Sunday 25 June 2017

Drugs Ireland: pushing back the rising tide

Customs officials are as vigilant as they can be but they barely put a dent into the huge volumes of drugs smuggled into this country. Graham Clifford reports from Rosslare port on the many different ways smugglers try to avoid detection

Tales to tell: Dog handler Shirley Ffrench with customs dogs Alfie (cash & tobacco), and Defor (cash & drugs) Photo: Patrick Browne
Tales to tell: Dog handler Shirley Ffrench with customs dogs Alfie (cash & tobacco), and Defor (cash & drugs) Photo: Patrick Browne
A silver Audi is hoisted on to one of the Rosslare Europort Customs XRay Scanners. Picture: Patrick Browne
Gerry McGrath views a scan from a vehicle. Picture: Patrick Browne
The Audi passengers are interviewed by Customs officials, but the scan proves to be clear. Picture: Patrick Browne

Graham Clifford

Something just doesn't seem right. It's early morning at Rosslare Europort and a ferry has arrived from Cherbourg. Bleary-eyed motorists guide their vehicles off the vessel through the twilight, past Gardaí, and towards the customs officials, but one car has raised some concerns.

In 2016 Irish customs officials seized just over €30m worth of prohibited drugs. In 2015 the figure was €23m and €91m a year earlier. Any activity out of the ordinary is picked up on immediately.

This brown, unremarkable, vehicle with French registration plates has already been marked as a 'target' by customs personnel working in conjunction with Revenue's National Profiling Centre.

Inside two men look nervous and fidgety.

By the time they are waved to the side by customs officials, it's clear something is up.

Defor, an English springer spaniel who works as a drug detector dog for Revenue and Customs, leaps into the vacated vehicle. His handler Geraldine Ward watches closely. He will sit and give passive scent detection signals if he finds something.

It's only when he jumps into the back seat that he gives a reaction.

But it's not a stash of prohibited drugs - but instead a rather startled and undeclared ginger cat in a bag. Her back rises in fright - it's almost a seizure of a different kind.

"We see all sorts here," says Maria Meyler, the local Revenue and Customs district officer in Wexford. And the vigilance isn't only about drugs - earlier this month Garda immigration officers at Rosslare discovered 14 people hidden in the back of a truck that arrived from France.

"You have to watch people's behaviour. Are they twitchy, does something not add up. After we pull them over and interview them we make a decision whether or not we'll search, and possibly scan, their vehicle. Sometimes they are concealing an animal like in this case… but sometimes it can be so much more. And drug smugglers come in all shapes and sizes. We've even had young families who've come in here with concealed drugs. We have to be consistently vigilant."

Like in July of last year when Revenue officials in Rosslare discovered bags containing 17kg of cocaine in the side panels of a lorry. The estimated street-value of the find was €1.9m.

And last June when an unaccompanied freight container packed with frozen pork was selected for scanning, the results set the alarm bells blaring.

Customs official Gerry McGrath shows me a hard copy of the X-ray scans. "Here, see, the change in colour. You can just spot something's a shade lighter. We felt we had to investigate."

Because of the strong smell of meat in the container, which had arrived from France, the sniffer dogs couldn't pick up on the drug scent, but when Customs officers clambered over the frozen meat pallets they eventually spotted the concealed goods - 215kgs of herbal cannabis worth €4.2m.

"That was a successful interception for us and showed that our systems work," explains Maureen Dalton, the Revenue's Enforcement Manager at Rosslare Port.

"We use a broad range of data, intelligence and analytical technologies to identify risk moving in and out of Rosslare Port. Insights and intelligence play an important role in directing our attention to new or emerging risks," she tells me.

The port has to keep moving

During the four-year period, from 2013 to 2017, there were 78 drug seizures at Rosslare Port with a combined street-value of €12m.

But inevitably there is only so much this highly-skilled and experienced team of customs officials can do, only so many vehicles they can stop and only so many scans and checks they can carry out. Over 400 vehicles, including freight, cars, buses and campervans, arrive on one ferry from France on the morning I spend in Rosslare - but of those no more than ten can be stopped and searched.

The port has to keep moving, it's a vital entry point for both trade and tourist traffic - this is especially true at Dublin Port, which in 2016 saw 1.8 million passengers pass through it with 104,185 trade vehicles and 505,482 tourist vehicles.

It is estimated that Ireland's interception rate, the approximate percentage of prohibited drugs which are seized here each year, is in the region of 4.8 per cent.

It's a loose figure, an approximation and one that depends on our ability to estimate the total levels of demand and narcotics through-flow, but most agree it's in the right ball park, if not slightly generous.

Last year the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that just 3 per cent of heroin imported into Ireland is seized. It put the heroin market in Ireland at a value of €600m - a much disputed figure.

'We have to be realistic'

But most would agree that around 95 per cent of drugs smuggled into Ireland finds its way into the drugs market. This actually compares favourably with some other European countries and Ireland, as an exposed island nation, has much more coastline to monitor than most.

"We have to be realistic, it's very hard to man our extensive coastline," says Liam Peakin, head of the Customs Drug Law Enforcement Unit.

"We work very closely with the Garda National Drug Unit, the Criminal Assets Bureau, Europol, the Coast Guard, Irish Navy and the European Maritime and Aviation Centre, to try and identify shipments of drugs heading for Ireland and intercept them before they even reach our shores - but of course it's not easy. You're dealing with sophisticated drug gangs which spend huge amounts of money to make sure they're doing everything possible to throw us off the scent," he added.

Ireland's long coastline is considered vulnerable to traffickers seeking less guarded routes to bring drugs to the United Kingdom and Europe from South America, North Africa and other drug-producing regions.

But there have been some notable drugs busts in recent months and years.

In January, a joint Revenue and Garda operation at Dublin Port resulted in the seizure of €37.5m worth of cannabis resin. The consignment had entered Dublin Port in three crates disguised as machinery parts.

And in 2014 a luxury yacht, called the SV Makayabella, was intercepted off the Cork coast by the Irish Navy after crossing the Atlantic from the Caribbean with around a tonne of cocaine on board with a street value of €290m.

The Makayabella was just one in a long line of private vessels caught off the southern coast smuggling prohibited drug hauls. And the fear is such activities are a more regular occurrence.

"Every form of access is problematic whether that's small private boats or planes, trawlers or those using the more conventional transport routes," says Liam Peakin. "That's why our Drugs Watch programme is so important where we ask the general public to be our 'eyes and ears' and to contact us if they notice something suspicious. And we have designated 'Drugs Watch Officers' around the country who speak with those involved in, perhaps, the fishing industry or some other maritime-related work to find out if they've seen anything which doesn't look right."

By air, post and sea

Last October, a member of the public rang the Drugs Watch number (Freephone 1800 295 295) when they came across an unusual object washed up on a beach at Liscannor in Clare. The torpedo-shaped device contained cocaine valued at €5m.

Importation by air is of major concern also. In 2016, more than €1.5m worth of cocaine was seized at Dublin Airport alone. Drugs were found stuffed into children's toys, empty fizzy drink and hairspray cans, cavities in shoes and the hollowed-out pages of a book.

In one case, customs officials stopped a man who was dressed in a designer suit and expensive shoes but after being questioned, it transpired he had swallowed 49 pellets of cocaine.

And there have been seizures of designer drugs at postal sorting offices around the country also as the internet adds another layer of difficulty for those involved in drug detection.

Back in Rosslare selected passengers are questioned, sniffer dogs dart between vehicles and eagle-eyed Customs officials keep an eye out for any activity out of the ordinary.

A silver Audi, recently arrived from France, is scanned after its passengers, who say they are in Ireland on holidays, are found to be carrying items such as a television and coffee-maker in their boot. They struggle to provide an address for their destination. The car is hoisted onto the X-ray scanner, one of three now in the possession of Revenue and Customs, but the scan is clear.

Off they drive, but soon another ferry will dock. Customs officials will run the rule over the manifest and add value to its contents and the searches will resume again.

"We're on call 24/7," explains Maureen Dalton, "the drug smuggling efforts don't stop and neither do we."

Drug seizures - The Major Hauls

2008

■ Smugglers overload a small boat with cocaine and fill a spare tank of fuel with diesel instead of petrol. The boat capsizes and cocaine with a value of €440m is seized at Dunlough Bay in Cork.

■ €400m worth of cocaine seized from yacht 'Dances With Waves' in the middle of gale force seven storm by Irish Navy off Mizen Head, Cork.

2014

■ The luxury yacht 'the Makayabella' is seized off West Cork en route from the Caribbean with €290m worth of Cocaine on board (pictured above).

January 2017

■ A massive cannabis haul worth €37.5m at Dublin Port after drugs disguised as machinery.

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