Author: By Cahal Milmo
Interception of the 138-ft boat off Brazil led to the discovery of more than five and a half tonnes of the narcotic, with a street value of £240m. The previous largest haul was 4.7 tonnes of cocaine, discovered in 1999 by HMS Marlborough. The latest consignment was discovered on 15 September, hidden beneath tonnes of fishing supplies and a false concrete deck in the hold, which had to be broken up by sledge hammers; then metal panels were pried open, revealing bales of drugs. A boarding party of British sailors and the US Coastguard took 24 hours to search the vessel and unload the drugs.
The quantity of cocaine was so large some had to be stored on the deck of the Iron Duke, one of the Navy’s most advanced vessels, with an array of electronic equipment designed for hunting submarines and a Lynx helicopter for tasks which include tracking suspected smugglers.
Commander Andrew Stacey, the captain, said his crew had seized drugs worth a total of £39m this summer, on patrol in the West Indies, But he admitted the size of the haul had exceeded all expectations. “This was our third successful drug bust in as many months but this surpasses anything we’ve had, and anything the Navy had previously,” he said. “It is largest drug bust by value and by volume in terms of cocaine. It is a massive blow for the narcotics industry.”
The crew of the Cristal were arrested and moved on board the Navy vessel then handed over to the US Coastguard along with the drugs, which were in 212 plastic-wrapped bales, weighing about 26kg each. Defence officials declined to discuss the number or nationality of the suspected smugglers, or the location of the seizure, which was aided by the RFA Fort George.
The prevalence of traffickers in that area of the South American coast meant armed guards had to patrol the deck of the frigate where the drugs had been stacked in case of a daring raid to take back the cocaine. Cdr Stacey said: “We are very well prepared to defend ourselves. It was a big quantity and I was conscious that some people might want it back, but they would have a tough time getting it back from us.”
Confiscation of drugs is at an all-time high, says the United Nations. A report this summer found that global cocaine production is at a five-year low of 845 tonnes, with Colombia, source of half of the world’s supply of the drug, suffering an 18 per cent annual drop. But Britain has the highest number of “problem” cocaine users in western Europe.
To cap a bad day for the suspected smugglers, the ageing Cristal began to develop technical difficulties during the search and was drifting towards a major shipping lane. After all the drugs and crew were transferred, Iron Duke opened fire on the trawler and sank it.
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