A SECOND boat has been seized by officers investigating an alleged plot by a group of West Yorkshire men to smuggle £100m of cocaine into the UK from the Caribbean.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) was today examining the 25 foot motor boat Sea Breeze, which was found at a marina in Pwllheli, North Wales.
Investigators believe the vessel was to be used to meet up with the 60 foot yacht Makayabella in the Atlantic as part of a plot to bring huge quantities of the Class A drug into the North of England.
The Makayabella was intercepted by the Irish Naval Service in the early hours of Tuesday. An estimated one tonne of cocaine was found on board and West Yorkshire men, including the 70-year-old skipper of the yacht, were detained.
Officials from the agency dubbed the British FBI say a tonne of cocaine, if cut and sold in the UK, would have a street value in excess of £100 million.
NCA officers have been granted more time to question a 47-year-old man from the Leeds area arrested yesterday on suspicion of conspiring to import class A drugs.
But they are still searching for a 29-year-old man from the Halton Moor area of Leeds in connection with the massive smuggling operation.
A 43-year-old man arrested at an address in Leeds on Wednesday had earlier been bailed pending further enquiries.
NCA Branch Commander David Norris, who is leading the investigation, said: “This has been a complex and fast moving investigation, involving law enforcement agencies in the UK, Ireland, Europe and South America.
“Our enquiries are continuing, and we still wish to speak to one other individual in connection with this, a 29-year-old man from the Halton Moor area of Leeds. I would urge him to contact us.”
The 70-year-old yacht skipper was arrested onboard the 60ft Makayabella along with two other men, aged 35 and 28, also from Yorkshire, during an overnight operation by armed Irish Navy teams which took them by surprise.
The Yorkshire Post understands that officers from the National Crime Agency have raided homes in Bradford, Keighley and Guiseley and the Halton Moor and LS6 post code area of Leeds.
The yacht had been tracked by authorities in several countries as it left Venezuela, stopping off in Trinidad, before being stormed by an elite Navy squad 200 nautical miles off Mizen Head - Ireland’s most southerly point - in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
Security sources said the plot involved landing the consignment on the North Wales coast.
The smugglers are believed to have planned to transfer the cocaine onto a smaller boat at sea before ferrying the illegal cargo to shore, a well used tactic of international drug traffickers known as coopering.
It is understood the seizure, one of the biggest on the seas this year, was so large the suspects were forced to use bales of cocaine as makeshift furniture for the weeks-long transatlantic voyage.
Under armed guard yesterday, the one tonne haul was offloaded from the yacht onto the docks at Haulbowline naval base in Cork harbour, where it was towed to the previous night.
John O’Mahony, assistant commissioner of the Garda (Irish police), said the interception would deliver a serious blow to drugs cartels operating in Britain, Europe and South America.
“The cost of putting an operation like this together for the organised crime gangs is significant,” he said
“That money has been taken out of circulation, but more importantly the drugs are taken out of circulation.”
Initial analysis of a sample of the drugs at the force’s forensic laboratory in Dublin confirmed it was cut cocaine, but further tests are needed to establish its purity, which will confirm the street value.
British police have estimated it is worth more than £100m.
During the tense late night sea raid, two Navy teams set off from a major coastal patrol vessel the LE Niamh on smaller inflatable boats, armed with pistols and batons.
They surrounded and illuminated the charter yacht Makayabella, making sure the consignment was not dumped overboard.
“It was a particularly dark night,” said Captain David Barry of the Irish Navy.
“We believe they had no idea we were there until we were actually on board.”
The crew were said to be in reasonably good condition for being at sea for so long, and were literally sitting on the bales of cocaine when they were intercepted.
They put up no resistance and no arms have been yet found on board.
The yacht was in reasonable condition but the sails had been damaged and it had developed engine problems.
It had to be towed by the naval ship LE Roisin, which was providing support, into Cork harbour in what was described as a challenging operation in decent weather.
The three Britons arrested on board the vessel are being questioned at Bridewell Garda Station in Cork under drug trafficking laws. They can be held for seven days.
The 70-year-old skipper is believed to have been an experienced sailor.
The UK National Crime Agency, French and Venezuelan authorities as well as the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre based in Lisbon were all involved in the international effort.
Security sources in Britain believe the consignment was destined for the north of England.
Details of the naval operation were kept secret for more than a day-and-a-half.
The National Crime Agency confirmed a 43-year-old man had been arrested in the Leeds area.
He was detained in the early hours of Wednesday on suspicion of conspiring to import Class A drugs in an operation assisted by officers from West Yorkshire Police. He was subsequently bailed until January.
Earlier, yesterday a 47-year-old man from Leeds was arrested also arrested and is being questioned at a police station in the West Yorkshire area.
Detectives said they are still seeking another individual from the area.
Hank Cole, Head of International Operations for the National Crime Agency, said the investigation is ongoing.
“Thanks to the co-operation between the NCA and our Irish, French and Venezuelan colleagues, we have managed to prevent this cocaine reaching our streets and causing damage to communities,” he said.
“I pay tribute to all those involved.”
The passage around the south-west coast of Ireland has been well used in recent times by drugs smugglers bringing shipments from South America and Africa into Europe.
Authorities describe it as the western frontier of Europe.
In 2007, a record 440 million euro (£344 million) of cocaine was seized in Dunlough Bay in west Cork when a UK gang botched an attempt to bring the massive haul ashore on a smaller boat and capsized in rough weather.
Most of the group, including two Englishmen, were arrested in follow-up operations and eventually given lengthy prison sentences.
Just a year later, a 400 million euro (£312 million) haul was intercepted on the Dances With Waves yacht about 150 miles off Mizen Head.
Three British men on board were later jailed for 10 years each for their part in the plot.
The mastermind, John Alan Brooks, was jailed for 28 years for the plot to bring the massive haul to England from Venezuela.