DRUG CRIMINALS CASH IN
It is a sign of the changing face of organised crime that the three gangs heading the list of suspects for last Tuesday's 2.7 million euro Brinks Allied robbery previously made their money from the drugs trade. Top of the list is a man with three houses who, detectives believe, is the leading cocaine dealer in Dublin. The other suspects run multi-million euro cannabis operations.
Up until three years ago, the perceived wisdom among detectives was that these criminals represented the future of professional crime, dealing exclusively in drugs and contraband with 500 per cent profit margins.
Armed bank robberies, that other staple of the underworld, were a thing of the past. The last major heist was back in 1995 when the Monk, Gerard Hutch, organised the elaborate 4 million pound raid at the Brinks Allied security depot in Clonshaugh in Coolock, north Co Dublin. A total of 171 armed robberies were recorded that year.
In the aftermath of that robbery, the banks radically overhauled their security systems, making it virtually impossible to carry out a direct hit on an institution.
And with the advent of electronic banking, criminals soon lost heart when the value of a typical haul plummeted to just 2,000 to 3,000 euro. The annual number of armed hold-ups fell by 50 per cent within two years.
When the Monk later repaid his cut - around 500,000 pounds, plus interest - to the Criminal Assets Bureau, it seemed like the closing chapter to a bygone era. But slowly, with little fanfare, new armed robbery teams started up, specialising in hitting the cash delivery vans rather than banks.
The first major gang was led by Stephen Sugg and Shane Coates, of the notorious Dublin gang, the Westies. The activities of Coates, 32, and Sugg, 28, both of whom are believed to have been murdered while on the run in Spain, sparked a wave of copy-cat hold-ups in 2003 when 37 raids were recorded.
Unlike the non-drinking, anti-drugs campaigner Hutch - or the equally abstemious Martin Cahill - the new breed of heist specialists were dope dealers who spotted a new, more lucrative line of business.
Sugg and Coates ran the biggest heroin network in west Dublin.
They featured on a list of 18 suspects identified by gardai as the leading players in the spate of cash delivery heists. Almost all of the people on the list were previously associated with the trade in either recreational or hard drugs. All but two of those named in the intelligence document are aged between 21 and 31.
Last Tuesday's hold-up illustrates why a millionaire dealer, such as the leading suspect, would be tempted to move into the armed robbery game. The Brinks van that was held up at the start of its rounds at 7am last Tuesday morning could in fact have been targeted at around the same time on any given Tuesday of the year.
"You could almost set your clock by them - and you could be guaranteed there would be no armed escort at that point," a detective said.
While the delivery team offered a spectacular opportunity by calling in for a coffee at the Killester Road Maxol station, the scene of the heist, even this was not unusual.
Coffee breaks, according to detectives, are a regular feature of some of the early morning security van runs.
That 2.7 million euro was on board the van was somewhat unusual - most delivery vans carry significantly smaller cash loads - but it was not an unusually large amount on this particular route, an informed source told The Sunday Business Post. A gang was just waiting to pick the van off, the source said.
Martin Cahill might look at all of this in shock, and perhaps a little envy, if alive today. The three raiders stole more in 15 minutes last week than Cahill made on any of his meticulously-planned jobs in the 1980s and 1990s.They also outshone the record-setting Hutch, who had to share his master stroke - ironically from the same cash warehouse in Clonshaugh - with seven others.
Detectives admit that they are far from clear about who was responsible for the latest security van hold-up. Their chief suspect, the cocaine dealer, has been linked by circumstantial evidence and loose information from touts.
He is a life-long criminal who carried out his first hold-up when he was 15, shot a man before he was 21, later served a long prison sentence for robbery, moved into drugs when he got out, and is now, in hismid-30s, considered to be one of the city's biggest criminals.
It says something about the reliability of criminal intelligence that two other gangs, with a cross-over in membership, have also been implicated in the robbery. One of these groups is led by a man in his early 30s from Finglas in north Dublin who was previously thought to have retired.
Detectives said that information from informants suggests that he may have organised the heist and sub-contracted it out to younger associates. This was the template for his last big job, a 1.3 million euro robbery from a Brinks van in Co Meath last May.
Also in the frame, according to detectives, is a gang with a modus operandi straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie: all of them wearing two-piece suits, in a similar vein to the team from Tarantino's gangster film, Reservoir Dogs. To add a further Hollywood touch, the gang employs a woman (a rare figure in an armed robbery of any kind in Dublin) as a getaway driver.
The suits were donned in a number of recent van raids, notably hold-ups in Arklow, Co Wicklow and Clane, Co Kildare. The woman was arrested and questioned, and a file on the gang is being prepared for the DPP.
Confirming that the gardai are still seriously short of definite clues about the identity of the Brinks robbers, Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy admitted that it was still too early to rule out a link with the 2.6million euro raid on a Securicor delivery van two weeks ago.
The likelihood of a connection is remote, according to detectives, but Conroy was forced to concede that "it's too early at this stage" to rule out the involvement of the gang behind the Securicor job.
Amid the blame game that followed last week's robbery, the gardai emerged unscathed. The security companies, it was pointed out, had decided not to employ the services of the gardai when the raiders struck. And the private companies' training, delivery systems and overall professionalism - most notably the infamous 2.7 million euro coffee break - were exposed as shambolic.
The security companies could learn a thing or two from the gardai, particularly on the public relations front. As a number of veteran detectives pointed out, the success of the raiders this year - there have been 15 - also reflects badly on the efforts of the gardai to target the specialist heist gangs.
The dedicated garda unit dealing with the gangs is part of the much-vaunted Operation Delivery, which was set up three years ago, but was later scaled down late last year. The numbers involved are relatively small: 20 rank-and-file officers and two sergeants.
The Sunday Business Post understands that garda management agreed to beef up the unit again last week by deciding to hire 20 more officers. The invitations to join were sent out to Dublin garda divisions 24 hours after the latest heist.
"The unit has been managed extremely well when it's been given a run, but then the numbers are cut back as soon as they make any kind of inroads and the problem dies down," a detective said. "The heavy surveillance and the constant attention have got results for us, but you can't keep that up without sufficient resources."
A retired senior detective, who has spent 11 years advising private security companies, said: "When the armed robbers were no longer on the streets of Dublin, and moved into dealing drugs, we all took our eye off the ball.
"A lot of the big security carriers are a disgrace. They pay their men buttons. The level of training - and I watched them close up - is appalling. Bear in mind that even Martin Cahill set up his own security company for awhile.
"There is no vetting system whatsoever. They're penny-pinching to an unbelievable degree. One company is going on a shoestring. Their margins are very tight.
"It says everything about the opportunities available when you see big-time drug dealers getting into armed robberies. It's as easy as stealing candy at the moment."