Over 1bn worth of drugs has been seized by the authorities in the last decade. Ten times this amount has found its way on to the streets. And as drug use increases and gangs get more cunning, Customs' job is getting even harder
'CUSTOMS officers at Dublin airport made their latest drugs seizure last Wednesday when they approached a 31-year-old Dutch man who had just arrived on a flight from Brussels. A search of the man's briefcase proved successful when a hidden compartment was discovered with over oneand-a-half kilograms of cocaine neatly packed inside.
The drugs had a street value of around 115,000.
Secret compartments in travelling luggage are a common way to smuggle drugs into Ireland. Last December, cocaine worth over 1m was discovered in false bottoms of four suitcases on a flight that arrived in Dublin from Lagos in Nigeria via Paris. It was the third cocaine seizure in as many weeks at the end of last year when all three luggage searches revealed hidden suitcase compartments. All three of those flights originated in Nigeria, but the so-called 'drug mules' came from a variety of national backgrounds . . . a 35year-old Nigerian male, a 33year-old American female and a 20-year-old British man.
"Quite a number are really tragic cases, people who are desperately addicted or in debt to drug dealers, " according to Shay Doyle, director of customs enforcement at Dublin airport.
Over 85 staff are dedicated to the Customs National Drug Team monitoring Ireland's ports and airports for the importation of cocaine, heroin, cannabis and other illegal drugs.
"We employ a lot of resources in staying a step ahead of the criminals, in terms of identifying the routes they are taking to bring drugs into the state, " Doyle told the Sunday Tribune this weekend.
"It is common that if we catch a number of mules or traffickers travelling on a route from Lagos to Paris and onto Dublin, in a matter of weeks the gang behind this operation will send the drugs via Frankfurt, or via another route, to make it less transparent. For this reason, we rely a large deal on co-operation with other customs and police forces worldwide."
A significant part of the customs detection process involves 'profiling' potential smugglers.
"In one case, an experienced customs officer saw a non-national male wearing an expensive Armani suit, but his socks were shabby. It looked odd. It turned out he was a drug addict being used as a mule. He was carrying several kilos of herbal cannabis, " Doyle said.
Figures compiled by the Sunday Tribune show that, over the last decade, seizures valued at over 1bn have been made by the gardai and the Customs National Drug Team.
The value and scale of these seizures is dramatic . . . cocaine worth 537m, cannabis 512m, heroin 34m and ecstasy 6m.
But the figures only hint at the amount of drugs getting past the authorities.
The international norm is that about 10% of illegal drugs are detected by policing authorities. Applying this ratio to the Irish case means that drugs with a street value above 10bn have arrived in Ireland over the last 10 years.
Not all of these drugs are destined for local consumption, as Ireland is recognised as a transit point in the delivery of large quantities of drugs to Britain.
A variety of different schemes have been used to smuggle drugs into Ireland.
In May last year, a 24-yearold Irishman was stopped by customs officers at Dublin airport. When the man's shoes were examined they were found to have hidden compartments packed with drugs . . . cocaine, heroin and ecstasy tablets . . . valued at around 50,000.
Charlie, one of the customs' sniffer dogs, took an interest in a shipment that arrived from South Africa in October 2003. When officers examined the shipment they discovered over 30kgs of herbal cannabis hidden in the frames of several paintings. A South African in her 30s, who was living in Ireland, was subsequently arrested.
In August 2003, the authorities at Dublin airport examined two armchairs that had arrived by air freight from South Africa. Some 15kgs of herbal cannabis was found concealed in the chairs. Three Nigerian men were later arrested.
Earlier in 2003, a container arrived at Dublin Port, having come from Thailand via Antwerp. Hidden inside concrete garden furniture was over six tonnes of herbal cannabis with a street value of over 15m. It was the largest seizure ever made by customs officers.
Drugs have also literally arrived in the post. Recent seizures have included airmail packages sent from South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria and Spain. People also swallow drugs to evade detection. The rewards are sufficient to risk the possibility of an overdose as stomach acids erode the packaging around the drugs.
This time last year, customs officers approached a 31-yearold Ghanaian as he stepped off a flight from Amsterdam.
He was in possession of about 400g of cocaine with a street value of 30,000. The drugs were stored inside 39 pellets which he had swallowed in Ghana before starting his journey.
Drug traffickers are constantly seeking new and more sophisticated smuggling techniques. A recent technique, as explained by Michael Colgan of the Customs National Drug Team, has made it even harder to detect cocaine.
"This involves the transformation of cocaine into a liquid substance . . . after which it is impregnated into the clothing a courier wears. On arrival, a very sophisticated chemical formula is applied that renders the cocaine back into its original state ready for sale on the streets. This is most worrying because it suggests that a level of chemical know-how more often associated with drugs gangs in Holland is now arriving on our own shores."
The Customs National Drug Team has a single patrol vessel, the RCC Suirbeir, which operates in co-operation with other navy ships in policing the Irish coastline.
With around 3,000km of coastline to watch, the task confronting the state authorities is enormous.
Officers look out for a practice known as 'coopering' . . .
where a small craft travelling off the coast meets up with a 'mother ship', which passes a consignment of drugs onto the smaller ship. "This consignment may be later dropped off at a coastal dropoff point or trafficked towards the UK coastline, " Colgan said.
An increase in the cocaine trade in and through Ireland is one of the new developments identified by the authorities here.
"We are noticing increased involvement of west African gangs in the transit of illegal drugs into the state. The trend in the increase in both cocaine and herbal cannabis largely comes about with the increased involvement of African gangs, who have easy access to both these types of drugs, and who are now major world players in the illegal narcotics industry, " Colgan said.
Drugs from west Africa are first moved into Morocco and Spain, before being smuggled across Europe. "The problem presented by the increased African involvement in the transit of drugs is the use of new trafficking routes, with a significant amount now coming here under various guises, from Nigeria, by both air and sea.
The west African gangs are remarkably organised. It is very difficult to obtain information and intelligence on these gangs, as opposed to gangs that are of a European origin, " Colgan said.
The gardai and customs authorities have had their greatest detection successes with cannabis, making almost 25,000 seizures between 1995 and 2000, compared to 5,021 for ecstasy, 3,721 for heroin and 862 for cocaine. The higher cannabis detection rate may be due to its comparatively bulky nature, making it harder to conceal than other drugs.
Despite the seizures, drugs continue to make their way on the market in Ireland.
Over the past two decades, drug use has moved from being confined to heroin addicts in economically deprived parts of Dublin to a fact of life for young people across all social classes and all parts of the country, with ecstasy and cannabis now widely available.
One survey indicated that 37% of Irish 15- to 16-yearolds had used cannabis, three times the average exposure to cannabis of teenagers in the same age range in other EU countries. Some 54% of 15to 16-year-olds in Ireland also said it was either very easy or fairly easy to buy ecstasy.
At Dublin airport, as his officers fight an increasingly difficult battle, Shay Doyle stressed the reality underpinning drug use in Ireland.
"The gangs behind these drugs are ruthless people, heavily armed and dangerous, who prey on the weak and vulnerable for their own profit. Few people realise this, unfortunately, " Doyle said.
May 22, 2005