Irish-led agency seized cocaine worth a record €2bn last year

Increased demand is driving rise in seizures, ex-garda leading international agency says

The Irish-led agency responsible for tackling the importation of drugs into Europe seized more than €2 billion worth of cocaine last year, its largest haul in history.

The Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (Maoc) co-ordinates the activities of the police and militaries of several European Union countries to prevent the importation of drugs into western Europe. The vast majority of its operations focus on seizing vessels carrying cocaine from South America.

According to figures released to The Irish Times, cocaine worth €2.1 billion was seized in Maoc operations in 2019, up from €1.4 billion in 2018.

The agency seized 17 vessels carrying a combined total of just under 25 tonnes of the drug. In 2018 it seized 13 vessels carrying a total of 15.7 tonnes.


Growing demand

The increase in cocaine seizures reflects a increasing number of vessels transporting the drug from South American countries such as Colombia to the west coast of Europe to meet the growing demand for the drug here.

The agency is led by Michael O'Sullivan, a former assistant Garda commissioner who became Maoc chief executive three years ago. Based at the agency's headquarters in Lisbon, he leads officers from Ireland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Italy as well as liaison from the United Nations and America's Drug Enforcement Administration.

“There’s more cocaine being produced and there are more vessels coming in,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

The European cocaine market grew to €9.1 billion last year, a 60 per cent increase in three years. “And that’s just for cocaine,” said Mr O’Sullivan.

This is reflected in Irish figures. Between 2017 and 2018 the number of Irish people entering rehab for cocaine addiction increased by 50 per cent. The drug now rivals cannabis in popularity, according to a study from the Health Research Board.

Lower-level criminals are now getting into the cocaine business because of the profits involved, Mr O’Sullivan said. “It is also far less risky than stealing cars or jumping over counters.”

This is driving gangland violence such as the murder and dismemberment of 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods whose remains were found this week, he said.

Increased purity

The purity of the drug at street level is also increasing as users become more discerning and start shopping around for the strongest cocaine, he said.

The €2.1 billion seized in Maoc operations is the largest haul since the agency was established in 2006. It includes 9.5 tonnes of high-purity cocaine, worth €800 million, which was seized by police off the small island nation of Cape Verde.

It was the largest maritime seizure of cocaine in history and Mr O’Sullivan said some of it was likely destined for Ireland.

In November 2019, a Maoc-led operation led to the seizure of a "semi-submersible vessel" near Galicia in Spain which was carrying three tonnes of cocaine. It was the first time such a vessel was caught making a transatlantic crossing, Maoc said.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times