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It’s Friday night in Dublin city centre. The rickshaw driver slouches over the handlebars of his bike as he chats to his would-be passenger. After a few moments he gestures down Grafton Street towards Trinity College, as if giving directions or pointing to a nearby destination. And with that the passenger, a man in his 20s, jumps into the rickshaw’s cab and they’re gone.
What they don’t know is that their every move is being watched from the shadows. They are being covertly tracked by a team of undercover gardaí as they pedal slowly away before quickly accelerating as the bike’s motor kicks in.
The bike, effectively a giant tricycle with a cab for passengers, makes light work of the couple of hundred metres to the junction with Suffolk Street, where is swings a sharp left.
By the roadside a little further on the first sign emerges that something is not quite right. The passenger is being delivered into the arms of another rickshaw driver, who is clearly waiting to meet them.
The passenger, over from London for a weekend, gets out even though his journey has lasted less than 30 seconds. There’s a brief three-way exchange between the British tourist and the two Brazilian men driving these rickshaws.
And then the real purpose of this gathering begins to unfold.
The tourist takes a €50 note from his wallet. One of the drivers produces a tiny plastic bag from a pocket down his trouser leg. A transaction is under way.
With that those watching from the shadows break cover. Three gardaí sprint down the street from both directions, rapidly closing on their targets.The plastic bag is thrown into the air and lands on the pavement. The Londoner looks confused. The rickshaw drivers less so.
They know the men who have run towards them are undercover gardaí. This is an ever-more familiar scene to drivers of Dublin’s rickshaws.
“Gardaí! Stay where you are,” comes a firm instruction.
It works. None of them moves. There is full co-operation with every instruction, with no sign whatever of resistance. One of the detectives retrieves the discarded bag. A sniff confirms that it’s cannabis.
Once the Londoner realises he’s not the target of the bust he chats freely with the gardaí. He admits he was in the process of buying a €20 bag of grass, and gives his name and contact details. “I’ve never been arrested before,” he tells one of the gardaí.
The siren from a rapidly approaching Garda car fills the air: at least one of these men is about to be taken away to Pearse Street Garda station.
The tourist is allowed to go; sauntering off €50 lighter and with no cannabis but with a good story to tell.
The rickshaw driver who picked him up is also searched, as is his bike. Nothing is found, and he is free to go. He leaves his companion as he is being handcuffed on the street and placed in the back of the unmarked Garda car. The man is taken away for questioning back at the station. One of the undercover officers cycles the rickshaw back to Pearse Street Garda station.
A thorough search of the person in custody yields more than €350 tucked away in his underpants. Gardaí confiscate it on suspicion that it’s the proceeds of crime.
They charge the man with possession of €20 worth of cannabis for sale or supply, and after a couple of hours he is granted station bail. The low value of the drugs makes his release inevitable.
As this driver is being processed in the station, the undercover team venture back out on the streets, and are soon observing more interactions between drivers and passengers.
Telltale signs are communicated to team members over the Garda radio using discreet ear pieces. They move as a group in tracking suspect passengers and drivers. If a street deal begins, they pounce.
The gardaí working the streets are in their 20s or early 30s. They are dressed like everyone else socialising around town.
Some are even more covert, concealed in positions and guises that they ask The Irish Times not to reveal. Suffice to say, they blend seamlessly into the Dublin streetscape.
Long gone is the stereotypical awkward young garda straight off the bus from Templemore trying to act natural in the city.
These gardaí – from the Pearse Street and Kevin Street drug units and the South Central Crime Task Force – have developed an impressive stealth-like street craft. They work Grafton Street and the streets off it regularly, but also other hotspots such as Camden Street and Temple Bar.
But is drug-dealing in the rickshaw trade such a big problem?
And why are teams of undercover gardaí being dispatched onto the streets of Dublin to deal with €20 bags of grass anyway?
Last year a pattern began to emerge of those working in the rickshaw trade being found with small quantities of drugs during the course of regular Garda patrolling in Dublin’s city centre. A closer look showed drugs were openly being offered for sale by some drivers to their passengers.
The drivers were mainly aged in their 20s or early 30s, and were almost all foreign nationals. Many are from Brazil. Many were in Ireland on two-year student visas, and were permitted to work for 20 hours per week. Others were studying English, and were in Ireland on nine-month visas. These were short-stay student workers who took up rickshaw driving because the barriers to entry are almost nonexistent. They need no licence, no Garda vetting and no tax or insurance.
They rent their rickshaws from one of five main hire companies in Dublin for between €80 and €100 per week. There is no suggestion that any of these companies are involved in drug-dealing. Equally, many rickshaw drivers do not deal.
Because the drivers’ work is not registered anywhere and they claim to take only a “donation” from their passengers rather than a fee, there is no need for them to pay tax. And a large number of those attracted to the business were clearly willing to take some chances to supplement their income by dealing drugs to their passengers.
And so the Garda’s Dublin South Central Crime Task Force and the Pearse Street drug unit became involved. Sgt Ger Walshe of the Pearse Street team and Sgt Paul Murphy from the taskforce took the lead. They have been supported by their uniform colleagues and also the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau.
Walshe says word has quickly spread that rickshaw drivers are the most obvious source for illegal drugs in the city centre. “You ask the rickshaw driver and if he doesn’t have what you’re looking for many of them will bring you to another driver who does. It’s very simple.”
Walshe and Murphy, with almost five decades of policing between them, accept some people may learn of the small quantities of drugs being seized and wonder why the Garda is focusing on it.
But they say if the dealing is left unchecked in what is an unregulated trade it would pose a serious safety risk, including for passengers in the rickshaws. It would also create the impression that open drug-dealing was somehow tolerated in the Irish capital. There is also concern in Garda circles that that would undermine the city’s reputation domestically and even internationally.
The rate of arrests of late suggests rickshaws in Dublin are fast becoming the new “street corner” for drug purchasing. While three rickshaw drivers were arrested in the first 10 months of 2016 for drug-dealing, there were 23 arrests in the final two months of the year.
And so far in 2017 the number of arrests has reached 85 in the Garda district covered by Pearse Street station, the main trading area for rickshaws.
A total of 78 drivers have been charged with drug-dealing and 23 drivers have been convicted. Some 44 cases are ongoing, and in 19 cases the drugs seized have yet to be formally certified as banned drugs. A waiting list for such work is delaying the cases.
Small numbers of cases have been struck out, and in others bench warrants have been issued when those due in court failed to show up. In 12 cases the drivers, almost all foreign nationals, are believed to have returned home.
The average quantity of drugs found in the drivers’ possession has been between €300 and €400, though quantities of over €2,000 have been found in follow-up searches at their homes.
Ecstasy, followed by cannabis and cocaine, are the drugs most commonly found. However, ketamine, LSD and the psychostimulant NRG have also been discovered.
The work to catch dealers is labour-intensive; requiring teams of gardaí to covertly observe drivers and passengers for hours before an arrest can be made.
And the driver-dealers don’t make it easy. Drivers communicate with each other via WhatsApp when working and so when an arrest is made word spreads instantly. That means each Garda operation normally makes a small number of arrests before the rickshaw drivers stop dealing.
And while the early operations were easy, because the drivers had drugs hidden on their person or in their rickshaws, the drivers have changed their behaviour to combat the Garda attention.
They now tend to work with a supplier, who walks the streets where the drivers operate, carrying a large quantity of drugs. The drivers carry only a selection of drug types in ready-for-sale street deals. As they make sales and run low on stock, they discreetly meet the middleman for a resupply.
It means that when the drivers are caught they almost always now have just a small number of street deals in their possession.
The driver-dealers also use “walkers” – look-outs who try to spot the undercover gardaí watching the drivers, and share tips of suspected Garda activity via WhatsApp.
Walshe says the change of tactics has made the Garda’s job more difficult. “You can still [buy] the drugs off them, but it is not quite as straightforward now. This time last year you’d simply walk up to them and they’d hand it to you, whereas now there is usually an intermediary. You are taken around the corner and told to go to somebody else.”
Where the drivers are sourcing their drugs to sell is unclear. However, at least one link between the rickshaw trade and cannabis has emerged.
Almost four years ago Jason Orr, then aged 28 years and with an address in Glenageary, south Dublin, was convicted of possessing drugs for sale or supply. His conviction followed the discovery of 39 cannabis plants growing in the attic of a house where he was living two years earlier in Deansgrange.
He was given a suspended sentence of 3½ years after he agreed to pay €1,000 to charity. The court was told he was at low risk of reoffending, and had a rickshaw company and also an interest in a language school.
Orr is also under investigation by Dublin City Council on suspicion of renting sub-standard accommodation, often with a large number of tenants crammed into the properties. But because of the lack of regulation, even convicted drug dealers like Orr can continue to work in the rickshaw trade.
Dublin City Council this year issued a warning to the public, saying rickshaws were unsafe because many were uninsured.
The National Transport Authority launched a public consultation process during the summer seeking views on rickshaws in Dublin. Early indications are that the public favours retaining them if they are regulated. The NTA says it has prepared a report that is now with the Department of Transport.
It is expected that legislation to regulate the trade will be introduced. But until then the Garda is determined that those drivers dealing drugs will not be given a free hand.
Murphy and Walshe say that in some cases judges have agreed not to jail the drivers on conviction if they leave the country. Passports can be surrendered to the Garda and returned by arrangement at the boarding gate at Dublin Airport.
The two Garda sergeants are now trying to determine if deportation or voluntary departure could be used as leverage to not only remove offenders from the State but also deter others from becoming involved.
“We are sending the message to them that if you come here and try this we are targeting it and they will be caught,” says Murphy. “Wherever you have drug dealing, you have risk – to the people buying it, selling it and to us.
“Anywhere people are making money from drugs you have the drugs middle-men, the enforcers, debts building up, people overdosing. There is maybe a perception that it’s okay because it’s not taking place in an inner-city flats complex. But we see this for what it is; it’s not minor.”