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How Gardaí's €35 million cocaine seizure is part of a global fight against a 'giant alliance' of crime

The seizure given to gardaí this week came on foot of work by agencies across the world.

Image: Shutterstock/Avigator Fortuner

THE SEIZURE BY Gardaí of a shipment of cocaine in Rotterdam is the latest high-profile policing event in a global investigation into organised crime that has spanned more than five years. 

The Regency Hotel shooting was seen as the catalyst for targeted investigations by gardaí into the Kinahan Organised Crime Group (KOCG). 

But security sources have said recent investigations are not just about that gang, but involve a conglomeration of criminal organisations from South America to Ireland, the Middle East and into Europe.

Gardaí have always had a good relationship with their Spanish and Dutch counterparts in investigating these crimes, but the activities of the KOCG mean that those connections are now greater than ever.

‘Giant alliance’

Sources have said that the Kinahans and other gangs are now in a “giant alliance”, and particular focus has been drawn to the activities of their partners in crime, the Dutch/Moroccan crime gang. 

They are not the only Irish organised crime group with connections in the Netherlands, and other well-known criminals from here are using the European country for their activities.

It means that the policing operation is not just focused on what happens in Ireland.

“What has happened is that all countries now see that to get a handle on organised crime, they must fight it without borders,” a source told The Journal.

“Gardaí like Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, here in Ireland, have been keen to stress that the drug gangs don’t let borders get in the way, and neither should law enforcement.

“What law enforcement agencies across Europe and in the Americas are looking at is a massive alliance that includes the biggest criminals in Holland, Britain and Spain.”

Much of the focus in Ireland has been on the activities of the Kinahans, particularly as a result of the murders of associates of the Hutch family on the streets of Dublin in recent years.

But sources are keen to stress that the problem is not just an Irish issue. Instead, it is one that is being tackled in a dozen countries and which has involved a global army of law enforcement officials.

navy ship LE William Butler Yeats and other ships are regularly tasked to deal with drug shipments. Source: Irish Defence Forces

The seizure of a giant shipment of cocaine by Dutch authorities and the subsequent involvement of gardaí is part of this international fight.

The shipment itself originated in South America, possibly Colombia, before it was transported to Europe. It was concealed in up to 2,000 bags purporting to be charcoal, in what was a sophisticated criminal operation.

But a source explains how not all attempts to import drugs are like this:

There are still shipments coming in via more traditional routes like yachts and cars, but they’re peanuts – these criminals are on another level.
“This is a multi-billion euro market and because of that they are moving shipments in legitimate shipping routes.

“There are estimates that police are catching under a quarter of what is coming in. So it would be safe to say that while this is a success, it’s not the whole picture.”

Intelligence-gathering

Sources were unwilling to say when the information about this shipment was received, but did confirm that it was part of a probe with a huge international dimension. 

“The intelligence picture is not just a person telling a covert human intelligence handler, and it is not just about being up on the phones of criminals,” a source said. 

“It may have been a single tout saying this, but intelligence-gathering on these gangs is now at a level never seen before. There is the hack of messaging services like Encrochat or the Sky network, and more recently the work of Australian authorities and the FBI, who produced their own app and tricked criminals to use it. 

“They are up on phones, they have sources within the gangs and other methods – including bugging of locations. What is happening here is that it is about the whole intelligence picture, and it is not just coming from one country.” 

A security source also explained how the Irish Naval Service is regularly used to monitor the transit of ships from South and Central America en route to Ireland and other European ports. 

“They’ve been involved in other shipments, even stuff that has ended up in Holland, UK and the Canary Islands,” the source said.

“A lot of the stuff is coming in via container vessels, so they pick up the ship hundreds of nautical miles off the coast and follow it.”

The source further outlines how calls are often made by authorities to the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC) in Portugal.

“This is a pan-European operation with a complete focus on fighting this on a cross-border basis,” they said.

“Such is the co-operation now that the guards can provide information they sourced from naval operations or intelligence sources and feed those into the central hub at MAOC. That then gets fed up the line. 

“So in the same way, gardaí are making seizures here in ports and other jurisdictions are doing the same. The data is being actioned in multiple countries.” 

Sophisticated concealment

The sophistication of methods to conceal shipments, such as the use of coal or charcoal as a smuggling mechanism.

Where charcoal is used, drugs are mixed into a seemingly innocuous substance using chemicals. 

Gangs then use solvents to extract drugs at their destination – and gardaí have to do the same if they are seized. 

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“It has been hidden in the bodies of electrical goods, inside wooden furniture, suspended in liquids, and buried in coffee beans or in bulk sugar imports,” a source said.

“Whatever you can imagine, the smugglers have already thought of it.” 

charcoal coke Items of cocaine disguised as charcoal seized in The Rotterdam seizure. Source: Garda Press Office

Such is the sophistication of the logistics of smuggling methods that, according to sources, the Kinahan group and other international gangs are accessing routes via legitimate shipments of goods. 

There have been a number of recent seizures on container vessels operated by several well-known freight lines. 

The biggest haul in recent years was a €1.5 billion shipment found on the MSC Gayane – a Liberian cargo ship – in July 2019.

On that occasion, crew members were in on the smuggling and the shipment was destined for the European market via the Netherlands.

But sources are not able to say whether it is regularly the case that an inside crew member participates in such operations.

“There could be, but what is more likely is that the cargo ships are being duped too. And in fairness, these ships don’t need to know. As far as they’re concerned it’s charcoal,” a security source added. 

One theory on the latest seizure is that there is an organised Kinahan element involved.

“Regardless of who it is, the fact is that gardaí have been given the shipment – so it is not too obvious to suggest an Irish criminal is involved and will be prosecuted here,” a source said. 

“Ultimately, there has been a five year plan to bring about the end of the KOCG by Special Crime Operations, and that could well be coming to fruition now.”

The High Court previously heard that Christy Kinahan Senior and his son Daniel run a €1 billion empire.

Kinahan is based in Dubai, apparently out of the reach of Irish authorities, but his Morrocan/Dutch counterpart Ridouan Taghi has recently been extradited from the Emirates and is now on trial in the Netherlands for his criminal activities. 

“No one is out of reach, but a case must be built first,” a security source said.

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