A recent bust in the 'Irish box' shows drug smugglers are ruling over the Cork shore
Henry McDonald and Mark Townsend
The Observer, Sunday 8 July 2007
It is known as the 'Irish box' - 7,500 miles of water and coastline stretching from the republic's Atlantic seaboard around to Dublin in the east. Vast expanses of these waters are subject to freak and often rapid weather changes that, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, make them 'nearly impossible to patrol' and an ideal launch pad for drug smugglers to penetrate the lucrative UK market.
Detectives in Ireland and Spain are still questioning three men following the recovery of hundreds of millions of euros worth of cocaine off the west Cork coast last Monday - Ireland's largest ever cocaine bust. The Irish drugs squad and detectives in the UK are still searching for two other men they believe are connected to the operation.
Poor weather this weekend was preventing divers from searching for the rest of the drugs believed to be have been dumped off the coast. Navy divers have been on stand-by to search caves in the Dunlough Bay area for stray bales of cocaine. Meanwhile, in force eight gales, the coastline is still being patrolled by gardai and customs officials for contraband that might have washed ashore.
The Irish navy has managed to crack the memory of navigational equipment seized from the inflatable craft used by the suspected smugglers and this should reveal the vessels' routes.
Whatever the outcome, the international criminal gangs behind the alleged smuggling network will continue to use Ireland as a distribution centre for cocaine aimed at the British market, despite the physical risks presented by west Cork's rugged coastline.
Security sources in Dublin this weekend said they believed the shipment would be only the first in a series of landings off Ireland's south-west coast during the summer. Last week unseasonably rough weather caught the traffickers by surprise and they were unable to handle their inflatable craft, known as 'ribs', in the strong seas off Mizen Head.
'The criminal gangs believe the Irish coast is hard to patrol,' said a senior garda official. 'They won't give up just because of one setback. We estimate that for every shipment that gets caught or is compromised through bad weather, another nine will get through.'
The British gangs are following the route used by the Irish-born drug trafficker Brian 'the Milkman' Wright, thus known because he always delivered. During a lifetime of crime, Wright never paid tax, never had a bank account or credit card, and had no national insurance number. Despite being almost illiterate, his drug-dealing empire brought him a box at Royal Ascot, a private jet, racehorses and a host of celebrity friends.
Although he is now behind bars after being sentenced to 30 years in a London court earlier this year, associates of Wright's gang based in England and in Spain's Costa del Sol are thought to have been behind last Monday's seizure.
It was Wright who pioneered the landing of huge cocaine shipments off the south-west of Ireland in the early 1990s, leading to him becoming one of Europe's top drug smugglers. The 'Milkman's' route was first used in 1996, when the Sea Mist, a chartered yacht carrying 599kgs of cocaine, was seized in Cork harbour. Like the aborted plot last week, the Sea Mist docked to seek shelter after running into severe storms. That time Wright escaped conviction even though the crew were subsequently all jailed.
Wright's luck, however, finally ran out last year when the British authorities followed up an investigation into the seizure of five tons of cocaine, worth an estimated €400m, from a ship off the Canary Islands in June 2005. Twelve people were arrested and are now serving lengthy prison sentences. 'The Milkman' fled to Cyprus but then went back to Spain where he was arrested and finally extradited to the UK.
According to garda sources, Ireland has become the favoured route of the cocaine smuggling network opened up by Wright. The gang responsible would know that Irish customs have only one 'cutter' vessel - a craft suitable for inshore work but not the high seas - to patrol 7,500 miles of the 'Irish box'.
The vulnerability of Ireland's coastline was first highlighted seven years ago by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA found that stretches of coast are 'nearly impossible to patrol'. It concluded: 'Ireland's isolated coasts are ideal for shielding offload operations. The country's internal role as a transit point will accelerate as drug trafficking organisations continue to favour using the island for continental and British-bound cocaine and hashish shipments.'
The situation around Ireland contrasts with other drug smuggling routes. Since February 1996, the Royal Navy and UK customs officers have seized 18.36 tonnes of cocaine with a street value of £1.5bn on other sea routes.
Twelve days ago the UK's largest warship, HMS Ocean, seized cocaine with a street value of £29m from a vessel in the Caribbean. Fifteen bales of the drug were hauled up from the sea by helicopter after smugglers threw them into the water. Speaking from the ship's control deck off the Caribbean coast, captain Russ Harding told The Observer his crew had been kept busy patrolling the 'air corridor' favoured by cocaine traffickers between South America and the Caribbean. He said their task was to monitor light aircraft carrying the drug to either makeshift runways or towards 'drop points' in the Atlantic where they would jettison their illicit cargo to be picked up by ships bound for Europe.
While the Irish Naval Service has been strengthened in terms of craft and sailor numbers in recent years, it remains stretched because it also protects Ireland's dwindling fishing stocks. Irish opposition leader Enda Kenny has dubbed the Irish Navy the 'Cinderella service' of the country's defence forces, saying that at any one time there are only two ships patrolling the seas around the Republic.
Lieutenant Commander Bill Lauste of the Royal Navy said that the British gangs behind the new routes are well connected and ruthless.
'It can be dangerous, but if they see a helicopter with a large gun they tend to come quietly. But the really dangerous people are often those behind the scene. Obviously these operations are making a few people pretty angry and we are constantly reviewing our security.'
Much of the intelligence on the cocaine smuggling networks is orchestrated by a new, highly secretive pan-European Maritime Analysis Operations Centre (MAOC) in Portugal. British intelligence officers with experts from Portugal, Spain, Ireland, France and the Netherlands monitor vessel movements from the coca plantations of South America to the Caribbean via the 'Irish box'. The challenge to the MAOC team is daunting. More than 220m sea containers are transported across the oceans and seas each year, with 90 per cent of cargos escaping inspection.
The MAOC centre, which will open later this year, is aimed at protecting the EU's Atlantic borderline from cocaine traffickers. A source inside Soca, the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency, said: 'Actionable intelligence is matched to maritime assets to counter the threat in the most effective way possible. This will increase the operational capability of the participating countries to stem the flow of cocaine and improve our common knowledge of the gangs involved.'
The problem for MAOC and other agencies involved in halting the cocaine tide is the dearth of co-operation between services like the Royal Navy and its smaller Irish equivalent. Last year the then Conservative shadow Northern Ireland Secretary David Lidington called for a new Anglo-Irish naval agreement allowing the two services to work together on joint patrols and to share intelligence aimed at shutting down the sea bound cocaine smuggling networks. Last year the Irish Defence Forces confirmed that there was no formal arrangement between the two navies. Since then there has been no progress.
For the traffickers the risks of using the 'back door' into Europe and the UK - the often-treacherous waters - are outweighed by the rewards. According to the latest United Nations annual global drugs report, around 2.4 per cent of the UK population admit they have tried cocaine - four times as many as a decade ago. Cocaine abuse, the report found, is high among 'educated professionals' in the UK, Italy and Spain. The well-off, it seems, are the market that Wright's successors are out to exploit.
Drug smugglers have been using the Irish coastline for nearly 40 years. It was first established by the British marijuana smuggler turned writer Howard Marks and his Belfast-born sidekick Jim 'the Fox' McCann. But in terms of ruthlessness and organisation today's gangs are in a league of their own. A number of the gangsters involved are believed to be among the UK's 1,600 'most harmful criminals', according to Soca, Britain's version of the FBI. Such individuals, many now fantastically wealthy through crime, are unlikely to give up their empire or shut down the Irish route without putting up a fight.
• A 22-year-old man has been charged in connection with the seizure of more than €100m worth of cocaine in west Cork. At a special sitting of Clonakilty district court, Gerard Hagan, from Liverpool, was charged with possession of cocaine at Dunlough Bay, Mizen Hand, on 2 July.
Hagan was remanded in custody to appear before Dunmanway district court next Wednesday.