Judge extends period of detention of 10 members of suspected drug trafficking gang

Arrested men had been in Co Cork for weeks planning marine mission, gardaí believe

Gardaí investigating the activities of a suspected international drug trafficking gang in Co Cork are liaising with police forces in a number of other countries including Dubai, the Netherlands, Spain and Serbia as well as the PSNI, a court has heard.

Chief Supt Vincent O’Sullivan of Cork County Garda Division told a special sitting of Bandon District Court that the investigation into the activities of the suspected organised criminal group was “a fast moving dynamic investigation with multiple international lines of inquiry”.

Chief Supt O’Sullivan was speaking as he applied to Judge James McNulty for a 72-hour extension to the detention of 10 men arrested in west Cork on Thursday morning. They include six Spaniards, two Dutch men and one Serbian, alongside a man from Co Fermanagh.

He told the court the Garda needed the extension as the investigation was complicated and in addition to carrying out inquiries with foreign police forces through both Interpol and Europol, gardaí had gathered a huge amount of evidence that needed to be examined before it was put to the suspects at interview.


This included the seizure and examination of 43 separate electronic devices including mobile phones, laptops and a satellite phone which gardaí believed were integral to the activities of the men.

It also included 120 hours of CCTV which gardaí had harvested from various locations in west Cork and elsewhere. Chief Supt O’Sullivan said gardaí were continuing to harvest CCTV footage which needed to be examined before it could be put to the suspects at interview.

He said investigators were satisfied that the men constituted an Organised Criminal Group as it was his belief that considerable financial resources were required to book flights into Ireland, accommodation in Ireland and hire vehicles as part of their plan to import a large quantity of drugs into the State.

Judge McNulty heard the 10 extension applications under Section 50 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007 separately after Garda Inspector John O’Connell said that gardaí were seeking to have each application heard with just the relevant suspect present for operational reasons.

Judge McNulty granted the 72 hour extension in the case of all 10 men and they were removed from Bandon Courthouse amid tight security to allow gardaí resume their interviews with them at Bantry, Bandon and Mallow Garda Stations in Cork county and Togher and the Bridewell Garda stations in Cork city.

Gardaí believe members of the alleged gang moved to Co Cork week ago to prepare for the collection of a large consignment of cocaine worth tens of millions of euros off the south west coast.

The men were arrested when gardaí stopped a camper van in Leap village and later a 4X4 and an articulated lorry at Tragumna near Skibbereen at around 7.30am on Thursday.

Investigators have established that one or two of the men arrived in Dublin two weeks ago but the remainder only flew into Dublin Airport a week ago before arriving in Co Cork, where they stayed in a combination of hotels, guesthouses and the camper van.

Gardaí have established that the UK-registered camper van was hired in Northern Ireland by one of the alleged gang members, who collected at least five other men before driving to the Skibbereen area where the whole group met up for the first time.

Gardaí have begun checking with ferry operators to try and find out when an articulated trailer containing a large Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) arrived in the country. It is believed the trailer was loaded on a Stena Line ferry in Fishguard and collected by a driver with a tractor unit in Rosslare.

The trailer with the RIB was then brought to Tragumna where it was found by gardaí. The driver of the truck, a man from Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh, was arrested.

Gardaí also recovered four diving suits in one of the vehicles.

Garda sources said investigators are keeping an open mind on how many times the gang may have put to sea from the slip at Tragumna village in the RIB, which was fitted with three powerful outboard engines.

“We believe the men we arrested were a landing party who came to West Cork to land a large consignment of drugs, but we are keeping an open mind on whether they were to rendezvous with a mother ship to collect the drugs or whether they were to collect the drugs from some marker buoy offshore,” a source said.

“And we are also keeping an open mind on how many times the gang had put to sea in the RIB - they certainly had put to sea on Thursday morning because the men were still wet when we arrested, but whether they had put to sea in the RIB in the preceding days is something we are still investigating.”

Gardaí have not ruled out the possibility that the men may have been trying to collect drugs after they were dropped off by the mother ship some distance from shore and marked with a buoy whose GPS coordinates were then transmitted to the gang.

A marine source said technology has improved hugely in recent years and it is now possible to buy a marker buoy that can be submerged to a depth of 50 metres and be programmed to come to the surface after a week or two when it can be located by those looking for it.

“Often fishermen shooting pots will mark their pots with a buoy and the buoy will be marked with the name of the boat so an unmarked buoy with no name on it would certainly attract attention from fishermen who might haul it to see what it’s marking so that’s a risk for any drug smuggling outfit,” the source said.

“But with the new electronically programmable buoys, they can be submerged for a week or two and either programmed to come up at a certain time or they can be activated by the drugs gang when they approach the locations so there’s less risk of these buoys being discovered by any passing trawler.”

In recent years, drug smuggling gangs transporting cocaine from Colombia to Europe have begun dropping off watertight bales of drugs attached to marker buoys and then sending on GPS co-ordinates to gang members who travel out from land in rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) and small boats to collect the drugs.

This method reduces the risk of being caught when land-based members of the gang head to sea to rendezvous with the mother ship as the ship can often arouse the suspicions of other mariners if it is seen loitering or waiting in an area.

Last July, two bales of cocaine with an estimated street value of €2 million were found washed up on beaches in Donegal and some weeks earlier two smaller packages worth a total of €180,000 were washed up on beaches in Cork which gardaí believe came from such drop off deliveries at sea.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times