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Border crime: Republican and loyalist smuggling gangs 'crippling haulage sector'

Dissidents and loyalists are using the same routes to smuggle goods.

Image: Messyasz Nicolas via PA

REPUBLICAN AND LOYALIST dissidents who are smuggling drugs, cigarettes and fuel across Ireland through Europe are “crippling the haulage sector”, it has been warned. 

Policy Manager for the Freight Transport Association of Northern Ireland, Séamus Leheny, said that the drug smugglers and illicit traders are undercutting legitimate businesses when it comes to rates paid for individual consignments from the continent, which means that many who follow the rules are struggling to make ends meet. 

As well as more traditional smuggling operations, organised criminal elements within the industry are facilitating illegal human trafficking rings, Leheny says. 

He told TheJournal.ie that illegal smuggling was “destroying those people who are working legally and trying to stay within the laws.

“There are hauliers contacting me about their business, hauliers here that did a bit of work to and from continental Europe – their work has been severely cut back in recent years.”

Leheny said that smugglers were willing to undercut regular operators when it came to quoting fees for driving consignments back from Europe. They can afford to take the hit on the usual rates, as they’re making their real money from whatever illegal cargo they are also transporting across national borders. 

He explained: “For example, let’s say I get paid €1000 to go out to Italy – those other guys undercut the price to unrealistic levels that no legitimate haulier could afford.”

The above-board fee they’re paid covers their fuel and ferry costs and “gives them the cover that they’re operating legitimately – they have all the documentation”. 

Gardaí and the PSNI are now liaising with their Bulgarian colleagues in probes into the large-scale smuggling rings, which involve criminals linked to paramilitary groups in the North and around the border region.  

Both republicans and loyalists are using the smuggling route, utilising rogue companies to import drugs, cigarettes and other illicit cargo into Ireland.

The PSNI believe that most of the cocaine and cannabis entering the North is being sourced by the East Belfast UDA, and transported via the road network across Europe. 

The republicans, meanwhile, are illegally importing cigarettes and fuel, according to well-placed sources.

Bulgaria, and especially the Varna region of the country in the east, has become a popular place for Irish smugglers to register their vehicles. 

Gardaí and the PSNI believe this region was chosen as it is a first port of entry for many of the smuggled cigarettes and drugs making their way into Europe from traffickers on other continents. 

From there, the smugglers use the established routes used by hauliers to travel through Bulgaria and into western Europe. Having a Bulgarian-registered vehicle lowers the suspicion of local police and customs officials within the country, sources say. 

Bribes are often paid to local officials, who are more susceptible to corruption than customs officers elsewhere in the EU. 

According to Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, Bulgaria is the most corrupt country in the EU. A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia estimated that more than one in five adults had taken part in a corrupt transaction, like paying or receiving a bribe.

People smuggling

There’s been an intensifying focus on criminal activity in the haulage sector in the wake of the discovery of the bodies of 39 Vietnamese people in a container in Essex last month. 

An Irish man has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter in relation to these deaths.

Since then, intelligence has been shared between Irish and European nations in relation to the trafficking of people through port cities such as Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Amsterdam.

Last week, gardaí confirmed that a significant number of searches had been conducted  in the Monaghan area by CAB and that a number of vehicles, as well as documentation, had been seized.

These raids were not part of the investigation into the Essex trailer tragedy, gardaí said. However, officers did receive significant information regarding alleged illegal smuggling operations which were happening across the border region in the days after the discovery of the bodies. 

Sources familiar with the investigation have told TheJournal.ie that the “significant information” has been given to gardaí and the PSNI relating to illegal trading from Bulgarian registered vehicles with links to Irish criminals.  

Around 20 bank accounts with over €200k were also seized in the Monaghan raids.

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