Gardaí believe an international crime gang involved in human trafficking and murder have laundered up to €64m through Ireland.
etectives have identified close to 1,000 people with addresses here who are linked to business invoice and romance frauds for the Black Axe gang.
This includes 16 criminals working at the highest tier, with a senior garda warning that money mules operating at the lowest level could face extradition if caught.
Details of a worldwide operation against Black Axe were revealed during a press conference at Garda Headquarters in Dublin today after 34 people were arrested here.
The gang were first brought to the attention of Interpol by gardaí in early 2020 and on September 26 last, the international police agency led a week of action against them.
Under Operation Jackal, some €1.2m was intercepted in bank accounts across 14 countries while 75 arrests were made, and 49 properties were searched.
Gardaí, as part of the same initiative under Operation Skein, searched nine properties between Dublin and Clare while 11 people were arrested under organised crime legislation.
Gardaí estimate that Black Axe have used Irish bank accounts to launder up to €64m stolen in business email compromise (BEC) or romance fraud.
While the gang specialise in these crimes, they are also suspected of using the profits to finance murder, human trafficking, drug dealing and corruption worldwide.
The investigation into the gang is being led by detectives from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) who believe thousands of members operate at different levels from Ireland.
This potentially includes up to 4,000 money mules who are used to transfer illegally obtained money, usually stolen from outside Ireland, between different payment accounts here.
So far, gardaí have positively identified 967 members they believe use addresses in Ireland and are linked to the gang.
It includes 838 money mules, 63 “herders” as well as 50 operational directors.
You are assisting human trafficking, terrorism, financing wars and financing the lifestyle of major criminals and warlords in certain countries
A further 16 strategists who are at the top of the criminal network have also been identified by gardaí.
Det Supt Michael Cryan, of the GNECB, said Operation Skein began after €1m was stolen from a bank account in another European country using a fake email sent from Dublin in early 2020.
Gardaí identified the location from where the email was sent and following a search, phones, laptops and other electronic devices were seized from which valuable intelligence was gleaned.
The garda inquiries identified both previous and live fraud which it later transpired were connected to the same criminal organisation, Black Axe, and affiliated gangs.
Money mules were previously being flown directly into Ireland but during the pandemic the gang adapted and recruited via the web people who live here.
Det Supt Cryan said those recruited, in particular young people, need to understand the seriousness of what they are doing and the consequences they face.
This, the senior detective said, could include being extradited to a different country to face charges and being convicted here under the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Act which would have ramifications for future employment and travel.
“Who wants to hire someone with a conviction for money laundering?” he said.
“You are assisting human trafficking, terrorism, financing wars and financing the lifestyle of major criminals and warlords in certain countries.
“If you stop being a money mule you cut off the lifeblood (of the gang),” Det Supt Cryan added.
To date, gardaí have arrested 264 people for either organised crime or money-laundering offences at both a local and national level, with 135 persons charged.
Stephen Kavanagh, executive director of police services at Interpol, said: “Illicit financial funds are the lifeblood of transnational organised crime, and we have witnessed how groups like Black Axe will channel money gained from online financial scams into other crime areas, such as drugs and human trafficking. These groups demand a global response.”
Rory Corcoran, director of Interpol’s Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre, added that Ireland brought Black Axe to its attention.
He said the crime group poses a significant security threat which is growing and evolving, and they are finding audacious ways to operate, including using money stolen from victims used directly to purchase properties and high-value cars.