It sounds like a scene from a Latin American gangster movie: police intercept four young Brazilian men with a submachine gun and a sawn-off shotgun – an alleged hit squad en route to assassinate a gang member over a drug debt.
But the checkpoint and arrests on Wednesday happened not in Rio de Janeiro but in Clara, a town in County Offaly in the midlands of Ireland.
“Four males are currently detained under section 30 Offences Against the State Act and a number of firearms have been recovered,” Ireland’s police force, the Garda Síochána, said in a statement.
Gardaí suspect the men, in their 30s, were recruited by one of two families of Travellers that live in the Offaly town of Tullamore and are involved in a feud, Irish media reported. The dispute allegedly started over a €70 (£63) drug debt and escalated on social media, prompting one faction to bring in the outsiders to target a rival at a house in Tullamore.
Gardaí received intelligence about a planned murder and put the men, who are suspected of involvement in the drugs trade, under surveillance, the Irish Times reported.
Early on Wednesday the men were travelling from Dublin, three in a van, one in a car, when the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) performed a “hard stop” – using police vehicles to force the van and car to stop before arresting the men at gunpoint.
They are being questioned at Tullamore and Portlaoise police stations and must be charged or released after three days.
Conflict between Traveller gangs involved in the drug trade has been linked to a spate of violent incidents in midland towns in recent years.
Hiring outsiders is unusual in Ireland’s gangland but has precedent. A separate, far deadlier feud between the Hutch and Kinahan organised crime gangs prompted the Kinahan gang to contract an Estonian hitman, Imre Arakas. He was jailed in 2018 for planning a murder.
“Now the notion of a South American hit team on the streets of a small midlands town doesn’t seem all that far-fetched,” a senior garda told RTÉ.
There is also a grisly precedent for disputes escalating on social media. Robbie Lawlor, a gangster taunted on social media over his flip-flops being stolen, was suspected of taking revenge by abducting, murdering and dismembering a rival gang member in January. Lawlor was subsequently shot dead in April.