West Balkan crime gangs ‘emerging as top dogs in NI’ says former head of PSNI Organised Crime Branch

While Northern Ireland continues to fight the scourge of criminality from paramilitaries, a former head of PSNI Organised Crime Branch warns that west Balkan crime gangs are also beginning to dominate here as they pursue ever larger profits from drugs and modern slavery rackets across Europe.

Thursday, 26th August 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Thursday, 26th August 2021, 9:56 am

Ex-Det Chief Supt Roy McComb, who is also a former deputy director of the National Crime Agency, is now a private consultant in the world of transnational organised crime and counter terrorism.

He is also an expert member of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime – a collaboration of international experts in the field.

At the moment his contracts include the UN, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training.

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Former PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Roy McComb, ex-Head of Organised Crime Branch. Photo: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

He noted that large swathes of the world have such weak general infrastructure – for example in some eatern European states – that their law enforcement is also very weak. And this gives organised crime gangs (OCGs) a safe base from which to build a foundation before they expand internationally.

“For example, the Taliban will now benefit from the fact that the majority of heroin in the world comes from the poppy fields in Afghanistan,” he said. He expects the supply of heroin to the west, including Northern Ireland, will therefore surge as western forces leave the country.

As he was leaving the PSNI in 2014 he was aware that eastern European gangs were already taking over NI’s sex trade. Initially, he said, eastern European gangs provided women and security for paramilitary-run brothels, but the foreign gangs soon realised they did not need the paramilitaries and began setting up their businesses instead.

“Absolutely,” he reflected. “And was I proven wrong?”

He said that paramilitaries – which he classes as OCGs “with flags of convenience” – and eastern European gangs don’t attack each other because “violence is not good for business”, but rather prefer to come to more peaceful arrangements.

Mr McComb remembers in earlier years that police press releases about people being convicted of drug crimes in NI normally featured people with British and Irish names.

A woman, centre, is lead away by police, after they raided a house on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast during an operation against human trafficking. Photo: PA.

“Now you get eastern European names popping up routinely. That is because they are the pre-eminent organised crime presence within NI. We foresaw that a number of years ago and I think that is becoming true now.”

He emphasised that only a minority of foreign nationals in NI are involved.

The NCA, often referred to as the UK’s FBI, created a new deputy director post just to deal with the threat posed by western Balkan crime groups across the UK, he said, such is the gravity of the threat.

“And Northern Ireland is a microcosm of what the rest of the UK and Ireland endures. As we have watched the development of eastern European crime groups coming in and controlling parts of conurbations, particularly in England, there is no doubt that some of that is happening in NI.”

Eastern European Crime Gangs are also involved in cybercrime.

In Great Britain, the Balkan gangs “fundamentally control parts of the organised crime network, particularly around drugs and to some extent around human trafficking. And what happens in London today will happen in Belfast in the not too distant future. What has happened in London in the past few years is happening in the streets of Belfast and Northern Ireland.”

He describes Balkan crime gangs as “organised, sophisticated and dangerous” with an international reach.

“They are muscling their way into areas and they are working not only among themselves but with established organised crime groups. They become the dominant organisation in places and don’t be surprised if that isn’t the position that will emerge in Northern Ireland.”

Balkan gangs typically have an “element of menace” and have access to “sophisticated weapons that have had a long history in eastern Europe involved in high-end serious crime”.

They see the economic attraction of places like Belfast and Londonderry, where people want to buy and sell drugs. And they think nothing of a 1.5 hour drive to Dublin. “Ireland is one economic market for a western Balkan crime gang.”

Mr McComb says the recreational use of drugs and the sex trade in Northern Ireland is fuelling threats, violence and intimidation right across the world.

And he says that the tell-tale signs of organised crime are evident - and that ordinary people can play a vital role in fighting it.

He laments how socially acceptable it now is for people to take drugs.

“People will casually say: ‘I had a busy weekend – I did a few lines of gear (cocaine)’ and they think nothing of it.

“But if you said: ‘I had a really busy weekend – I broke into a few houses or stole a couple of cars’, it would cause shock and horror. Both actions are equally breaking the law but only the latter causes outrage.”

But whether it is cocaine, heroin or human trafficking, paying for such criminality always causes human suffering across the supply chain, he said.

“There is harm, there is threat, there is violence, there is intimidation, there are people being physically harmed back in South America or Afghanistan. There is exploitation all along the way whether it is drugs or human trafficking.”

He added: “There are people there in the sex trade of their own free will but the vast majority are not. So if you are involved in the sex trade as a customer the better chance is that the woman you are using has been trafficked. You then become the problem because you are involved in a rape.”

He urged people to keep their eyes open for signs of labour exploitation.

“If seven people are washing your car for £5 you know that can’t be economically viable for them to do. Their controller is getting the money. They will be working 12-14 hours a day in all weather without proper waterproof gear – women, children and older men.

“In a nail salon the signs may be that they don’t speak English and look unhappy or under a form of control or are treated badly. If they are there every day from dawn to dusk that is another sign.”

For many years headlines have highlighted foreign nationals being trafficked to the UK for modern slavery. But that is changing.

“British nationals have now been at the top of the list of nationalities trafficked over the past five years. It is just because there are people in the UK who will find vulnerable people and exploit them, whether they be English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish.

He urged the public to report any suspicions. “A call to the police, Crimestoppers or human trafficking hotline is a call well made.” Call PSNI on 101, Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or Modern Slavery Helpline 08000 121 700.

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