A change in trade flows and drug importation patterns has been attributed to Revenue seizing a record 800kg of cocaine, valued at €56 million, last year as it was being brought into the State.
The figure represents an eight-fold increase on the 101kg seized in 2020 and it was linked to a small number of major operations which the customs body conducted with gardaí, as well as changes to the approaches taken by smugglers allowing officers to detect shipments more easily.
A joint Garda/Revenue operation in February of last year led to the interception of 170kg of cocaine transported in South American shipping containers which arrived at Ringaskiddy, Co Cork. A further 500kg of the drug was found in shipping containers at Dublin Port in August. The drugs were disguised as charcoal, the first time such a smuggling method had been detected in Ireland.
When those major hauls are excluded there was still a 28 per cent increase in cocaine seizures by Revenue, an indication of the growing use of the drug in Ireland. A recent study by the Health Research Board found a 171 per cent increase in the number of young people presenting for treatment for cocaine addiction in recent years.
Cocaine accounted for roughly a quarter of the €220 million worth of drugs seized by Revenue last year.
The increase in interceptions during the Covid-19 pandemic was partly down to major changes to trade patterns, officials say. Drug smugglers prefer to conceal cocaine shipments in “legitimate trade flows”, Revenue Commissioner Gerry Harrahill told a recent Oireachtas Committee meeting.
He said a reduction of these trade flows during the pandemic made the job of Revenue “easier” because abnormal patterns could be more readily identified. “Another element is the ongoing investment by all agencies in developing intelligence. Intelligence has a long gestation. Work that may start on a case or programme today may not come to fruition for two years.”
A Revenue spokeswoman told The Irish Times it routinely profiles imports and exports, and uses X-ray equipment to scan consignments based on risk assessments. “Smugglers are resilient and resourceful in terms of smuggling methods and concealment techniques, and have the capability and resources to adapt their methodologies quickly.”
The challenge is for State bodies to adapt to these behaviours, she said. This includes a spike in post and shipped items which occurred at the height of the pandemic as more people turned to online shopping.
Figures provided by Revenue show its cocaine seizures so far this year are up on pre-pandemic levels, but that last year’s record haul is unlikely to be repeated. As of June 8th, it had seized about 88kg of the drug (worth about €6.2 million) across 59 separate hauls.