Hashish worth €400m seized at sea following Irish-led intel operation

Haul captured on cargo vessel south of Canary Islands

Hashish worth an estimated €400 million has been seized off the coast of Spain following an Irish and French-led intelligence operation.

The cargo vessel Natalia was boarded by Spanish law enforcement and customs officials on Sunday in international waters, about 75km south of Fuerteventura. A search of the vessel led to the seizure of 20 tonnes (19,876 kgs) of hashish.

The ship, which was in a dangerously unseaworthy condition, was crewed by 11 Syrian men who are now in custody.

The seizure was preceded by intelligence and investigative work by the Irish desk of the European Maritime Analysis Operations Centre (Maoc) which is based in Lisbon.

The Irish desk is manned by two staff, a garda detective sergeant and a customs officials. They developed the intelligence leading to the seizure with assistance from their French counterparts, said Maoc chief Michael O’Sullivan who is himself a former Garda assistant commissioner.

The ship came to the attention of Maoc and Spanish and French customs officials due to several suspicious changes which were made to its registry last month. These included the ship's name being changed to Natalia and its flag being changed from Togo's to that of the island nation of Palau.

The Natalia was en route from Lebanon to Lagos via the Turkish port of Iskenderun when Maoc started tracking it.

This led to a boarding operation by police as it sailed to the south of the Canary Islands. Video from the Spanish National Police shows officers carrying out an armed boarding operation before uncovering piles of suspected hashish bales in the hold.

The ship was found to be in danger of sinking by the authorities. It is common for drug smugglers to use ships which are near the end of their useful lives.

It was brought to the port of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria on Sunday night where a search revealed 638 bales of the drug, worth an estimated €400 million, hidden among its regular cargo of plaster.

Another 20kg of high potency cannabis was discovered in the crew quarters.

Authorities believe the drugs were destined for Morocco from where they would have been smuggled to Italy or Greece before being distributed across Europe.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times

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