Aircraft seized after 120kg of cocaine worth estimated €8.4m found in Co Westmeath

Gardaí believe lucrative drug smuggling route using private aircraft and airfields in Longford and France dismantled

Gardaí believe they have dismantled a lucrative cocaine smuggling route involving the use of private aircraft and airfields in Co Longford and northern France.

Members of the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau tracked a Cessna aircraft on Thursday as it travelled from France and landed at Abbeyshrule Aerodrome, a small private airfield.

There the pilot and another man unloaded eight holdalls containing 120kg of cocaine, with an estimated street value of €8.4 million, which was then put into two vehicles.

Officers from the bureau, backed by specialist units, intercepted the vehicles a short time later in the Lough Owel area of Co Westmeath and arrested two men. Follow-up searches were carried out at houses in Naas, Co Kildare, and Waterford city and the aircraft was seized.

Initial indications are the aircraft has been regularly used to smuggle cocaine into the country in recent months on behalf of an organised crime gang with significant resources. Garda sources said the total value of the drug delivered in this fashion could easily exceed €100 million.

The four-seater aircraft departed Abbeyshrule on Wednesday afternoon and flew to a small airfield in Le Touquet in the Pas-de-Calais department of France. It remained there overnight before flying south and landing at an airfield in Dieppe, where it stayed for an hour before flying back to Abbeyshrule.

Flight records show the aircraft had travelled the exact same route last month, as well as to Belgium, Paris and Scotland.

Investigators are attempting to determine which criminal organisation is behind the operation, with sources saying the Kinahan cartel was a possible suspect. Gardaí are working with French police and forces in other countries on the matter.

“I think it should be very obvious to anybody that any drug network that has the capability to purchase and to transport drugs of this quantity into any jurisdiction is operating at a global scale,” said Det Chief Supt Seamus Boland.

The two men arrested, aged 54 and 40, remain in custody on suspicion of drug trafficking. They are being questioned at Ashbourne Garda station in Co Meath.

The use of private aircraft and airfields by drug gangs when transporting shipments is becoming increasingly common. In February, a light aircraft was used to smuggle 50kg of cocaine, worth €3.5 million, into the UK. After delivering the drugs in the UK it flew to Waterford, where it was met by gardaí. Three men were arrested and the aircraft was seized.

“We are well aware that organised crime will attempt to use and corrupt any route or any opportunity in an attempt to get controlled drugs into this country,” said Det Chief Supt Boland. “Between ourselves and other law enforcement, we are determined to disrupt these importation routes.”

Justin Kelly, Assistant Commissioner for Organised and Serious Crime, said the operation prevented “a considerable quantity of dangerous drugs from making it on to our streets and causing significant harm to our communities. An Garda Síochána is committed, under Operation Tara, to disrupting and dismantling the organised criminal networks who profit from drug trafficking and impact so negatively on our society.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times