Ireland
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Ireland’s biggest cocaine haul: how the plan ran aground

The first signs that something unusual was about to happen off the Irish coast came two weeks ago when a west Cork fisherman received an inquiry about the sale of his 14.9m fishing boat, the Castlemore. He’d bought it for €600,000 in 2017. With fishing quotas being reduced, and boats being decommissioned, he’d been trying to sell the fishing vessel for two years. The query in mid-September came out of the blue.

The buyer finalised the purchase last Friday, when the money was paid into the unwitting seller’s bank account by electronic transfer. The new owners promptly headed out to sea last Friday night telling locals in Castletownbere they were destined for Brixham in Devon.

The first the Irish public heard of the boat was on Monday afternoon when reports began to emerge it had run aground on the Money Weights sandbank, 12km off the coast of Co Wexford. It quickly became clear there may be more to its difficulties than a straightforward emergency at sea. Indeed, the signs something was amiss were in evidence even before it left Castletownbere.

“One local lad was watching the two fellows on board the boat on Friday night, and he said they looked as if they didn’t know one end of a rope from the other,” said one source. “If she was heading for Brixham as they claimed, she would have gone southeast from here, but she ended up going north to Wexford.”

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According to the source, the size of the Castlemore is significant in that at just 14.9m long it isn’t legally required to carry a tracking device. “The Castlemore could link up with another vessel off the south coast without it showing up as two boats rendezvousing,” said a source. And because the sale of the vessel had only just been completed, it would take a week or two before the new ownership was registered, offering a further degree of cover for those on board.

The 2.2 tonnes of cocaine was hidden in a lifeboat on the side of the ship and an effort had been made to set it on fire. Photograph: An Garda Siochana/PA Wire

Gardaí believe the boat was bought to collect a consignment of cocaine from a much larger vessel – containing a 2.2 tonne “motherload” of the drug – the MV Matthew. It is unclear if the Castlemore ever made it out to the Matthew to collect the drugs. Gardaí suspect it never got there and ran aground off Wexford on Sunday because the two-man crew was so inexperienced.

A rescue operation was launched on Sunday night into Monday morning, initially to try to tow the Castlemore fishing vessel back into open water. But the fishing vessel was already under surveillance by gardaí, the Naval Service and Air Corps as part of a large-scale international operation to combat cocaine smuggling.

In the early hours of Monday morning during stormy weather, the two men on the Castlemore were winched to safety by Irish Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 117. They landed on the deck of the Naval Service’s LÉ William Butler Yeats, which was nearby and acting as headquarters for the surveillance operation at sea.

Cork drugs haul: Two men charged over record €157m cocaine seizure ]

By the time the two men on the fishing vessel were rescued on Monday morning, mariners were already taking note of further unusual activity around Wexford and St George’s Channel. A bulk carrier, the 189m MV Matthew, seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time making its way up the Irish Sea.

The Panamanian ship got as far as Arklow by noon on Sunday, when it reported to the Irish Coast Guard it had lost power and eventually said it was heading for Cork to source engine parts for repairs. On Monday night, it was involved in drama when the 50-year-old Iranian captain of the ship had to be airlifted off by Irish Coast Guard helicopter, Rescue 117.

Initial reports suggested the man may have had a blackout and fell, suffering injuries to his head and neck. However, gardaí believe he was either assaulted by others on the ship or that he feigned his injuries in a bid to escape the ship because it had brought too much attention to itself. Either way, the captain staged a remarkable recovery once he was rescued.

On Tuesday morning he was arrested by gardaí on his discharge from University Hospital Waterford and was still being held for questioning on Thursday night about organised crime activity. Gardaí allegedly found $60,000 (€56,700) and a satellite phone in his bag.

The LÉ William Butler Yeats fired two warning shots from its 76mm gun at MV Matthew, the first time the Naval Service has fired a shot in many years. Photograph: Irish Defence Forces/PA Wire

Back at sea, off east Cork, the MV Matthew was still under close but covert surveillance by the LÉ William Butler Yeats early on Tuesday. The plan was to have the Army Ranger Wing board the ship when it entered port in Cork to source replacement engine parts. However, the crew abruptly changed course and started sailing back out to sea, which gardaí believe was a bid to escape. The captain of the Yeats announced its presence, ordering the ship to comply with his directions and follow him back to port under maritime law.

When the ship continued to try to power away – in the futile hope of eventually getting out of Irish waters – the Yeats fired two warning shots from its 76mm gun. It was the first time the Naval Service has fired a shot in many years.

It was then the authorities decided their only option was to land the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) on deck. The ARW descended by rope from an Air Corps helicopter on to the deck, a task made all the more challenging by the Matthew continuing to take evasive manoeuvres. Once on board, the Rangers met scenes of panic. The crew was unarmed but some attempted to resist, requiring ARW members to use physical force.

Military personnel onboard MV Matthew. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

After a few minutes all crew members were detained on the bridge – bound with cable ties – and searched for weapons. The 2.2 tonne of cocaine was hidden in a lifeboat on the side of the ship. An effort had been made to set it on fire.

Two men have since appeared in court to face charges, with the Garda alleging they were the duo on the Castlemore. However, no findings have been reached against them. Five others, who were all on the MV Matthew, were still being questioned on Thursday night. The seven arrested men are from the UK, the Netherlands, Iran and Ukraine. Other crew members from the MV Matthew – many from the Philippines – were being interviewed by gardaí on Thursday night, although they are not under arrest.

At a press conference on Wednesday, the mood was quietly triumphant. Assistant Commissioner Justin Kelly announced the haul was the largest cocaine seizure by weight in Irish history.

Assistant Commissioner Justin Kelly at the media briefing. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

“As you can imagine, there is significant outlay in terms of getting an operation like this up and running. Obviously, there’s the purchase of the vessels, there’s the payment of people involved and the corrupting of officials across the globe to become involved in something like this.”

Garda sources believe the drugs were supplied by the infamous Clan del Golfo cartel. American law enforcement this week said the cartel was “one of Colombia’s largest criminal enterprises responsible for the majority of the cocaine production and trafficking in Colombia”.

Cocaine seized on cargo ship off Cork likely supplied by Colombia’s Clan del Golfo cartel ]

Gardaí also believe the Kinahan cartel had a financial stake in the haul and that some of the cocaine – though probably only a small portion – was destined for the Irish market. It is believed the rest of the haul was destined for other countries in Europe. Whether the MC Matthew had already dropped off other loads of cocaine before being seized in Irish waters remains unclear.

However, earlier this month the Spanish and French authorities seized two consignments of cocaine – 1,000kg and 2,400kg – off the coast of Cape Verde and off the coast of West Africa respectively. These may have been delivered from the MV Matthew.

MV Matthew’s route since departing Willemstad Port on August 18th

Map: Paul Scott

The vessel, valued at €9.5 million, had changed hands in recent months. It sailed from the Dutch protectorate of Curaçao on August 18th, calling to Georgetown in Guyana before crossing the Atlantic.

It spent about a week around the Canaries off the west coast of Africa in mid-September. There is suspicion the vessel may have dropped off drugs to a smaller boat near the Canaries. It was supposedly destined for Gdansk, Poland.

Military personnel onboard MV Matthew as the Irish Navy escorts it to Cobh. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

An experienced investigator pointed out that it was notable that MV Matthew called to no port in Europe during this period and did not appear to have any bulk cargo such as grain or fertiliser when she crossed the Atlantic.

“Everything points to this ship crossing the Atlantic with just cocaine on board, but you can be sure that no one sent a boat this size with 64,000 tonnes capacity across the Atlantic with just two tonnes of cocaine,” the source told The Irish Times.

The Garda and Defence Forces regularly join international operations to track vessels suspected of smuggling drugs, meaning the Irish involvement in monitoring the MV Matthew was nothing new. The operation also involved the US Drugs Enforcement Agency, Britain’s National Crime Agency, the French customs service and the Dutch authorities. The Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (Narcotics) based in Lisbon – a joint effort by seven EU member states to combat drugs trafficking by sea – was also involved.

Those international operations normally result in ships passing through Irish waters, under close surveillance, only for the drugs to be seized in ports elsewhere in Europe, where the authorities get the credit. For once, this operation remained an Irish one.

The MV Matthew is escorted into Cobh. There is suspicion the vessel may have dropped off drugs to a smaller boat near the Canaries. Photograph: Niall Carson

At its conclusion, a Panamanian bulk cargo vessel was brought into Cork, with 2.2 tonnes of cocaine on board supplied by one of Colombia’s most ruthless cartels intended for some of Europe’s most powerful and violent drugs gangs.

Depressingly, although the haul was a record for Ireland and represents a financial blow for all involved, Garda sources said it was unlikely to significantly impact the supply or value of cocaine anywhere in Europe.