The former garda who leads Europe’s “first line of defence” against drug smuggling has described last week’s seizure of cocaine worth €800 million in the Atlantic as the largest maritime drugs bust ever.
In 2018 Michael O’Sullivan’s agency, the EU-funded Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (Maoc), helped seize about €1.5 billion of cocaine destined for Europe.
Just over a month into 2019, it has almost matched that amount. Within the space of two days last week intelligence from Maoc led to the seizure of more than €1 billion worth of cocaine from ships crossing the Atlantic from South America.
The biggest of these seizures occurred on Friday when police in the small island nation of Cape Verde received information from Maoc that the ship Eser was carrying the drug.
When it docked, officers found 9.5 tonnes of high-purity cocaine, worth, Mr O’Sullivan estimated, about €800 million.
"You would be a long time running around in individual countries trying to seize that amount," Mr O'Sullivan, a former assistant commissioner, told The Irish Times from his base in Lisbon on Monday.
It's so big that several transnational organised crime groups would feed from it and quickly disseminate it across Europe
“If you get one tonne, you are delighted with life. The biggest seizure Maoc was involved in in the past was five tonnes. That was the motherlode. So 9.5 tonnes is the double motherlode.”
The 11 Russians on the boat when it was boarded remain in custody.
Mr O’Sullivan believes, due to its size, a group of international criminal gangs must have been behind the haul. “Huge amounts like that require a lot of money upfront. In order to put in that type of money, in all probability it was a consortium.
“Once it comes on dry land it wouldn’t be the property of one person. It’s so big that several transnational organised crime groups would feed from it and quickly disseminate it across Europe.”
I suppose you could say we're the first line of defence in stopping drugs coming to Europe
There is "no doubt", Mr O'Sullivan said, that some of the cocaine was destined for Ireland. He would not be drawn on which Irish gang might be bringing it in but security sources say only the Kinahan group would have the resources and influence to be involved.
Mr O’Sullivan served as an assistant commissioner in the Garda until 2017 when he retired to become chief executive of Maoc, which was set up 11 years ago to co-ordinate anti-drug smuggling measures across European countries.
The agency receives intelligence and passes it on to individual country’s naval, customs or police forces. Each of the seven member states assigns at least one liaison to the organisation. Ireland has two, one from customs and one from the Garda.
“I suppose you could say we’re the first line of defence in stopping drugs coming to Europe insofar as we try to have the vessel intercepted out in the Atlantic before they make land.
“For example, you would talk to the Spanish liaison man who would talk to the Spanish navy and they would run it from there. It’s whoever has assets in the area is the bottom line.”
He said there was no competition between nations about who gets to make the bust. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the Irish or English or whatever, it’s about intercepting it before it gets to Europe.”
Mr O'Sullivan conceded shipments like the Eser haul make up only a tiny amount of the drugs crossing into Europe. However, the seizure will still make some people's lives very difficult.
“I’m not saying there’s going to be a drought or anything but it’s a huge loss financially and operationally to people involved in the flow of cocaine.
“They’ve lost a fortune; it has caused them huge problems. And if we weren’t around to do that, they’d have a free run.”