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Dances with Waves, the luxury yacht which was seized off the west coast of Ireland in 200 Alamy Stock Photo
THE MORNING LEAD

Fishing boat owners turning to work with drug trafficking gangs to deal with financial pressures

Recently The Journal travelled to Lisbon to examine its drugs policy and met with the head of a European-funded agency combating drug smuggling.

FISHING BOAT OWNERS are turning to trafficking huge amounts of drugs into Ireland and countries across the African and European Atlantic seaboard due to dwindling fish stocks and to deal with debt, according to a senior European policing official. 

This is the message from Sjoerd Top, the executive director of the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre – Narcotics (MAOC-N), the EU’s hub for analysing the drug trade coming into Europe, which is based in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. 

The Journal sat down for an exclusive chat with Top about his team’s work and the current situation for organised crime and drug smuggling operations in the seas around Portugal, Ireland and other countries. 

In a wide-ranging interview he spoke about the threat to the EU’s fishing communities and how drug smugglers in the Mediterranean are engaging in high-speed drug runs, as well as exploiting vulnerable migrants in people trafficking operations. 

MAOC is based in a non-descript office block deep in the sprawling and picturesque Portuguese capital city. 

Inside, the only signs that this building is involved in the serious business of drug interdiction are the images of military boarding parties and seized shipments on the walls. 

In the boardroom the Irish flag stands proudly amongst the other member states and in an office nearby sit two Irish representatives – one from Revenue Customs and the other a garda detective. Ireland has sent the officers to facilitate the sharing of Irish intelligence with the other partner nations.

Top is a senior Dutch law enforcement officer seconded to the centre which was previously led by former garda Deputy Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan.

MAOC-N is an initiative by six EU member states: France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal, as well as the United Kingdom, co-funded by the Internal Security Fund of the European Union.

The role of the team in Lisbon is one of intelligence facilitation: they receive information gathered by member states and then build a picture to coordinate the response.

They don’t do the investigation but instead analyse details such as the owners of boats involved in drug running, the identities of the crews, and see if there are any connections between them and the organised criminals shipping massive quantities of drugs to the European continent. 

Fishing boats and yachts

As reported by The Journal, large quantities of drugs come to Europe from South America on board cargo ships via Dutch ports, but MAOC-N is dedicated only to dealing with smaller vessels which are making the crossing from South America and Africa with large quantities of drugs onboard.

Ireland has seen the benefit of its involvement with MAOC-N: sailing vessels carrying tonnes of drugs have been intercepted before they could reach the island, and even a small light aircraft flying from Dieppe in France to Abbeyshrule in County Longford was stopped. 

There are a multitude of routes in but Top said a key issue is that members of fishing fleets are allowing their vessels be used for trafficking. He was keen to stress that it is not the whole of the fishing community but rather individuals within it. 

“Organised crime groups always try to search for the best opportunity to corrupt people and most of the time, those are people that have a lack of money and a lot of problems, financial problems,” he said. 

“We are all aware that the fishing communities are having a hard time at the moment because of economic problems, but also welfare and environmental issues regarding fishing.

“If there is no fish to be found because there was too much fishing, they don’t make the money. If they did a big investment in their vessels, they cannot make the money [to pay off the loan] for that by fishing, then they will probably find another solution. And that could also be getting involved in organised crime groups,” he added. 

IMG_5236 Sjoerd Top in the Lisbon office of MAOC-N. Niall O'Connor / The Journal. Niall O'Connor / The Journal. / The Journal.

Top said fishing vessels are acting as so-called donor vessels that sail from a port in Ireland or elsewhere to meet a “mother ship” which is carrying the bulk of the drugs deep in international waters. 

It is not just hard-up fishing captains either – Top said there is also a problem with people in the yachting fraternity allowing their vessels to be used.

“Organised crime is always looking for vulnerable people – it’s very easy for them to ask you to do a very small favour, because probably the first time they won’t ask you to bring in five tons of cocaine. 

“They will ask you to do a small job with some good money but the next time they will ask you to do a much bigger shipment and when you say no they will tell you that they will go to the police about the original job,” he added. 

Top said MAOC-N has become aware of cases across Europe and Africa where police officers, customs, dock workers and politicians are all in the pay of organised crime.

“After the first step, it’s very, very difficult to get out. So that’s a huge warning to people:  don’t do this small job where you think, ‘okay, that doesn’t really harm me or the society’,” he said. 

Irish naval resourcing

It was clear that Top was aware of some of the coverage in Ireland around the capabilities of the Irish Naval Service.

He did not address resourcing concerns directly but instead said: “Since my tenure as a director started we have never asked the support of the Irish authorities where they said that they are not able to support us in a case.”

The Journal confirmed this with multiple security sources in Ireland familiar with naval operations, with one stating firmly: “Everything else gets dropped when MAOC calls”. 

Top said that it is not just an Irish issue as the war in Ukraine has put pressure on naval assets across Europe. He said that they are seeing navy ships and aircraft sent on specific maritime security operations now to monitor situations arising from that war. 

The director added that instability in Africa, particularly in the sub-Saharan Sahel region, was being exploited by drug gangs but said that there was evidence that terrorist groups were using the drugs smuggling trade to fundraise.

four-held-over-yacht-drugs-haul A cocaine seizure from the yacht Makayabella intercepted by the Irish Navy 200 nautical miles off Mizen Head in 2014. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

One key route for drugs from South America has been through Cape Verde and Senegal on the west coast of Africa and then up through the continent to fast boats which then cross into Europe. Top said there was growing evidence also that people traffickers operating in North Africa were also heavily involved in the drugs trade.

He said the US Coast Guard was now operating in the seas near Cape Verde and off the coast of Senegal and elsewhere to combat the flow of drugs. The US is engaged in this operation as it has adopted an approach to target drug smugglers from South America cartels regardless of their locations. They are not the only navy out there with many European ships, including Ireland, watching on. 

On the day we meet, Top hinted that military and law enforcement officers were monitoring a shipment in the Atlantic, waiting to intercept it. 

As it turned out later, that operation was a success: the Spanish National Police intercepted a yacht carrying 2.7 tonnes of cocaine approximately 600 natical miles south-west of the Canary Islands. It was a supply of drugs linked to a Balkan organised crime group. 

The seizure brought MAOC-N over the line with over 1,000 tonnes worth of drugs being intercepted since it was founded in 2007. 

While that operation concludes, other operations continue – Top finishes the interview and makes his way to a meeting with plain clothes experts from a European country. 

As we leave MAOC-N’s office we observe the waiting investigators clutching intelligence folders – the next opportunity to increase the tonnage record. 

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