An organized Traveller gang from Rathkeale in Co Limerick is being targeted by police in the United States for their multi-million dollar global trade in stolen rhino horn.
According to the Irish Examiner, the crackdown in the US has resulted in the seizure of 37 rhino horns, which authorities estimate as valued between $8m and $10m.
The huge police operation, named Operation Crash, to date, has not arrested any members of the notorious criminal network called the Rathkeale Rovers.
The gang, whose reach has spread across China, Australia, and North and South America, are also heavily involved in tarmac fraud, the distribution of counterfeit goods, organized robbery, money laundering, and drug trafficking.
The EU police agency Europol have said the gang sourced the rhino horns, which are worth between €25,000 and €200,000 each, by targeting antique dealers, auction houses, art galleries, museums, private collections, and zoos. They sold them by "exploiting" international auction houses in France, the US, and China.
Under UN laws, trading in rhino horns is illegal as rhinos are an endangered species.
Three agencies in the US - the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Homeland Security Department and the Internal Revenue Service - set up an operation last February to uncover the buyers of the horns. Eight people were arrested, including a rodeo cowboy, a Chinese businessman, a Vietnamese nail salon owner, and a US antiques expert.
Edward Grace of the US Fish and Wildlife Service said that more arrests are expected in the coming months.
"This case also involves other Irish buying rhino horns in the US," Mr Grace told AFP. "I can’t go into a lot of details on it."
It was the activities of two Irish men from Rathkeale, Co Limerick, that brought the attention of US law enforcement to the trade.
Richard O’Brien and Michael Hegarty were arrested after paying undercover agents in Colorado some $17,000 for four black rhino horns.
They were charged with conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering, and served six months in a US prison, reported the Irish Examiner.
Grace said the trade in illegal rhino horns was "really being fuelled by the Irish Travellers", but said Chinese and Vietnamese criminals were also involved.
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