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Drugs: an unstoppable tide?

Punitive sentences totalling 85 years, which were passed down last week on three English gang members, are unlikely to stem the tide of transatlantic drug shipments.

As he fielded calls last week from people eager to discuss the record prison sentences handed down to four drug smugglers over the €440 million haul of cocaine recovered off west Cork, Michael Colgan repeated one message over and over again.

Intelligence is key to tackling the highly organised and well-resourced drugs gangs that target the European market, insisted Colgan, the head of the Customs drug enforcement unit.

Yet the 1,500 kilos of cocaine was seized off Cork because of an accident that was both dramatic and absurd – the shipment would have safely landed in Ireland if one of the smugglers had not accidentally put diesel, rather than petrol, into the fuel tank of an inflatable boat.

The seizure cast a spotlight on Ireland’s part in the international drugs trade and raised a major question for Irish law enforcement agencies: is Ireland perceived as a low-risk route through which drugs can be moved into Britain and Europe?

The Cork cocaine consignment originated in South America, and was transported across the Atlantic on a US bought catamaran from the Caribbean. It was almost certainly intended for the British market. Drug smuggling is a risky but lucrative business, and it is unlikely that even the punitive sentences handed down last week at Cork Circuit Criminal Court will stem the tide of transatlantic drug shipments.

Three English gang members received jail terms totalling 85 years. Two of the accused, Martin Wanden, 45, and Perry Wharrie, 49, received record 30-year sentences.

A third man, Joe Daly, 41, was sentenced to 25 years for his part in the smuggling operation which came unstuck off Dunlough Bay in west Cork on July 2 last year.

The case brought to light the vulnerability of the Irish coastline for landing consignments of narcotics. For a coastline totalling about 4,350 kilometres, there is just one Customs cutter boat, the RCC Suirbheir, which is based out of Cork. A second vessel will enter service next year and an internal review team is deciding where this can be most effectively deployed.

The Irish Naval Service also polices waters within a 200mile radius of the Republic. The Garda National Drugs Unit, local garda units based out of Bantry, the Irish Coast Guard, the Naval Service and the Customs drug enforcement unit were all instrumental in the recovery operation that followed the Dunlough Bay discovery.

Last week, as much of the focus centred on the €440million haul and the sentences handed down, one of Colgan’s team was packing his bags and going to join the European Union’s new Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre – Narcotics (MAOC-N). The venture involves seven EU states – Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Italy – and Colgan believes that the MAOC-N unit will be ‘‘a huge tool in terms of the bigger picture’’.

‘‘This is one of the biggest events, in terms of tackling international smuggling,” he said. ‘‘If you can take out the bulk – the big loads – that is the ideal. Transnational crime requires international cooperation at the highest and most effective level.

‘‘Traffickers do not respect boundaries, so law enforcement has to work across them to maximum effect. The emphasis with the Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre is thinking big.”

Even before the centre officially started operating last September, it had coordinated 22 operations in a trial period since the previous April. That led to ten seizures amounting to over ten tonnes of cocaine.

In recent days, Ireland’s first liaison officer, a member of Colgan’s unit, was dispatched to the permanent staff of MAOC-N, and will be based at the organisation’s headquarters in Lisbon. Gardaí are expected to follow suit and dispatch a liaison officer to the permanent office, where they will share information with EU counterparts.

Smugglers use a variety of methods to get drugs into Ireland. Smaller quantities of cocaine, ranging around one or two kilos in weight, are smuggled in via hand luggage thorough airports. West African gangs also play a ‘‘significant role’’ in using so-called ‘‘human mules’’ to smuggle ingested capsules – usually wax coated condoms – containing cocaine.

Some larger consignments are smuggling into Ireland via ports, in private and commercial vehicles. However, bulk transportations of narcotics originate in Central and South America and require large-scale planning to get them into Europe.

Concealing drugs alongside large commercial boats can provide excellent cover, particularly where there is mixed cargo. ‘‘Illegal trade is very much hidden alongside legal trade,” said Colgan. So Customs is adding a second X-ray container scanner to its arsenal, to scan containers unloaded from vessels at freight ports.

Privately owned boats – such as the catamaran Lucky Day, which transported the cocaine haul to Cork from Barbados on a five-week trip last summer – allow smugglers to transport drugs untracked. In an operation known as coopering, the ‘‘mothership’’ can be met by a smaller boat off the coast and the drugs taken ashore in smaller consignments.

Senior gardaí accept that there is an issue over the exposure of the Irish coastline. However, they insist that intelligence information from contacts in the criminal underworld, followed by lengthy surveillance and tracking of vessels, are what lead to the successful seizure of major bulk consignments of narcotics globally.

Attempting to estimate what drugs get through the net is next to impossible. An often-cited figure that law enforcement agencies catch just 10 per cent of the illegal trade is not based on empirical evidence – although extrapolations are frequently used to guess the extent of domestic drug supply by multiplying the volume of seizures by ten.

A more reliable United Nations study on the trafficking of cocaine from South and Central America, which examined production against seizures, indicated that law enforcement agencies managed to take out up to 42 per cent of drugs in the market.

In the first half of this year, gardaí have seized almost as much illicit narcotics as in all of last year. Drugs with an estimated street value of €46.8 million have been recovered this year, compared with €50.3 million last year. The figures exclude the Cork seizure, as it was not intended for the domestic market.

The figures show that heroin seizures have topped €1 8 million, and seizures of cannabis resin have exceeded the €15 million recovered last year. Cocaine worth €7.2 million has been intercepted.

The scale of the seizures would seem to reflect concerns that the use of drugs, particularly cocaine and heroin, has risen dramatically in Ireland. But Ireland is only a small part of a major international jigsaw.

After the US, Europe is the second-largest narcotics market in the world. The US Drug Enforcement Administration, part of the Department of Justice, estimates that about 80 per cent of cocaine from Latin America not intended for the US market is transported to Europe.

The lure is simple: profits are higher in Europe than in the US. Both in 2006 and last year, wholesale prices for cocaine in the EU area ranged between €28,000 and €56,600 per kilo. Higher supply in the US has forced wholesale prices down as low as $9,000.

Spain is the heart of Europe’s drugs trade, and the main route through which Latin American cocaine and North African cannabis enter the EU area. In 2006, Spanish law enforcement officers seized more than 40 tonnes of cocaine – the fourth highest globally after Colombia, the US and Venezuela.

The scale of the seizures reflects growing demand. More than 3 per cent of all adults in the EU – or about ten million people – have used cocaine at least once in their lives, a historically high figure, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Research by the Irish National Advisory Committee on Drugs shows that the percentage of Irish people who have used cocaine at some stage in their lives rose from 3 per cent in 2002 to just over 5 per cent in 2007.

Concern over crystal meth seizure
The largest-ever seizure of so-called ‘crystal meth’ in Ireland has sparked concern among gardaí that use of the drug is more prevalent among recreational drug users than previously believed. More than 13lbs of the drug was found in a joint operation in the Midlands by the Garda National Drugs Unit and Revenue’s Customs drug enforcement unit.

Only small quantities of the drug had been found in Ireland previously. The find in Birr, Co Offaly, followed a nine-month investigation, codenamed Operation Chestnut, aimed at drug smuggling from central and eastern Europe. A 39-year-old Lithuanian was arrested and taken for questioning to Tullamore garda station.

Crystal meth, officially known as methamphetamine, is produced from a mixture of chemicals and is highly addictive as a stimulant to the central nervous system. It can be consumed in a variety of ways, such as injected or smoked.

The effects can last for several hours. Immediate effects are euphoria and greater mental focus, although it can also be marked by diarrhoea, nausea and excessive perspiration. Loss of appetite is also a common side-effect of use and chronic users can suffer dramatic and life-threatening weight loss. Other street names for methamphetamine include ‘ice’, ‘crystal’, ‘tina’ and ‘glass’.

Cannabis with a potential street value of close to €1.3 million was also seized in two operations last week.

In one operation by the gardaí and Customs, €1.1 million-worth of cannabis was found in pallets of tiles which had been imported to Dublin from southern Spain. In the second case, cannabis worth €175,000 was discovered in the petrol tank of a British-registered car that arrived in Rosslare on the ferry from Cherbourg, France.
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source: © Thomas Crosbie Media, 2008

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