Hunt for fugitive drug lords
Gang behind huge haul is the most ruthless in Europe
Irish Independent (Ralph Riegel): The international drug gang behind the $200 million cocaine haul off the Irish coast are amongst the most feared and ruthless in Europe.
Based primarily in London and Amsterdam, the gang have connections in Spain, the Caribbean and North Africa. They are one of the prime suppliers of cocaine to the money-spinning London market -- and are feared for the vicious tactics they will employ to protect their smuggling pipeline and drug profits.
Several high-profile gangland murders in Britain and the EU have been attributed to the gang -- and most resulted from attempts by other crime organizations to move onto their turf.
Most of their cocaine is sourced from Central America and the Caribbean -- primarily from Colombia, Venezuela and Haiti. The gang are particularly feared because of their connections to some of the world‘s most notorious drug cartels in Columbia and Haiti. However, they have also handled imports from as far away as South East Asia.
The West Cork operation underlined the vast logistical resources available to the gang and their associates -- and the huge sums of money involved in their smuggling operations. This week's haul at Dunlough Bay -- which is estimated to have a street value in excess of $200 million -- featured a team of four English contractors who were sent to live in West Cork for several weeks before the ‘mother ship‘, carrying the cocaine haul, was due to arrive offshore.
Yacht: This ‘mother ship‘ is believed to have been an ocean-going yacht that entered Irish territorial waters after sailing from the Caribbean with its cargo of 1.5 tonnes of cocaine.
The hunt for this vessel is now one of the primary objects of the Garda-led probe in Ireland‘s biggest ever cocaine seizure. The West Cork smuggling team were equipped with a range of high-powered jeeps and a van -- as well as two state-of-the-art dinghies for liaising with the ‘mother ship‘.
Gardai (Police) and Customs & Excise officials also believe that the team had hi-tech encrypted communications equipment for timing the arrival of the ‘mother ship‘ and their rendezvous.
It is understood the team were also given a generous cash allowance for expenses -- with Gardai convinced they must have been paying for some type of local knowledge and information.
Last night, senior Gardai warned that the two smuggling team members on the run will now be as worried about the reaction of their gang bosses to the loss of the huge shipment as their potential arrest by detectives.
"These guys are not known to take kindly to the loss of drug shipments. They will want to blame someone for the loss of 1.5 tonnes of cocaine and they won‘t be blaming the weather," one detective warned.
Gardai are already liaising with Interpol and British police over the haul -- and the backgrounds of the two English nationals already located in West Cork.
WITH the arrest of two men near Schull on Wednesday morning, on suspicion of involvement in a failed cocaine smuggling operation, there were three in Garda custody and another suspect under armed guard at Bantry General Hospital following a series of dramatic events that unfolded this week on the Mizen Peninsula.
The midweek arrest of two Englishmen in their forties, believed to be brothers with West Cork family connections, took place on a roadway at Gubbeen, Schull. They had been the subject of an intensive Garda manhunt since an abortive drug smuggling operation came to light on Monday morning when a 22-year-old man swam ashore at Dunlough Bay, off the Mizen Head, after a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) capsized, leading to the launch of a massive search and rescue mission in which a man in his forties was taken from the water and also brought to Bantry Hospital suffering from acute hypothermia.
The younger man was arrested on Monday when he discharged himself from hospital and was held for questioning on suspicion of involvement in the smuggling of over 1.5 tonnes of cocaine with an estimated value of ?107m – the largest ever found in this country – which was washed on to the coast around the Mizen Head. At Macroom District Court on Wednesday afternoon, Gardai obtained a 72-hour extension of the time they can detain him, under Section 2 of the Drug Smuggling Act, as they seek to establish his true identity.
Meanwhile, it is believed that the two men arrested on Wednesday morning are second generation Irish with a strong family link to the Mizen Peninsula and over the years have frequently visited the locality where a relative has maintained a holiday home.
Gardai believe that the two men travelled to the Mizen Peninsula three weeks ago on holiday and may have stayed in the family holiday home while putting in place preparations for the major cocaine transhipment which officers believe was destined for the UK market.
The two men would have good local knowledge of both the Mizen Peninsula and the currents in the sea off Dunlough from where a RIB was launched by the drugs smuggling gang in the early hours of Monday morning to rendezvous with the cocaine supply ship off the Cork coast.
As the search for the two men continued throughout Wednesday with gardai mounting checkpoints on a number of roads on the Mizen Peninsula and the Garda helicopter combed the rugged terrain, detectives in Bantry continued to question a 22-year-old man arrested on Monday afternoon.
The man has an Irish name and has given an address in Co Monaghan but has lived in the UK and Spain and Gardai have forwarded fingerprints to police in Britain to try and confirm his identity and make inquiries as to his associates in the UK.
Meanwhile a man in his 40s who was rescued from the sea on Monday morning by Castletownbere Lifeboat remains in a comfortable condition at Bantry General Hospital where he remains under armed escort by Gardai who are continuing to monitor his progress with a view to questioning him about the drugs seizure.
It’s understood the man claims to be a South African national, resident in the UK for several years, but gardai are similarly trying to confirm his identity and his associations with the other man who made it ashore after their 7 metre Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) overturned in rough seas in Dunlough Bay.
Customs officers recovered the partially submerged RIB late on Monday night and on Tuesday Customs officers and gardai recovered a second RIB near Durrus which, along with a small dinghy, they believe also belonged to the English based drugs gang.
Customs officers also recovered another 25 kilo bale of cocaine from rocks in Dunlough Bay on Tuesday afternoon to bring to 61 the number of bales recovered and bring the total haul of cocaine to 1.575 tonnes with a value of just under §107 million.
Det. Supt Tony Quilter who is heading up the Garda investigation into the drug smuggling said that officers are currently focussing on the logistical support that the gang had received or may have put in place to facilitate the drugs shipment.
This involves looking at where they sourced and stored the two RIBS, where they sourced petrol for them and where they have been staying over the past few days as they waited to rendezvous with the supply or mother ship in a coopering operation.
Gardai were continuing to examine three English-registered vehicles seized from near Dunlough Pier and they have begun checking CCTV footage from local petrol stations in West Cork to try and link the vehicles to the arrested man and the other suspected members of the gang.
Gardai have also begun checking CCTV footage from airports and port terminals to try and establish when each of the members of the gang arrived in Ireland and to see if they were accompanied by any others involved in the cocaine smuggling operation.
The discovery of the huge drugs haul began on Monday when a rescue mission was launched after a 22-year-old man managed to swim over a mile ashore and raise the alarm that he and two companions were thrown into the sea when their RIB capsized in heavy seas in Dunlough Bay.
The man made his way to a farmhouse and raised the alarm shortly before 7.45am on Monday and the Goleen Cliff and Coastal Search Unit of the Irish Coastguard under leader Dermot Sheehan was mobilised with Castletownbere Lifeboat under cox, Brian O'Driscoll, was also launched in the emergency operation.
Members of Goleen Cliff and Coastal Search Unit spotted a man wearing a life jacket in the sea at around 9.10am and they notified Castletownbere Lifeboat who recovered the man and the Irish Coastguard Sikorski helicopter which had also been scrambled, airlifted the man ashore to a waiting ambulance.
The man was brought to Bantry General Hospital where his colleague had earlier been brought suffering from hypothermia and while the first man later discharged himself only to be arrested by gardai, the second man continued to treated at the hospital where his condition on Tuesday was described by a HSE South spokeswoman as "comfortable".
Meanwhile members of Goleen Cliff and Coastal Search team along with Castletownbere and Baltimore Lifeboats and Irish Coastguard helicopters from both Shannon and Waterford continued to search the seas around the Mizen Head for the third missing man, only to call off the search shortly before 6 pm on Monday.
Gardai had advised the Irish Coastguard that they didn't believe that there was a third man missing at sea and the search operation was stood down following an afternoon when the Baltimore Lifeboat in the course of the search for the reported missing man helped customs retrieve bales of drugs.
The Customs cutter also joined the drugs recovery operation on Monday which saw some 60 bales of cocaine each weighing 25 kilos recovered from the water and brought ashore by the cutter and Baltimore Lifeboat at Baltmore where customs and gardai began the task of logging the drugs.
This week's discovery of such a huge drugs haul off the West Cork raises the spectre of the area being seen as an easy importation route for drugs from South America and elsewhere into Ireland, the UK and Europe and follows a series of such drug smuggling operations in the 1990s which came to light after being foiled by gardai and customs.
Among these successes was one on July 31, 1991 when Customs officers found 28 bales of cannabis resin worth §9 million when they searched a yacht, The Karma of the East, leading to the arrest and conviction of Cork antiques dealer, Christopher Golly O'Connell who was jailed for eight years.
In September 1996, Customs officers under Customs Enforcement Officer, Paddy O'Sullivan had another success when backed up by the Gardai and the Navy, they searched a converted trawler, the Sea Mist which had been forced into Cork Harbour by stormy weather and located some 599 kilos of cocaine worth over §100 million hidden on board.
Five crew went on trial at Cork Circuit Criminal Court but only one, skipper Gordon Richards was eventually convicted and he was sentenced to 17 years in jail by Judge A. G. Murphy for his part in the drug smuggling operation which it later emerged was organised by Dublin born, British drugs baron, Brian Wright.
Just over two years later, Customs officers and Gardai enjoyed another succcess when they searched a catamaran, The Gemeos in Kinsale Harbour which had just crossed the Atlantic and found that she contained a major stash of 325 kilos of cocaine worth over §60 million.
Skipper, John O'Toole, a native of Enniskerry in Co. Wicklow who had been living in Panama was jailed for 20 years by Judge Patrick Moran at Cork Circuit Criminal Court while his crewman, Michael Tune from Yorkshire was jailed for 14 years for his part in trying to smuggle cocaine into Ireland.
Just over a year later, a trawler, The Posidonia was boarded off the West Cork coast by Naval Service personnel from the LE Ciara accompanied by Customs Officers who found §18 million worth of cannabis resin in huge bales hidden on board.
The consignment had been picked up off Morrocco and due to be offloaded to a boat off the Cork coast for shipment ashore. English skipper Richard Preece was jailed for nine years and two other Englishmen, Barry Court and Matthew Simkins, were each jailed for seven years at Cork Circuit Criminal Court.
Fine Gael Justice spokesman Jim O’Keeffe, TD, has said the find of a massive cocaine haul floating off the Co. Cork coastline gives weight to suggestions that Ireland is being used as a transit point in the international drugs trade, and warned that Ireland’s coastline is effectively an open back door to drug dealers.
“This dramatic find supports claims that Ireland is increasingly being used as a transit point in the international drugs trade. I would like to commend the authorities for their sterling work in this operation, but it is very worrying that this drugs haul was only discovered by chance.
“This incident begs the question: just what else is going on around our coastline? There have long been claims that drugs are being stored around Ireland, using elaborate installations off the coast. This latest find suggests that these claims are not being exaggerated.
“The Fianna Fáil Government appears to have forgotten that Ireland is an island with thousands of miles of unprotected coastline. The coast is effectively a huge open door into the State for drug dealers and other criminals, as well as a depot for drug traffickers. Yet the authorities simply do not have the resources to police the coast effectively. Much greater priority must be given to policing the coastline, which must involve investing in our coastal defences: Gardaí in coastal areas, the coastguard and the Naval Service.
“People in West Cork are shocked by this find, which proves that nowhere is immune from drugs and gangland activity. The sheer size of this haul also demonstrates the scale of the drugs problem which Ireland is now facing. Earlier this year the National Drugs Advisory Committee estimated that there are 75,000 cocaine users in Ireland, and another 300,000 cannabis users.
“Last year some §100 million worth of drugs was seized, and international best practice would suggest that this is just 10% of the total quantity of drugs at large annually. Furthermore, the number of incidents of possession of drugs for supply increased from 2,667 in 2005 to 3,016 last year.
“Drugs are the motor of gangland activity in this country, and all the evidence suggests that the problem is increasing. This has happened during the last ten years of Fianna Fáil administrations, and there is every indication that the problem will continue to grow. Although I welcome the appointment of a Minister of State for drugs, Fianna Fáil’s past record does not bode well for the future.”