risen to 38.5 degrees before it "steadily reduced", and police discovered "bloody handprints" inside.
Realising they were going to die, many of the victims left voicemails and texted family back in Vietnam.
Pham Tra My's (left) heartbreaking final message to her parents read: "I'm sorry Dad and Mom. The way I went overseas was not successful. Mom, I love Dad and you so much. I'm dying because I can't breathe."
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, said: "You would not transport animals in that way, but they were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk."