Navy smashes €80m cocaine ring
A SUSPECTED €80m worth of cocaine was seized by the Naval Service after an armed team boarded a yacht off the Cork coast.
The operation by the navy, gardai and Customs and Excise followed a lengthy intelligence mission in which Irish agencies co-operated closely with UK, European and north American police forces.
The 55ft yacht, the Makayabella, was tracked by satellite from the Caribbean before an elite Naval Service team swooped 200km off west Cork before lunchtime on Tuesday.
It is believed the drugs were destined for the UK and European markets rather than for Ireland.
The Naval Service had been on standby for the yacht's arrival off the Irish coast since Sunday, with intelligence about the vessel coming from the Lisbon-based Maritime Analysis Operations Centre-Narcotics (MAOCN).
An armed naval boarding team from the LE Roisin led the operation, with the occupants of the yacht not putting up any resistance when confronted.
A second Naval Service vessel, the LE Niamh, was in the area for logistical support. An Air Corps maritime surveillance plane was also on standby.
The support resources were provided in the belief that the yacht was expected to rendezvous with another craft which would bring the drugs ashore.
Drug smugglers refer to this process as "coopering".
Navy chiefs ordered the yacht boarded only after the UK authorities had been fully briefed.
The ocean-going yacht was then taken under escort to Cork harbour. It berthed last night at Haulbowline Naval Base where a detailed search operation was immediately launched.
Three arrests were made when the yacht was boarded in Irish territorial waters. The men were taken into garda custody once the yacht was safely berthed at Haulbowline.
All three are UK nationals. They can be held for up to seven days before having to be released or charged. Gardai are liaising with the UK authorities and it is expected that a further four arrests will be made over the next 24 hours.
The yacht was flying an Irish flag when it was boarded but its actual registration remains unclear. Gardai are trying to determine if the gang planned to bring the drugs directly to the UK or via Ireland.
The vessel crossed the Atlantic and entered Irish waters having began its journey off Trinidad last month. The waters between Trinidad and Venezuela are notorious for their use by Colombian drug cartels who ship cocaine from Medellin offshore for further onward shipment to the US, Europe and North Africa.
Garda sources stressed that the value of the seizure cannot be confirmed until the yacht is forensically examined.
All the drugs will be removed from the yacht and placed in secure storage. Various samples will then be sent to the State Laboratory for analysis.
The street value of the haul will be determined by the purity of the cocaine involved.
It is understood that at least 40 bales were found in the yacht's hull.
Garda sources indicated that if the cocaine is found to be of a very high purity, the value of the haul could rise considerably.
Armed military police sealed off Haulbowline Naval Base yesterday, with all private contractors, including a team working on a construction project, being asked to leave the area temporarily for security reasons.
Access to the base will remain strictly curtailed until the drugs are removed and placed in secure storage. If the seizure, as expected, does involve €80m of cocaine, it will rank as one of the largest hauls in Irish history. The biggest drug seizures have all been made off the Cork coast. The largest remains the €440m of high-grade Colombian cocaine seized in Dunlough Bay in west Cork in July 2007.
That smuggling plot was scuppered when the UK gang overloaded a smaller boat used to ferry the drugs ashore. They then accidentally filled a spare fuel tank with diesel instead of petrol. The boat capsized in heavy seas when the outboard engine failed and the bulk of the gang members were arrested before they could flee. However, several did escape overseas.
A total of 62 bales of Colombian cocaine with a purity level of more than 75pc and a street value of €440m were left floating in the bay.
That street value was almost double garda estimates. The purity of the Dunlough Bay cocaine remains the highest ever detected in Ireland.
In November 2008, the yacht Dances With Waves was intercepted by the Naval Service, gardai and Customs almost 100km off the west Cork coast. It was found to be carrying 1.5 tonnes of cocaine.
That shipment, because its purity was not as high as the Dunlough Bay seizure, was eventually given a street value of €400m.
That yacht was also intercepted by the LE Roisin. The seas were so heavy and one crew member on board the yacht was so seasick that he told the naval boarding party he was glad to see them.