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High seas: Inside the multi-agency maritime pursuit of the MV Matthew

LAST WEEK TWO men arrived in a busy south west fishing community making efforts to buy a fishing trawler. 

Sources have said one had an English accent, the other appeared to be from somewhere in Eastern Europe. 

The Castlemore, a steel hull fishing boat, was tied up and the owner of the vessel, who did not know the men, was looking for a buyer.  Sources have stressed that the former owner had absolutely no knowledge or involvement with the events this article lays out.

On Friday last money changed hands, understood to be €200,000, and the men got on board telling anyone that would listen to them that they were on their way to a fishing village in Devon on the south east coast of Britain.

A maritime source told The Journal that such buying and selling of fishing boats is a regular feature of seafaring life and as they sailed out into the broad rolling waves of the Atlantic no one could have guessed the historic events to follow. No one, that is, except a small group of Irish law enforcement and military personnel who happened to be sitting together in a room at an undisclosed location at exactly the same time as the sailing.

At that moment senior members of the Irish Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána and Revenue Customs were meeting to discuss an intelligence-led operation weeks in the making. 

Day by day

The information in this article has been gathered during a media briefing with those three organisations and from multiple sources familiar with the events around the seizure of the MV Matthew. 

The group that those bodies were meeting as part of, known as the Joint Task Force, is an emergency joining of State forces to deal with major incidents of drug smuggling.

It is understood the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau had received intelligence weeks earlier from the Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the US that a massive shipment of cocaine was on its way to Ireland. 

That information had been handled by the clerically-named Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre Narcotics or MAOC-N, which facilitated the handover of the intelligence to Ireland.

MAOC-N is an agency backed by European countries – along with the UK, the US and others – that manages the transfer of intelligence to partner countries about the activities of drug smugglers.

The Journal recently visited their office in Lisbon, Portugal and spoke to Sjoerd Top, their director. Also in that office are two Irish people – one from An Garda Síochána and the other from Revenue Customs.  

Tracking

By Friday the other element of the smuggling operation they were tracking began hoving into view. A hulking black-hulled bulk carrier, the MV Matthew, was sailing from a port in Curacao with more than two tonnes of cocaine stowed on board.

Sources have said the information was precise – the drugs were in a consignment from a drugs cartel based in South America, possibly Colombia. The trawler purchased by the two men would act as a so-called donor boat.

The plan was for them to pull alongside the MV Matthew (the cargo vessel acting as the so-called mother ship) and transfer the drugs. 

Part of the investigation was to determine the origin of the MV Matthew. Analysis of Panamanian registered ship’s ownership showed that it changed hands a number of times. 

The intelligence analysts suspected that it was owned by a shell company acting as a front for the shipment. Suspicions were raised further when it was discovered the company owned just one ship and was a new business set up in July of this year. 

Either way MAOC-N and various member countries including the US, France and Netherlands were involved in tracking the movements of the MV Matthew which was spotted spending time off the South American coast before lifting anchor and heading, (via the island nation of Curacao) for Europe. 

While all that was happening the gardaí were waiting and watching and the normal day-to-day work of training and patrolling Irish waters was being conducted by the Naval Service. 

It is not known exactly when the pieces came together for the military – but Commander Tony Geraghty and a team at the Naval base on Haulbowline Island’s operations centre began to work on an intervention plan. 

commander-tony-geraghty-fleet-operations-commander-irish-naval-service-of-the-joint-task-force-jtf-comprising-of-the-revenue-customs-service-naval-service-and-an-garda-siochana-during-a-press-co Alamy Stock Photo Commander Tony Geraghty, Fleet Operations Commander, Irish Naval Service. Alamy Stock Photo

They determined, along with other senior Defence Forces officers, that this was a job for Ireland’s Special Forces – the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) and their Maritime Task Group.

As reported previously by The Journal the ARW, or ‘The Wing’, as they are known in military circles, are experts in so-called “opposed boardings”. 

This is where a vessel does not want to cooperate with a boarding. The ARW are qualified to fast-rope from helicopters onto the deck or climb on metallic ladders up the side of the ship.

Friday came and went. The JTF meeting ended with a set plan for the days ahead. The LÉ William Butler Yeats was on the mission and when it was within range was monitoring the movements of the Castlemore and her new owners as they sailed apparently aimlessly.

At the weekend the MV Matthew entered Irish waters and The Journal has learned that she headed into the Irish Sea, travelled up the busy waterway and turned around opposite Dublin and Bray.

Tensions

Sources believe that tensions were high on board the cargo ship and at some point on Sunday night, it is suspected, that a row broke out and a senior officer on the vessel was winched off and taken to hospital for medical treatment. 

The trawler was en route, not to Devon, but to rendezvous with the MV Matthew. However sources have said that the seamanship of the two men onboard the Castlemore was not up to scratch in rolling seas and in the dark and they grounded their boat on a sandbank.

The emergency services were called on Sunday night, with the RNLI understood to have made attempts to tow the stricken vessel off the sandbank. But it was hopeless and a Coast Guard Helicopter was dispatched to save the two hapless crewmen in the early hours of Monday morning.

But the trick was up. The two men were not brought to shore but to the LÉ William Butler Yeats and arrested by garda detectives who were onboard. 

It appeared at that stage that the best laid plans of the Irish State were being washed away by the gathering storm. In classic military fashion the plan was adapted to overcome the new hurdle.

There were repeated efforts on Monday by the naval service to put a search team onboard the smaller vessel – but images emerged of the stricken trawler which showed it partially submerged in high seas. It looked for all the world like a struggling swimmer, just barely treading water. 

It was treacherous, so the Yeats captain made the choice to stand off and observe. But things were moving fast. 

The JTF had a call to make. The drugs were still on the MV Matthew and they would need to do a boarding and detain the vessel. 

But the seas were rolling. The MV Matthew, with her 25 person crew, was riding high as it was empty of any of its normal bulk cargo that would let her sit low and stable in the water. This was not going to be a job for the naval service boarding team on Yeats – this would need special forces skills.  

It is understood that the ARW had been put on standby – they had left their base in the Curragh in the days before the grounding of the trawler and were “staged” with the helicopters of the Irish Air Corps. (Staged is a military slang term that describes a state whereby military or police intervention teams wait for the final order to move in.)

At 8am yesterday morning they received their orders – in the coming hours they would board and take over the rogue vessel.

The next phase was to get the timings right. A piece of legislation was needed to permit them to act and the Revenue Customs cleared the way for that to happen – it essentially temporarily gave the ARW the powers of customs officers. 

The Rangers dressed in their green maritime mission suits and boarded the helicopters. 

The atmosphere then during that exercise and yesterday morning, was likely akin to that of a professional sports team’s dressing room before a big match – silent mental preparation.

2RXP4MT (1) PA Images The Rangers, garda and naval personnel onboard the captured deck of the MV Matthew. PA Images

In Baldonnel the CASA maritime patrol aircraft and the new PC12 surveillance aircraft were ordered into action, their crews briefed and the mission location drawn on a map – south of the entrance to Waterford Harbour. 

At sea the LÉ William Butler Yeats was ordered to increase speed and close with the MV Matthew – the crew were brought to readiness, gunners went to operate their weapons. 

The Navy ship moved rapidly through the rolling seas and by 11.30am she was coming over the horizon to begin her run into the target – the rolling and bouncing giant hulk of metal.

Commander Tony Geraghty, who was in charge of the naval operation, said this morning that the vessel was too high out of the water for the Rangers to scale it on ladders so the option was to rope onto the deck from the Air Corps helicopters. 

Action

Around 1pm the Navy moved into a position to bring the fleeing bulk carrier to a halt. Geraghty told a press conference today that the Irish ship contacted the bulk carrier over the radio and warned them that they were an Irish naval vessel and that they were about to be boarded. 

But the crewmember piloting the MV Matthew began to steer erratically. The naval captain on the Yeats gave the order to one of the machine gun operators to open fire and to send a burst of rounds of ammunition as warning shots. 

It’s the first time an Irish Naval vessel has fired in anger since the LÉ Aisling in 1984 fired warning shots at another vessel that refused to halt. 

The drugs gang knew their scheme to make a fortune on their cocaine was over. 

Now, as the ship refused to yield, another call was made for the Rangers to move in. Coming low over the water was the helicopter with the Army Ranger Wing onboard – the doors of the AW139 opened and two ropes were flung out. The rangers, armed with HK416 assault rifles, grabbed hold of the ropes and slid down to the bobbing deck towards the bow of the vessel. 

Air Corps Irish Defence Forces An Air Corps helicopter hovers above the deck as the ARW operators board the MV Matthew. Irish Defence Forces

In a movement they have practised a thousand times they moved in a line and with purpose – their guns raised and seeking targets. Their goal was to take control of the ship and they made their way straight to bridge. 

As they entered and were confronted by aggressive crew members, they robustly dealt with those blocking their way to the ship’s wheel.

A short curt radio message was communicated to the Yeats that they had taken control – the operation was complete. 

A follow on team of gardaí and naval personnel were then taken from the Yeats to the MV Matthew. A search quickly established where the drugs were stowed. The Journal has learned that the drugs were concealed inside a lifeboat. 

At that stage the protocol was to bring her to a secure location to be searched – Cork harbour was the venue. An Irish naval captain took over the helm and guided the giant ship to Cobh.

A pilot from the Port of Cork boarded the vessel just outside the harbour near Roches Point. The Yeats entered first and laid at anchor at the Spit Bank in the harbour. Two rigid inflatable hull boats left her and began the six knots trip in past the picturesque seaside town. 

a-cargo-vessel-named-mv-matthew-is-escorted-into-cobh-in-cork-by-the-irish-navy-after-a-significant-quantity-of-suspected-drugs-were-found-onboard-three-men-have-been-arrested-on-suspicion-of-organ Alamy Stock Photo The MV Matthew passing Cobh. Alamy Stock Photo

At around 6pm, High on top of East Hill, The Journal watched on as Cobh people emerged from their homes and out to watch the spectacle. 

Kids gathered with grandparents and they watched on as the busy port, that once was the last port of call of the Titanic, welcomed a new infamous ship.

Among that crowd, high on East Hill, were a number of serving naval personnel and a former naval sailor who had just retired. 

Armed gardaí were waiting at the former Irish Fertiliser Industries site at Marino Point just outside the town.

The ship, assisted by tugs, came alongside at the berth.

Sources have said the full search of the MV Matthew will take weeks but the bulk of the drugs were removed and weighed – 2.2 tonnes of drugs worth €157m.

As Assistant Commissioner Justin Kelly revealed at this morning’s briefing the drugs were part of a shipment from a South American Cartel.

As detectives questioned the crew and the three men detained in Wexford Garda Station their colleagues across the globe were executing search warrants and making enquiries linked to the investigation.

Afterwards, the Rangers gathered together in what is known as a circle of truth – dissecting the mission.

Similar debriefs happened in offices in Dublin – lessons learned will be implemented but now the hard work starts for the garda detectives of the DOCB as they prepare the file for prosecution. 

Sources have said it demonstrates the need for maritime coastal radar to monitor ships as the Castlemore was difficult to track. There are also calls by security sources for a naval vessel that can deploy a helicopter on a full time basis.