A very significant quantity of drugs, believed to be cocaine, has been discovered on a large ship off the coast of Cork which was stormed by armed members of the Army Ranger Wing in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
After the rangers, the most elite unit in the Defence Forces, took control of the vessel using force, Garda members and customs officers were able to also go on board.
While the value of the drugs found on board has not yet been determined, gardaí and customs officers believe the haul is at least worth tens of millions of euro. A number of sources who spoke to The Irish Times said it was possible the haul was worth in excess of €100 million, though that would only become clear when the boat reached Cork and was fully searched.
This comes just 24 hours after it emerged a trawler that was being monitored on suspicion it was carrying drugs ran aground off the Wexford coast on Sunday night.
Gardaí suspect that the bulk carrier, which is currently under escort by Naval ship to an Irish port, may have been the mother ship that rendezvoused with a trawler off the southeast coast over the weekend and that a consignment of cocaine was transferred to the trawler before it ran aground on a sandbank off Wexford late on Sunday night.
Gardaí now strongly suspect the drugs on that vessel have been lost at sea, in storm conditions, or were deliberately thrown overboard.
The trawler, named the Castlemore, left Castletownbere in west Cork on Friday night just hours after it was purchased by an unknown buyer before becoming grounded off the Wexford coast on Sunday night.
Two men, believed to be from the UK and Eastern European, were rescued from the trawler in poor weather.
The Naval Service and Air Corps were assisting in searching for debris or cargo – possibly bales of drugs – from the stricken trawler, though bad weather was hampering the operation.
Meanwhile, the bulk carrier named the MV Matthew left the southern Caribbean on August 18th but is understood to have lost power off the south coast over the weekend and notified the Irish Coast Guard that it was without engines on Sunday.
An Irish Coast Guard helicopter carried out a medical evacuation of the vessel off the Waterford coast around 9pm on Monday night after a crew member on board was reported to have taken ill.
It is understood that a team of Rangers boarded the Panamanian registered bulk carrier south of Ballycotton in east Cork and the vessel is now headed for Cork Harbour where it is expected to be searched by gardaí and customs officers.
It is unclear what other ports that the cargo ship was due to call to after leaving Williamstad but marine sources say it appears to have gone off the radar for a time as it should only have taken eight to 10 days to cross the Atlantic rather than over a month.
It is understood that the LE William Butler Yeats had been tracking the suspect trawler as part of a Garda-led operation and members of the Garda National Drugs Unit were also on the Naval vessel at the time. The Army Ranger Wing special forces were deployed to help secure the evidence and the vessel.
In a statement on Tuesday evening, more than 48 hours after the operation began, the Garda and Customs Service confirmed they were part of a joint task force, with the Naval Service, tracking the boats.
The statement confirmed when the MV Matthew was boarded, “a significant quantity of suspected controlled drugs” were located onboard.
The operation was conducted “using Naval and Air Corps assets and interagency personnel, including the Army Ranger Wing in challenging conditions off the southeast coast”.
Once the rangers had secured the MV Matthew, members of the Navy the Garda National Drugs & Organised Crime Bureau and Revenue’s Customs Service were transferred to the cargo vessel. The ship was on Tuesday evening under escort by Naval ship to Cork.
“The cargo vessel will now be the subject of a detailed examination by Revenue Customs and An Garda Siochana,” the Garda statement added.
It further stated the intelligence-led operation was conducted in collaboration with the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre – Narcotics (MAOC (N) based in Lisbon, and partners from the UK National Crime Agency (NCA), US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) and French customs service DNRED.
“Three males aged 60, 50 and 31 have been arrested on suspicion of organised crime offences and are currently detained at Garda stations in Wexford,” the Garda added.