Kinder eggs full of cannabis and cash stashed in steering wheels: What you see on the front line against smugglers

Customs officer Gerry McGrath ‘gets a buzz’ from making seizures at Rosslare port

Customs officers at Irish ports have access to large mobile X-Ray scanners to examine certain identified vehicles arriving from abroad. We visited Rosslare Europort to see one of these machines in action. Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

The cattle truck may be smelly after disembarking the 16-hour sailing from Cherbourg to Rosslare, but somebody has to climb into it and check for drugs, firearms or any other nasty surprises.

Today it’s the turn of a Customs dog handler who, in full hazmat suit due to Covid-19, doesn’t shirk from her responsibilities.

After crawling around the deep recesses of the two-storey trailer with her springer spaniel, the verdict is a clean bill of health for the driver, who brought animals out to France and is now at the end of the return journey bringing a load of Italian tiles into the country.

The driver, a cheerful Irishman whose demeanour suggests he’s been through this process many times, jumps into the cab and pulls away, leaving the unmistakable smell of his original cargo lingering strongly in the air.

“They’d clean the trailer after the animals before they’d put another load in coming back, but sometimes their idea of clean mightn’t be the same as yours,” a Customs officer chuckles on seeing The Irish Times grimacing at the smell.

This is the unglamorous front line in the fight against Irish and international smugglers who deal in everything from drugs and guns to people and items such as alcohol and cigarettes.

Customs officer Gerry McGrath operating the Customs X-ray scanner in Rosslare. Photograph: Bryan O Brien
Customs officer Gerry McGrath operating the Customs X-ray scanner in Rosslare. Photograph: Bryan O Brien

On this afternoon Gerry McGrath is the man directing operations – a GAA referee on his own time and an expert searcher when he’s on the job as a Customs officer.

McGrath, who says, “I love finding things, you do get a buzz from it,” once found a tiny Kinder egg stuffed full of cannabis hidden away in the compartment of a trailer carrying a 40ft container.

Huge results

He has had huge results too. Finding almost €500,000 hidden in the door casings and steering wheel shaft of a car is an obvious highlight. On that occasion a car carrying two men arrived at the port intent on catching the ferry to France just minutes before it sailed.

One of McGrath’s colleagues decided, based solely on the men’s body language, to stop them and search their car. Immediately as they began poking around in the vehicle they discovered more than €200,000 hidden in one door, wrapped in kitchen towel, and the same on the opposite side.

McGrath kept at it and found more in the steering column. “These lads were very confident types of guys; there was no fear. They had a story but it didn’t add up. The mule was driving and the leader was in the passenger seat. The boat was sailing out there and they were sitting down here and they were so angry; I’ve never seen a lad as angry.”

With a great seizure you could be working 18 or 20 hours; you’d go through the night

Other seizures are easier. Some €30,000 in €500 notes discovered one day when McGrath simply asked a man how much cash he was carrying and he pulled the wad from his pocket.

“He was carrying it for the passenger in the car and the passenger went absolutely bananas. It seemed he was so confident in himself that he didn’t think we’d take it off him. There were more searches after that and they got another €200,000 up the country.

“He said he won it. But he didn’t win it and it was taken off him; proceeds of crime.”

Rosslare Europort, Co Wexford. Photograph: Bryan O Brien
Rosslare Europort, Co Wexford. Photograph: Bryan O Brien

On another occasion an articulate and confident middle-aged women was driving her vehicle off the ferry, pulling a new car. She had also made it out of the port but glanced at McGrath and then glanced away.

Sensing something wasn’t right, he stopped her and searched the car, finding a chamber in the floor stuffed with almost 90,000 cigarettes. A haul that size would retail for just over €50,000, with a loss to the exchequer in duties and taxes of about €40,000 if successfully smuggled in.

Mixed bag of people

Those caught carrying cash or drugs, or even smuggling people, and those trying to avoid excise on cigarettes and alcohol are a mixed bag; from the hardened criminal unafraid or indifferent to the sanctions that await them to those who are more vulnerable.

Some of them “hit bad times, meet the wrong person” or plunge into crisis due to financial or addiction problems, says McGrath. At times he has encountered people, including a man in his late 60s just out of prison, trying to smuggle “for the challenge, for the buzz; some of them just want that buzz”.

“You never know what to expect, what you’ll get. You can go into work and get stuck in and be in the headlines the following morning or a few days later and that really increases staff morale. With a great seizure you could be working 18 or 20 hours; you’d go through the night.”

Scanners

Today he is dockside in a windswept Rosslare Europort behind the control of one of the Customs scanners; a large truck with an extendable gantry-style arm used to X-ray the freight containers that come through the port every day from Britain, France and Spain.

The scanner vehicle is stationary in a yard on the port campus. When trucks and containers are selected for checking as they disembark a ferry, they are taken alongside the scanner vehicle and the extendable arm passes over the containers, scanning them from both sides and above.

McGrath sits inside the scanner vehicle watching the screens and studying the X-ray images in real time. With over a decade of experience now under his belt, his eye knows what every load should look like; whether it’s chemicals for industry, food and drink, garden furniture, tiles or any other type of cargo that passes through the port.

As he scans the containers he is connected via two-way radio to a team of his colleagues on the ground outside. He directs them to compartments in vehicles and containers for checking if he sees something on the X-rays he feels needs further investigation. His colleagues will climb inside containers and vehicles for a closer look and there are sniffer dogs and handlers on standby to be called into action when McGrath feels they are needed.

Concealment

Cameras on probes are also at the ready to be manoeuvred inside car doors or any other crevice or chamber where cash or drugs could be squeezed. McGrath has found it all in his day: from people hiding in containers to cash hidden in false compartments in vehicle doors or false floors or hidden in tanks within fuel tanks and, at times, hold-all bags stuffed with cash or drugs with little or no effort made at concealment.

Typical drugs and other illegal items come in for sale in Ireland and the money from those sales is smuggled back out of the country to gang leaders abroad or as payment for further consignments.

Back in February some €280,000 was found hidden in a secret compartment in an unaccompanied container, something McGrath says “would have been unthinkable years ago” as such a sum would have been carried by a courier.

When he goes to work, he says, “You never know what you’re going to get” and as he works his hunger to make finds “to beat the gangs and do something good” is clear to see.

“I suppose it’s the adrenaline you get, and then wanting that more,” he smiles of landing a big find. “You’re helping to break a gang, I guess. And when you seize cash you really, really, see reactions from people; either crying, or giving out, going mad because you’ve caught them. You get satisfaction from finding anything, but there’s an awful lot of satisfaction getting cash or drugs.”