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The Maersk Nimes, seen here in Hamburg, Germany, was at the centre of the Irish anti-drug gang operation. DPA/PA Images

Huge cocaine seizure in Cork highlights Ireland's fulcrum position in global drug gang investigations

The Costa Rica to Cork cargo route has seen a number of successful drug interdictions.

THE ATTEMPTED IMPORTATION of €12m worth of cocaine into Ireland yesterday is not the first time that drug gangs have used a weekly fruit shipment from Central America to move large quantities of narcotics into Europe. 

Known in Cork Harbour as ‘The Banana Boat’, the massive container ship filled with fruit is a regular feature in the port each week. 

The ship, called the Maersk Nimes, begins the journey in Costa Rica before crossing the Atlantic, making its first stop at the cargo facility in Ringaskiddy, overlooking the Irish Naval base and the town of Cobh, before moving onto other ports in Europe.

But there was more in this week’s shipment than the usual exotic fruits on board. Garda Detectives from the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, along with colleagues from Customs, were informed by an international web of intelligence agencies that it was carrying an illicit cargo of cocaine.

Garda teams were in place at the port awaiting the arrival and it is understood that the Naval Service was utilised to monitor its approach to Irish waters.

The 172kgs of drugs were hidden inside the shipment, concealed amongst legitimate cargo, either in a single container or multiple containers. A sniffer dog as well as x-ray equipment was used to locate the haul.

The search team also included a dedicated team of customs operators who are specifically trained in searching ships, known as the Deep Rummage Officers.

Their job involves entering the tight confined bilge tanks and other spaces of ships – a difficult and dangerous task on a vessel that has crossed the Atlantic in the midst of winter storms.

No arrests have been made but among security sources, theories are abounding about the identities of those involved.

Some suspicions are centred on the Kinahan Organised Crime Group, which acts as drug wholesalers and which has connections to drug cartels in South America. Three main Irish drug gangs, based mainly in Dublin, are also in the crosshairs.

But some informed sources suspect that this may have been connected to a more international group of drug distribution crime gangs – possibly in the UK market.

“One organised crime group may have organised the shipment, for example, but often it will be financed by individual drug gangs. The drug trade is now so international that this may not have been completely for Ireland and could be [intended for] other groups in other countries such as Britain,” a source said.

The European cocaine trade, from Europol statistics, is estimated to be worth in excess of €9bn annually – while Costa Rica has been profiled, by law enforcement analysts, as a major location used by gangs to access European markets.  

The seizure was made rapidly showing, that among hundreds of containers, gardaí and customs knew where to look. This led many security sources to say that it shows the effectiveness of international co-operation.

“There are a few aspects to this that made this operation a success. The international co-operation is now at its highest level; the sharing of good actionable data from various people such as the DEA in the US and agencies across Europe is really reaping rewards,” said a source. 

One other key aspect is the Maritime Analysis Operation Centre (MAOC) based in Portugal which is led by a former garda Michael O’Sullivan, who was the former head of anti-drug enforcement in Ireland.

“There are constant operations going on, involving not just the guards but the navy also. What the MAOC brings to the table is international co-ordination. On plenty of occasions, the assets are put in place here in Ireland ready to carry out the operation but because of strategic decisions the drugs are seized in other jurisdictions.

“The drug gangs don’t observe borders and the game changer in all this is that international dimension and how law enforcement anti-gang operations must be conducted across various jurisdictions,” a source said.

The vessel was searched and details taken of those on board before it was allowed to continue onto its next port – Tilbury Docks in London.

According to the ship tracker AIS, she was off the coast of Cornwall en route into the English Channel at lunchtime today. 

The global market

Ringaskiddy is a small container facility, compared to the giants of Rotterdam and Tilbury, but it has been scene to similar seizures in the past.

Sources said that the drug importation gangs prefer the cleaner, more manageable, methods of concealing their shipments inside cargo vessels to other alternatives. 

The Cork coast has experienced spectacular incidents where yachts and converted trawlers have been used to bring in bales of drugs, regularly coming to an end at the muzzles of the guns of a naval service boarding party.

In 2018 the so-called Banana Boat, en route to Ringaskiddy, was at the centre of another multi-million euro haul of drugs. The vessel on that occasion, the Polar Chile, was searched in Costa Rica and was found to have €10m worth of drugs on board.

Sources said that gardaí believe that the Kinahan organisation has connections to drugs manufacturing cartels in South America.

“There are now garda liaison operations in several locations and there are now plans to send a garda to South America. The Dutch police, British National Crime Agency, US DEA, the Spanish Guardia Civil are all part of this and it isn’t just the Kinahan gang they are hitting,” a source said. 

“This whole thing is as international as the legitimate export and import businesses they mirror. In the case of the Kinahans, they are wholesalers who facilitate the shipments into Europe; each shipment is financed by particular drug gangs and when the money is in place they will organise it.

“The Costa Rican side of things is clearly the port where they get access to the ships to bring it across the Atlantic but the drugs could be coming from Colombia, Peru or Chile. The local Irish drug dealer is connected to it but he or she is as removed as a grocery shop is from their source of its bananas.”

The garda leading the operations, Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland confirmed the international dimension of the operation.

“It’s significant, of course, in its value, but it’s indicative of the nature of the drug market and roads that are open, open up between the Americas and Europe,” he said. 

“And it’s just one example of a successful intervention made in this case in Ireland, but obviously we work closely with our counterparts and other law enforcement entities in Europe, and wider afield for the purpose of tackling this level of drug trafficking.”

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