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West Cork CCTV link to drugs haul

October 2nd, 2023 6:00 AM

By Jackie Keogh

West Cork CCTV link to drugs haul Image
The MV Matthew under escort to Marino Point having been seized by the Navy and Army Rangers . (Photo: Andy Gibson)

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A Castletownbere-registered fishing trawler was used as part of an international drugs trafficking operation worth €157 million – the biggest in the history of the State.

The vessel, named The Castlemore, was purchased last week and left Beara on Friday to rendezvous with the Panamanian-registered cargo ship the MV Matthew.

In deteriorating weather, The Castlemore ran aground on a sand bank off the Wexford coast on Sunday night and two men – an English man and an Eastern European – were winched to safety and subsequently arrested.

Reports from people involved in that multi-agency operation suggested that the men were not natural seafarers because they didn’t know how to tie a tow rope.

It is believed that the trawler was on route to meet the Panamanian vessel, which had been circling the coast for a number of days, looking to offload its cocaine cargo. It has not yet been confirmed if cocaine had been transferred from the mother ship to the trawler and with wind and rain weather warnings in place before Storm Agnes, it may be a day or two yet before it is properly searched.

It hasn’t stopped people taking to the coastline with their binoculars to scan the shoreline for bales of cocaine, similar to the incident in 2008 when 65 bales of cocaine washed up in Dunlough Bay in West Cork. The Naval Service and Air Corps are assisting in the search for ‘debris’.

The Castlemore was a small 10-12ft fishing vessel had been owned and operated for about five years by a Beara fisherman, but dwindling returns forced him to put the vessel on the market two years ago.

It is understood that the sale of the vessel only went through last week and that the buyers arrived in Castletownbere on Thursday to complete a bill of sale. Locally, it has been confirmed that members of the investigation team travelled to Castletownbere on Tuesday to examine CCTV footage of that transaction.

Meanwhile, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the crew on board the cargo ship – which left South America for Europe last month and was being tracked by the LE William Butler Yeats naval vessel as part of a garda-led operation – failed to allow Irish authorities board the vessel.

After naval officers had fired warning shots across its bow, a specialist team from the Army Ranger Wing deployed by helicopter onto the MV Matthew via fast rope insertion in what were described as challenging conditions. 

The rangers made the vessel safe for personnel from the Naval Service, the Garda National Drugs Unit and Organised Crime Bureau, as well as Revenue’s Customs Service to board the vessel.

The MV Matthew was then taken under control and towed to Marino Point in Cork where a full search was carried out.

By midday on Wednesday gardaí were able to confirm that the drugs haul, which was for the lucrative Irish and EU market, weighed 2,253kgs was valued at €157m.

The operation – the first of its kind in Irish waters – was the culmination of 48 hours of intensive activity in what were described as worsening sea conditions ahead of Storm Agnes.

The multi-agency operation involved armed gardaí, the Naval Service, members of the Army Ranger Wing, Revenue’s Customs Service, the Air Corps, as well as the Coast Guard and the RNLI.

The operation also drew on the resources of the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre, which is based in Lisbon.

A third man, an Iranian, was arrested off the MV Matthew. The three men, aged 60, 50 and 31, have been arrested on suspicion of organised crime offences and are currently detained at Garda stations in Wexford.

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