Irish security services tip-off leads to €220m drugs seizure off Canary Islands

About 22 tonnes of hashish found in trawler after Naval Service flags vessel as suspicious

The biggest consignment of hashish seized in European waters for years has been discovered in a trawler off the Canary Islands on foot of intelligence from Irish authorities.

Some 22 tonnes of hashish valued at €220 million was found in the industrial-sized fishing vessel off the coast of the Canaries on June 1st. The drugs, which were packed into the ship in white sacks, are believed to have come from North Africa and which was destined for the European market.

Personnel from the Irish Naval Service first flagged the vessel as suspicious before members of the Garda and Customs Service on the Irish desk at the European Maritime Analysis Operations Centre (Maoc) developed the information within the EU anti-drugs agency.

The drugs were seized about 90 nautical miles off the coast of the Canaries when the Spanish navy moved in on the boat on Tuesday. They boarded the vessel, brought it to shore and arrested some of the crew members before the cargo was unloaded.

Because the ship being used to move the drugs was a fishing trawler, it could have landed at any fishing port and been unloaded. It could also have been moored offshore and been unloaded via small rigid inflatable boats anywhere in Europe.

The trawler the drugs were found on is a registered shipping vessel and the Irish and Spanish police believed it was only occasionally used for drugs runs. However, the Naval Service became suspicious about its movements over a long period of time, and after tracking the vessel Irish personnel flagged it for closer investigation.

Michael O’Sullivan, a former assistant commissioner in the Garda and the current head of Maoc, told The Irish Times he was unaware of such a large consignment of hashish ever being discovered in European waters.

He said the information provided by the Irish security services, and their development of the case after the initial intelligence, had been instrumental in making the seizure.

“It was an operation driven by the Irish; between the Navy and then the Garda and Customs. And without that, would it have been highlighted and the drugs seized? Most unlikely,” he said.

“It’s the largest maritime seizure of hash in European waters that I’m aware of. I don’t know of a bigger one. We have had other multi-tonne seizures; three, four, five tonnes. But not 22 tonnes like this one.”

Mr O’Sullivan added a major multinational investigation was under way, with his Maoc agency centrally involved, to determine the precise origins of the drugs and also to unpick how the consignment was funded. While a “European value” of €220 million had been placed on the consignment, he said the haul could be worth twice that amount depending on where it was intended for delivery and sale.

Typically, he said, such large consignments of drugs were funded by multiple large drugs gangs coming together to fund and put other arrangements in place to smuggle a very large “motherload” of drugs into Europe. Not only would such a large haul create vast profits from just one smuggling run, the drugs would also be much cheaper to buy because they were being purchased in bulk.

He added 23 vessels carrying drugs had been intercepted in Maoc operations last year and international cartels were now trying to carefully plan very large shipments rather than increasing their risk by making multiple trips.