Coronavirus: Gangs take advantage to import large amounts of drugs

Irish head of EU anti-smuggling agency warns of unprecedented shipments

Organised criminals are exploiting the coronavirus crisis to ship unprecedented amounts of drugs into the EU, the Irish head of Europe’s anti-drug trafficking agency has said.

Michael O'Sullivan, a former Garda assistant commissioner, said in the last six days €306 million worth of drugs has been seized off the coast of Spain.

Two of those shipments were seized in operations co-ordinated by the Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre (Maoc), which Mr O’Sullivan leads. Maoc co-ordinates the anti-smuggling operations of security services in seven EU nations including the Garda, the Irish Customs Service and the Irish Naval Service.

“This is certainly a marked increase in the number of seizures in such a short period of time,” Mr O’Sullivan told The Irish Times.


“You’d never get three seizures in four or five days. If you got three tonnes in a period of three months you’d be doing very well.”

On March 26th, a "go fast" boat travelling from Morocco to Spain was stopped by the Spanish authorities and found to be carrying €42 million worth of hashish. Later that day another boat travelling the same route was intercepted carrying €54 million worth of the drug.

On March 28th, a vessel travelling from South America was intercepted off the coast of Galicia in Spain, a common landing spot for drug smugglers. It was found to be carrying 3 tonnes of cocaine worth €210 million.

The drugs were destined for the European market and were likely imported by several organised crime groups acting in concert.

Taking advantage

These organised crime gangs are taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis in the hope that EU police forces will be too busy enforcing lock-down measures to tackle drug crime, Mr O’Sullivan said.

He said Spanish police in particular are stretched thin and have lost many officers to the virus, which causes the disease Covid-19. “But they’re doing a great job. They’re going out on ships where a) the guys might be armed and b) they might have coronavirus,” he said.

“Criminals see this as an opportunity to flood the market, to increase the loads crossing because they know the police everywhere have got to be stretched to the limit.

“That’s the way organised crime works. They hope that you are firefighting somewhere else and that they can sneak in under the radar, they’d never see us. We can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal.”

In Ireland, gardaí have stepped up operations targeting organised crime in recent weeks to pre-empt attempts to take advantage of the health crisis to move drugs or carry out attacks on rivals.

Gardaí have made several significant seizures in the past week. Last Thursday, a Garda Special Crime Taskforce and the Armed Support Unit raided a premises in Bluebell and seized heroin worth about €300,000. Two men were arrested.

Each bureau of the Garda’s Special Crime Operations has been ordered to aggressively target known organised criminals who may seek to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis, Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll has said.

Elsewhere, the increased numbers of gardaí on patrol to enforce social distancing protocols in communities has lead to significant but unexpected arrests of alleged serious criminals.

On St Patrick's Day gardaí on patrol in Tallaght spotted a car carrying several men driving at speed. The car was pulled over and five guns – a revolver and four shotguns – were allegedly found inside.

On Sunday, gardaí on routine patrol in Limerick stopped a car to make sure the driver was travelling for an essential purpose. The car speed off and an object was thrown from the window which was later found to be a loaded handgun.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times