A further three men have been arrested as part of an investigation into a cargo ship which was impounded off the coast of Cork this week and found to contain a large quantity of cocaine.
All three are detained under section 50 Criminal Justice Act 2007 at Garda stations in the south of the country, while another three men who were arrested earlier this week remain in detention.
The MV Matthew, the bulk cargo ship used to smuggle 2.2 tonnes of cocaine from a “murderous” cartel, was to drop consignments at several locations along the Irish, UK and European coasts, authorities believe.
Gardaí are confident that the shipment of drugs, the largest seized by Irish authorities by weight, was to be distributed at different locations either by unloading it to smaller vessels or by dropping it at sea attached to GPS trackers.
Only a fraction of the haul, provisionally valued at €157 million, was destined for Ireland, with the rest intended for the UK and continental EU markets. Before the operation, the destination of the MV Matthew was listed as Gdansk in Poland and then Belfast.
The operation, which is ongoing, involved the deployment of special forces from a helicopter on to a moving ship, the Panamanian registered MV Matthew, which had earlier attempted to evade an Irish naval ship.
According to informed sources, gardaí began removing the 2.2 tonnes of cocaine around 10pm on Tuesday night and it took them approximately eight hours to unload the drugs which were packed in around 90 bales, each weighing around 25 kilos.
The bales were shrink wrapped in black plastic and each bale contained smaller packages also shrink wrapped in plastic to ensure that they were waterproof and would remain buoyant if they ended up in the sea during any transfer operation.
The drugs were then transferred under tight security on Wednesday morning to Dublin where samples were sent to Forensic Science Ireland’s laboratory to establish the purity of the cocaine, which depending on purity levels could increase the street value of the drugs.
A Garda technical team has begun a forensic examination of the ship including seizing phones, charts, logbooks and navigation systems in a bid to try and establish where exactly the MV Matthew has visited in the last month or so since leaving South America on August 18th.
It is understood that Customs officials are assisting gardaí in an examination of items seized on the ship including mobile phones belonging to the 20 plus strong crew as well as satellite phones and other navigational equipment.
According to an experienced investigator, the investigation team will be looking at the ship’s log to see where it was prior to its detention while they will also download the memory from its Automated Identification System which should also show where it’s been over the preceding weeks.
The next focus for the joint taskforce is to get a search team aboard the Castlemore, a trawler stranded since Monday on a sandbank 12 miles off the coast of Wexford.
Gardaí believe the Castlemore, which was purchased last Friday in Castletownbere, Co Cork, rendezvoused with the MV Matthew at sea and may have picked up a consignment of the drug.
However, Storm Agnes means search teams have not been able to reach the ship and there are concerns it make break up in the storm. “It’s well wedged in there so it’s not drifting away but we’ll have to see how it holds,” said a Garda source.
As soon as the weather clears, the boat will be boarded and declared a crime scene, Assistant Garda Commissioner Justin Kelly said.
Mr Kelly said a consortium of criminal gangs from Ireland, South America and elsewhere were behind the smuggling attempt. However, he declined to be more specific, except to say the drugs came from “one of the murderous cartels” based in Colombia.
He said the seizure is a “huge hit” to the criminal gangs. “As you can imagine, there is significant outlay in terms of getting an operation like this up and running. Obviously, there’s the purchase of the vessels, there’s the payment of people involved and the corrupting of officials across the globe to become involved in something like this.”
The captain of the MV Matthew, an Iranian national, remains in custody under organised crime legislation, along with two men rescued from the Castlemore by helicopter.
The rest of the crew of the MV Matthew are being interviewed, while gardaí announced the arrest of three further suspects on Wednesday night.
Research has found the ship was registered in China in July as the Chinese owned MV Honmon but its name and registration changed on August 1st when she became the MV Matthew and was registered in Panama to a company called Matthew Maritime Inc based in the Marshall Islands.
Under its previous owner, the ship plied its trade in the South China seas up until about March but after rounding the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in April, the ship crossed the Atlantic and spent the next three or four months along the coast of South America.
The ship was inspected in the port of Pecem in north-eastern Brazil on May 30th. It visited Aruba in the south Caribbean before departing Williamstad in the Dutch protectorate of Curaçao on August 18th and calling to Georgetown in Guyana before crossing the Atlantic.
Garda and customs investigations into the MV Matthew’s journey after that are likely to focus on the fact that it spent about a week around the Canaries off the west coast of Africa in mid-September. The suspicion is that it may have dropped off drugs to a smaller boat near the Canaries.
It is similarly suspected that the MV Matthew may have had other drop offs to smaller vessels as it journeyed northwards along the west coast of Portugal, north coast of Spain and west coast of France before crossing the English Channel into Irish waters.
One experienced investigator pointed out that it was noteworthy that MV Matthew called to no port in Europe during this period and the fact that it was high in the water when it was detained suggested that it did not have a bulk cargo such as grain or fertilizer when it crossed the Atlantic.