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

Ireland is increasingly viewed as a backdoor smuggling route for drug traffickers looking to tap into the European market.

The Garda and Defence Forces surveillance operation put in place to track the Castlemore trawler and a much bigger container vessel off the Irish coast in recent days represents just the latest chapter in the international battle against drug smuggling.

Ireland has almost non-existent naval patrols and our vast waters are seen as a safe, if long, route for some drug smugglers looking to land cocaine into Europe.

Cocaine production has soared in South America in recent years and, because of their booming economies, European nations are the perfect destination for the drug. The demand in Europe has proven so insatiable it is fuelling the supply in South America.

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In yesteryear a yacht would have been used to smuggle a tonne of cocaine on the final part of its journey into a European country. But now a yacht won’t do because the cartels, and the European gangs they sell to, want to move loads of two tonnes or more.

“You’re looking at the same risk and much the same costs for two tonnes as you are for one,” pointed out one Garda source. “So once [crime gangs] have the money to buy the bigger quantity, and the market is there, there’s no real case for sticking to one tonne.”

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As a result, larger vessels like the Castlemore – which ran aground off Co Wexford on Sunday night – are increasingly being sourced by smugglers as they can handle a two-tonne load. A very large container ship will initially be used to transport consignments of cocaine – at times valued at more than €100 million – from South American waters into west Africa.

From there, rather than sailing to Europe via the coasts of Spain or Portugal – with their navies and air forces – the drugs are often taken further west and then up into Irish waters, where boats like the Castlemore come into the equation.

They can be purchased from fishermen in Britain or Ireland and can be used to rendezvous, out into the sea, with the much larger vessel carrying the motherload of drugs. The smaller – “daughter” – vessel then takes on a portion of the motherload – in a collection process known as “coopering”. The smaller vessel can then set sail for a harbour in Britain or Ireland where the drugs can be landed.

Ireland is awash with cocaine, but how does it get into the country? ]

In other cases, when the “daughter” vessel gets close to the shore, other smuggler accomplices in small rigid inflatable boats with outboard engines speed out to them. They quickly take on the load – maybe in a couple of runs – and land it on a small beech in a remote area.

In the case of the two vessels at the centre of the investigation in Irish waters in recent days, one theory being explored is that the very large container boat boarded on Tuesday – by Defence Forces personnel winched on to the deck – was carrying a large consignment of cocaine. And gardaí suspect the two men in the Castlemore either had collected, or intended to collect, some cocaine from that much larger ship, perhaps for landing in Britain, until the plan went wrong.

Michael O’Sullivan is a former assistant commissioner in the Garda and after his time on the force he went on to become director of the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre Narcotics in Portugal. MAOC-N is an EU agency established two decades ago to monitor and disrupt multimillion-euro consignments of drugs being moved around in sea freight.

While he said he could not comment on the ongoing Garda-Defence Forces operation, he told The Irish Times while very large consignments of drugs shipped through Irish waters were usually not destined for the Irish market, this was not always the case.

“Some of the biggest drugs traffickers in Europe are Irish so you couldn’t underestimate the role of some of our own people,” he said of the Kinahans. “You could have a very large consignment that lands here and maybe some of it stays in Ireland and the rest of it is taken out of the country; on to Britain and then maybe [mainland] Europe.”

Though the strength of the Naval Service had been depleted, O’Sullivan said it regularly tracked ships carrying drugs through Irish waters that were later seized in another part of Europe. While the Defence Forces does not get the credit for those seizures, “they’re very much the unsung heroes of the operational effectiveness of drug enforcement”.

“The whole drug scene has moved on hugely, even in the last years within transnational organised crime,” he said. “We are talking about drugs, particularly cocaine coming from Colombia. It’s estimated that the value of the market value of cocaine in Europe is in excess of €9 billion, probably closer to €13 billion. That’s just cocaine alone. So there’s a huge market in Europe for cocaine. There’s a lot of people spending a lot of money on it, particularly in this country.”