Monday 21 May 2018

Howard Marks, drug smuggler with links to Pablo Escobar and IRA, dies aged 70

Howard Marks at the publication of his autobiography in 1997: the Welsh smuggler had 43 aliases, 25 companies trading around the world, and business links with the American Mafia, Colombian drug cartel overlord Pablo Escobar, and with the IRA. Photo credit: Ben Curtis/PA Wire
Howard Marks at the publication of his autobiography in 1997: the Welsh smuggler had 43 aliases, 25 companies trading around the world, and business links with the American Mafia, Colombian drug cartel overlord Pablo Escobar, and with the IRA. Photo credit: Ben Curtis/PA Wire

Dean Gray

Howard Marks, who has died of cancer aged 70, was probably the world's most celebrated drugs smuggler, a badge he wore in later life with unconcealed pride.

Marks liked to cultivate the image of a hippie adventurer injecting some pizzazz into the pedestrian lives of his clientele. He was, in fact, a highly intelligent operator who, in the process of becoming one of the world's biggest cannabis smugglers, was (briefly, and not very successfully) a spy for MI6.

He is said to have had 43 aliases and 25 companies trading worldwide. He had business links with the American Mafia, the Colombian trafficker Pablo Escobar and with the IRA.

Marks claimed Irish heritage - his great, great grandfather was Patrick McCarthy from Cork, who later shortened his name to Marks when he moved to live and work in England.

In 1988, Marks was arrested by the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and sentenced to 25 years in jail. Granted parole after seven years for "exemplary behaviour", he returned to his native South Wales, in 1996 publishing an autobiography, 'Mr Nice' (one of his aliases was "Donald Nice"), which became a bestseller.

Dennis Howard Marks was born at the village of Kenfig Hill in Glamorganshire on August 13, 1945.

Later, his headmaster at Garw Grammar School, near Bridgend, recommended that he sit the exam for Oxford. He was accepted by Balliol College, where he read physics and smoked his first spliff.

Emerging from Oxford with a Second, he thought he would become a physics teacher and enrolled on a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at London University before changing his mind and returning to Oxford to take a Diploma in the History and Philosophy of Science.

His diploma secured, Marks briefly toyed with a BPhil at Sussex University, but he was already dealing in cannabis.

"I started wholesaling in London, shifting about 100 kilos a week, which was quite a significant amount in those days - but if you're a wholesaler you come into contact with a lot of smugglers and from there I became a smuggler myself."

His first marriage broke down, but he was soon earning thousands of pounds a month, driving dope across European borders or into England.

Before long, he had persuaded a freelance member of the IRA named James McCann to help him import drugs into Shannon Airport from Kabul. Marks then transported them via ferry to Britain, where they were sold.

By 1972 he was making around £50,000 for each shipment but the following year, he claimed, he was recruited to work for MI6.

Aware that Marks was a drugs smuggler and that he was in contact with a member of the IRA, MI6 asked him to get information.

Instead - claiming that he was concerned the IRA would execute McCann if MI6 passed on intelligence about his drugs shipments - Marks tipped off his Irish contact and MI6 soon terminated the relationship.

Meanwhile, Marks opened a Swiss bank account. Large quantities of hashish were moved into Europe and America in the equipment of touring rock bands.

In late 1973, he was arrested in Amsterdam and sent to Britain, then charged under the Misuse of Drugs Act. He skipped bail, grew a moustache and travelled to Italy on a false passport, where he lived for several months in a motor home.

In 1974, he returned incognito to Britain, where he resumed his smuggling activities, airfreighting dope from Nepal to the Mafia in New York.

In 1978, he became 'Donald Nice' and late that year arranged for a ton of hashish to be smuggled by boat on to an island in the west of Scotland. The following year, he imported a further 15 tons through Scotland. He moved into a £500-a-week flat in Knightsbridge and ate caviar omelettes for breakfast.

In 1980, Marks was arrested by British customs officers and charged with dealing. At his trial, Marks pleaded not guilty, claiming that he was an agent for MI6 (which he no longer was). He was acquitted, but found guilty of using false passports and sentenced to two years in jail.

By the mid-1980s, he had settled in Majorca, from where he continued his smuggling operations. It is said that at one stage he controlled 10pc of the world's cannabis trade.

In 1988, he was arrested in Majorca and extradited to the United States, where he was sentenced to 25 years and sent to the Terre Haute Penitentiary in Indiana.

Having occupied his time reading novels, practising yoga and playing tennis, he was released in 1995.

In his new role as master ex-smuggler, Marks campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis, standing for Parliament on the issue in 1997.

Marks regularly appeared on radio; opened a tapas bar in Leeds; became a regular on the speaking engagement circuit; and wrote for newspapers. A biopic, 'Mr Nice', with Rhys Ifans as Marks, was released in 2010.

Howard Marks claimed that most of the money he had made from dealing had been confiscated or absorbed by legal fees. He insisted he had never dealt in hard drugs or been party to violence.

"I'm just an old hippy," he suggested. "I like to get stoned and look at sunsets."

Irish Independent

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