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Ex-garda fighting Europe's €14 billion drugs trade says Irish gangs are 'top of the pyramid'

Michael O’Sullivan leads the influential Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre Narcotics in Portugal.

IRISH CRIMINALS ARE now among the biggest players in the estimated €14 billion annual business of transatlantic drug smuggling into Europe, a European law enforcement expert has said.

Michael O’Sullivan is the former head of the precursor to the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau and is now leading the influential Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre Narcotics (MAOC-N) in Portugal.

The international anti-drug trafficking agency was founded by a group of EU member states, including Ireland, in the 2000s.

The former Garda Assistant Commissioner spoke to The Journal about his work and the nature of Europe’s organised crime empire.

In a wide-ranging interview, O’Sullivan said that it is believed that trawlers are being used to meet ships off the coast of Ireland to bring in large quantities of drugs. 

Gangs are also using speed boats designed to evade capture by law enforcement in Irish waters and across the coastlines of Europe. 

O’Sullivan also revealed that Irish criminals are now senior players in the upper echelons of the multi-billion euro European drug trafficking industry.    

Cocaine highway

The success of MAOC has meant that organised crime groups have shifted focus from waters directly off the continent to the 10 degree line of latitude in the Atlantic, known as the ‘Cocaine Highway’, used by smugglers to avoid detection by European naval services.

This line on maritime maps runs from South America across the Atlantic onto the coast of Africa at Cape Verde and Senegal. The route is regularly used by smugglers to ship drugs in bulk, as it is beneath the normal patrol routes of EU naval forces.

To combat them, MAOC has recently begun to liaise with Senegalese forces and other African countries to catch the ships as they track up the African coast to Europe.

The agency O’Sullivan heads has seized over €2 billion worth of drugs in the first six months of 2021 – more than twice the haul for the entire of 2020.

His involvement with the biggest players in international organised crime began in 1986, when he arrested Christy Kinahan in a luxury apartment in Fairview, Dublin.

At the time O’Sullivan was a member of the ‘Mockies’ – a group of undercover gardaí tasked with dealing with the arrival of drugs into Ireland. 

Kinahan received a five-year sentence. 34 years later, O’Sullivan is still continuing the fight against Kinahan and other organised crime groups. 

“Irish criminals are an integral part of organised crime in Europe and they all know one another and they all do business with one another,” he said. 

“They have a certain status – there is no international boundaries when it comes to the organised crime world.

“They don’t care who they do business with as long as they do business. They are all mates with first rate contacts.”

‘De-confliction operation’

MAOC began work in 2004 as a “de-confliction operation” which enables law enforcement agencies from European countries and the US Drugs Enforcement Agency communicate better.

The agency, now run by O’Sullivan, enables the rapid sharing of intelligence between different agencies. That data is then used to target cocaine-laden vessels as they make their way to Europe.  

“The current situation is that the countries attached to MAOC have seized by the first of June more than €2.2 billion in drugs. We seized more in the first six months of this year than the whole of last year,” he explains.

“Last year was a busy year, so business is booming.”

The most recent high profile seizure was centred around an operation in the Dutch port of Rotterdam - but there have also been major hauls off Spain and in other areas where massive shipments are landed.

“The market has been estimated at €9 billion but I would now estimate it at closer to €14 billion across Europe,” O’Sullivan says.

MAOC believe the Atlantic is the best place to target shipments, with O’Sullivan describing how it is easier to disrupt the industrial scale of organised crime at sea rather than on the streets.

Last year, the agency intercepted 19 to 20 vessels, including a semi-submersible which was built in the Amazon jungle. The vessel sailed for 23 days carrying two and half tonnes of cocaine.

semi-sub The semi-submersible captured by MAOC and Spanish authorities in Galicia in November 2019. Source: Shutterstock/David Jalda

“It was intercepted when it was going to land in Galicia – those drugs were destined not just for Spain but for the whole of Europe including Ireland.”

The hulls of semi-submersibles float below the surface – disguised by the rolling sea the vessels are almost invisible to the casual observer.

And just last week, gardaí announced the seizure of €35m worth of cocaine concealed in a shipment of charcoal and coal from South America. That shipment was organised by a number of groups in Europe aligned with the Kinahan Organised Crime Group.   

Liaison officers

MAOC works by having liaison officers from the various countries’ air forces, naval services and police all in the same room, allowing them to work out a solution more efficiently than they would if they were apart. 

“Gone are the days when if you wanted to speak to Spanish police say, you would be going through multiple agencies before you got the person you needed to talk to,” O’Sullivan said.

“It is the same with the French and the British. Now it is streamlined, and that is part of the idea around deconfliction.”

He also said MAOC has a constant supply of information coming from the Drugs Enforcement Agency in the US, as well as various police forces across the globe.

This information is then sent to naval services in Europe to watch out for the shipments en route to Europe.

One agency that is in constant contact with MAOC is the Irish Defence Forces’ Navy and Air Corps.

“If there is a vessel off the Irish coast, when you look at the Irish navy, they cover 12% of the European waters,” O’Sullivan says.

“They are the eyes and ears of law enforcement and they are there with the Air Corps. Without the Air Corps and the navy we would be blindsided from a lot of the Atlantic – we need them and we get them to do a lot of work.”

four-held-over-yacht-drugs-haul An Irish Navy boarding party with €80m of cocaine seized off the Cork Coast on the yacht the Makayabella. Source: PA

The work is not without its risks: a Spanish customs officer was killed while dealing with a drug boat off Gibraltar on 11 July.

Drug shipment vessels are often rigged to explode as naval service personnel approach to carry out a boarding. 

The Irish element

O’Sullivan believes that the issue of organised crime is a pan-European problem with Irish criminals involved in the highest echelons. 

He explained that each shipment could have four or five criminal gangs financing it with an overall involvement of ten major crime gangs. 

And the common denominator is the presence of Irish criminals.  

90421164 Michael O'Sullivan was the lead officer in An Garda Síochána dealing with organised crime. Source: Rolling news.

“It’s a matter of public record that the Kinahan Organised Crime Group are a very large and sophisticated organised crime group and we have a couple of other groups now too,” he says.

“The work of gardaí since Veronica Guerin’s murder, has run a lot of the senior criminals out of the country and into Europe.

“They have established massive contacts abroad in the international drugs trade. They still maintain their pals here in Ireland that they went to prison with or to school with or that they knocked about with. They have those contacts.

“If you have a bit of money from other criminal activities and you want to start selling  coke your best bet is to talk to the people in the coke business with international contacts who can ring a man in Bogota and say this is what we need.

“They can also talk to the European link man who is going to bring together three or four groups who will give the money up front and they put money upfront. The Irish gangs are doing that.

“People at the top of the pyramid in Ireland are talking to the people abroad and asking them to be included in the next deal. That is the way it works and those people who are organising the shipments abroad are now Irish.”

O’Sullivan says that this has enabled the Irish drugs trade to grow into a huge international operation with direct contacts into the supply hubs of South America. 

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A growing problem

He believes that the cocaine problem in Ireland will “get worse before it gets better” as a result of the improved contacts between Irish and international criminals.

“These people involved in drug dealing are the criminals who would normally have been involved in robberies and burglaries,” he says.

“Because of the Irish involvement abroad they now see cocaine sales of a kilo as a viable alternative – it is easier for them and there are massive profits to be made.”

Recent reports from European agencies show that organised crime is on the increase across Europe, with the Netherlands witnessing the targeting of lawyer Derk Wiersum, crime reporter Peter R de Vries and witnesses.  

dutch-crime-journalist-wounded-in-amsterdam-shooting Dutch Crime reporter Peter R de Vries who is suspected to have been murdered by a Dutch crime gang. Source: Utrecht Robin/ABACA

Legalisation ‘not the solution’

O’Sullivan does not see legalisation of drugs is the solution to the organised crime problem, and believes that gangs will not vanish if drugs like cocaine lose their illegal status.

“I have seen the countries that have decriminalised drugs and they are now in significant trouble with organised crime,” he says.

“In the time of head shops people thought if stuff wasn’t criminalised it must be all right. You ask people why would you decriminalise something and they respond that people are going to prison.

“No one is going to prison in Ireland for a simple possession of drugs, not the first, second or third time.

“I don’t get the reasoning for them saying that. It will not solve the problem – it will increase the consumer base for drugs. There is a large amount of people who don’t engage with drugs because of their relationship to criminals.

“If you open the door it will increase consumption and you will never be able to close the door again. These are crazy ideas.

“The crime gangs will not go away. The product will become more attractive to them.”

But when it comes to the war on organised crime, O’Sullivan believes that there is no end in sight, particularly as the cocaine boom continues in Europe and Ireland. 

“What is the future? We just have to keep going, people will replace us. It is a war of attrition and we will continue to make it difficult for these gangs to operate.”

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