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Drug ship seized off Cork with €157m of cocaine was ‘largest in the history of the State’, briefing told

Main points:

  • A Joint Task Force briefing has been told the €157m drug haul was ‘largest in the history of the State’ and was supplied by a ‘murderous’ South American cartel
  • Senior gardaí said a “number of different groups” in Ireland would have the capability to be involved.
  • Gardaí believe a ship that Army Ranger Wing members were winched on to in stormy conditions on Tuesday is carrying 2.2 tonnes of cocaine
  • The large vessel – the Panamanian-registered MV Matthew – was attempting to flee when the Naval Service closed in on it off the Co Cork coast
  • Two men – from the UK and eastern Europe – have been arrested under anti-gangland legislation

Key reads:

‘An unprecedented day for the village’ – Wexford locals witness unusual air activity in drugs search

How Ireland’s lack of naval patrols makes it an appealing route for drug smugglers

Naval Service fired shots twice as ship carrying drugs tried to flee

The press conference has wrapped up now, but we will have a full report of the details from The Irish Times crime correspondent Conor Gallagher to follow.

The assistant Garda commissioner for organised crime said the major seizure would be a “significant disruption” for criminal groups involved in the smuggling effort.

Mr Kelly said the joint task force had sent a message that “Ireland isn’t an easy place to import drugs into” and that Irish authorities would be “relentless” in pursuing criminal groups.

While three people were in custody, other crew who had been on the ship would be questioned and “there may or may not be further arrests”, he said.

Gardaí would not be drawn on questions about whether the Kinahan cartel was involved in the major smuggling operation.

Mr Kelly said a large shipment like this would not have come through the route it did in Irish waters “without an Irish organised criminal group being involved” in the operation. The senior garda added there would be a “number of different groups” in Ireland that would have the capability to be involved.

“I’m not going to talk about which group we think is behind this at the moment as its currently a live operation,” he said.

The Castlemore, the smaller trawler that ran aground off Wexford on Sunday night, is still offshore, Mr Kelly said.

While gardaí intend to recover and search the smaller vessel, it had not been possible to bring it ashore due to very difficult weather conditions at present.

Senior gardaí have said there “may be further arrests” following the operation, while stating they would not be releasing details of how the cocaine was stored on the vessel.

Mr Kelly said the estimated value of the cocaine seized was put at €157 million and that it could have been even higher if the drugs had been delivered to criminal gangs and cut down further in the production process before being sold.

“Cocaine that comes into the country from South America will be cut down further, so that will actually increase the value further ... It could be a wide variety of increased value around Europe when that stuff moved,” he said.

Representatives of the Joint Task Force comprising members of the Revenue Customs Service, Naval Service and An Garda Síochána. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Mr Kelly said he could not comment on reports that some quantities of cocaine may have been disposed of or destroyed before the vessel was seized by authorities.

Commander Tony Geraghty, Fleet Operations Commander Irish Naval Service, has said the ship being tracked refused to follow directions and had attempted to evade capture by manoeuvring the vessel, after which warning shots were fired, prior to the Army Ranger Wing boarding the ship.

Mr Kelly said the cocaine was supplied by a “murderous” south American cartel, with some of the drugs “destined for the Irish market”.

He added that the organised crime group involved “comprised of a number of different elements across Europe”.

Press conference

The press conference from the Joint Task Force gets under way, with Garda assistant commissioner Justin Kelly describing it as the “largest drug seizure in the history of the State”.

The operation was undertaken in “difficult conditions” but the seizure would cause “significant disruption” to criminal organisations, he said.

A press conference is due to get under way shortly with representatives from the operation’s Joint Task Force, which was made up of gardaí, customs officers and the Naval Service. We will bring you rolling updates as it kicks off.

The successful operation has put a spotlight on the capabilities of the Naval Service, which have been dwindling in recent years and seen more and more ships tied up due to a lack of personnel to operate them.

Last month it emerged two more Naval Service ships were being withdrawn from active service due to crew shortages, leaving just two vessels to patrol 437,500sq/km of Irish waters.

Speaking on Wednesday, retired naval commander Eugene Ryan said the strength of the Naval Service had been “decimated” in recent years.

Mr Ryan said when he retired 11 years ago the Naval Service had 1,200 personnel and eight operational ships.

“In my 11 years of retirement I have seen the Navy being decimated to approximately 700 personnel and two operational ships, despite the Navy’s fleet being the newest and best equipped we’ve ever had,” he told Morning Ireland.

For more on that angle, The Irish Times crime editor Conor Lally has written a detailed analysis piece you can read here about how Ireland’s lack of naval patrols makes it an appealing route for drug smugglers.

In some reaction this morning, Independent TD Cathal Berry, who is a former Irish Army ranger, said Ireland had a “big problem” when it came to tackling drug smuggling in Irish waters.

He said although the Naval Service had eight vessels, it only had the crew to man two currently, due to a recruitment and retention crisis. “It’s well known at this stage that Irish territorial waters are notoriously unprotected,” he told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.

The MV Matthew, the ship detained in Cork suspected to contain up to €150 million worth of cocaine, has changed names several times in its 22-year history.

The large vessel changed owners in the past six weeks or so before it set off from South America to Europe with its huge cargo of suspected cocaine.

The ship, which was previously known as MV Sea Beauty and MV Peregrine, became the MV Akson Sara on January 6th, 2020, only to later become the MV Honmon, which was a Chinese-registered vessel on August 10th only to become the MV Matthew around a month later.

It is understood the ship sailed from the Dutch island of Aruba in the south Caribbean as the MV Honmon to the Williamstad in the Dutch protectorate of Curaceo on August 18th from where it sailed to Georgetown in Guyana on the north Atlantic coast of South America to collect a cargo,

The Panamanian-registered carrier, which has a current valuation of €9.5 million, changed its name sometime over the next three weeks so that by September 13th it was the MV Matthew with its new owners being listed as Matthew Maritime Inc based in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

What exactly happened yesterday?

The ship had been headed for Belfast when it experienced engine trouble off the Wicklow coast over the weekend. The captain notified the Irish Coast Guard as the ship began to drift down the Irish Sea towards Co Wexford before they were able to restore power.

The Garda and Defence Forces were tracking the vessel on suspicion it was carrying a significant quantity of cocaine and making deliveries of the drug to much smaller vessels at sea.

The crew of the MV Matthew decided to head to the Port of Cork to source turbochargers to repair its engines before realising it was being pursued.

The large vessel was attempting to flee when the Naval Service’s LÉ William Butler Yeats and Air Corps helicopters closed in on it off the Co Cork coast on Tuesday, with two warning shots fired from LÉ William Butler Yeats to deter the crew from persisting with their attempted escape.

The team of Army Rangers descended on to the deck of the bulk carrier from an Air Corps helicopter and secured the vessel. The ship was directed to Cork Harbour where it was detained on suspicion of drug trafficking.

Comprehensive searches of the ship are expected to take place to identify the size of the haul of suspected cocaine, thought to be up to as much as €150 million worth of the drug.

Several days

It could take gardaí and customs officials several days to thoroughly search the bulk carrier, MV Matthew, now detained in Cork Harbour.

The size of the 189-metre-long bulk carrier means it could take several days to thoroughly search the vessel, which sources believe was involved in the multiple drop-offs of large quantities of drugs in Europe.

“The question is – are the drugs simply stored in the holds which are huge or have the traffickers taken the additional precaution of hiding them below the holds where you have double-bottomed buoyancy tanks because if they did, that involves some major searching,” the source said.

The MV Matthew is currently berthed at Marino Point in Cork Harbour having been escorted there on Tuesday by the LE William Butler Yeats after a team of elite Army Rangers, Naval Service personnel and armed gardaí boarded the vessel in difficult conditions off Ballycotton in east Cork.

Defence Forces personnel take control of the MV Matthew, suspected of carrying more than €100m worth of cocaine, on Tuesday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Naval Service fired shots twice as ship carrying up to €150m of drugs tried to flee

Gardaí believe a ship that Army Ranger Wing members were winched on to in stormy conditions on Tuesday could contain over two tonnes of cocaine with a street value of up to €150 million, The Irish Times has learned.

Initial searches of the ship detained off the Cork coast in a joint operation involving gardaí, customs and navy suggest the haul could be worth well in excess of €100 million, though that would only become clear when the bulk carrier was properly searched in Cork Harbour on Wednesday.

The large vessel – the Panamanian-registered MV Matthew – was attempting to flee when the Naval Service’s LÉ William Butler Yeats and Air Corps helicopters closed in on it off the Co Cork coast on Tuesday. Weapons systems on the LÉ William Butler Yeats were fired twice as warning shots to deter the crew from persisting with their attempted escape.

After the rangers, the most elite unit in the Defence Forces, took control of the vessel, gardaí and Customs officers were able to also go on board.

The Garda and Defence Forces were tracking the vessel on suspicion it was carrying cocaine and making deliveries of the drug to much smaller vessels at sea. One of those smaller vessels was the Castlemore fishing vessel, which ran aground on a sandbank about 12km off the coast of Blackwater, Co Wexford, late on Sunday night.

Two men – from the UK and eastern Europe – were eventually winched to safety from Coast Guard helicopter R117 early on Monday morning and on to the LÉ William Butler Yeats. They have since been arrested under anti-gangland legislation and were still in Garda custody in Co Wexford on Tuesday night.

Once those men had been taken into custody, the attentions of the Garda and Naval Service switched to the MV Matthew. That vessel had changed owners in the past six weeks or so before it set off from South America to Europe, carrying a very large haul of drugs, believed to be cocaine.

It’s understood that the ship sailed from the Dutch island of Aruba in the South Caribbean as the MV Honmon to Willemstad in the Dutch protectorate of Curaçao on August 18th from where it sailed to Georgetown in Guyana on the north Atlantic coast of South America to collect a cargo.

It was unclear exactly when the ship – a 189-metre bulk carrier valued at €9.5 million – crossed the Atlantic but by mid-September it was sailing around the Canaries Islands off the west coast of Africa before beginning a journey up the west coast of Portugal and Spain and through the Bay of Biscay up towards Brest in Brittany.

It appears that the ship was due to enter the separation zone for traffic sailing up and down the English channel, but it instead carried on towards Ireland and entered the Irish Sea with the intention of docking in Belfast when it experienced engine trouble over the weekend. Read the full story by Barry Roche and Conor Lally.