Garda suspects €35m ‘cocaine coal’ shipment abandoned by nervous criminals

Only a handful of gangs could have carried out the complex smuggling operation

A consignment of up to €35 million worth of cocaine, which was disguised as coal and destined for Ireland, was abandoned by smugglers who realised they were being monitored, gardaí believe.

Up to half a tonne of the drug was contained in 2,000 bags of charcoal and transported in two shipping containers to the Netherlands for onward transport to Ireland.

The consignment was brought to Ireland by gardaí, customs and the Naval Service last Friday after it became clear the drugs gang did not plan to pick it up in the Netherlands.

The drugs were disguised as charcoal using a sophisticated chemical method involving mixing the cocaine with carbon, which disguises its smell. On arrival, the criminals would have had to subject it to further chemical processes to extract the drug.


Work is ongoing to estimate the true value of the cocaine. This is complicated by the fact that the shipment contains both real and fake charcoal with each bag having to be checked individually. “It’s a slow process and it may be next week by the time we know the true value,” a security source said.

If the entire consignment is confirmed to be cocaine, it will be one of the biggest seizures of the drug in Irish history. It will also be one of the most sophisticated attempts uncovered by police to smuggle drugs into the country.

Only a handful of criminal gangs have the resources to purchase this amount of drugs and disguise it so effectively, and gardaí believe the Kinahan organised crime group was likely involved.

Dutch port

The Irish-led policing operation began several weeks ago when the shipment was detected after arriving from South America to the Dutch port of Rotterdam.

The shipment was placed under observation by the Dutch police in co-operation with the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (GNDOCB) to determine how it would be transported to Ireland.

However, when it became clear the drugs would not be picked up, it was decided to seize the containers. Gardaí believe the drug smugglers suspected the shipment was under surveillance and had become “too hot to handle”, a senior source said.

Following discussions between Dutch police and the Garda, it was determined the Garda would take custody of the shipment as it was an Irish-led operation and the cocaine was destined for this country.

Last week the containers were loaded onto a private marine vessel under the supervision of the Garda and customs, and transported to Dublin under armed guard. On entering Irish waters, the ship was escorted into port by a Naval Service ship.

Using drug sniffer dogs and the customs’ mobile X-ray scanner, gardaí detected “anomalies” in a number of the bags.

The State forensic laboratory, Forensic Science Ireland, was brought in to confirm the presence of cocaine in a sample of about 100 bags.

"Initial examination undertaken by the FSI would tend to confirm the suspicion held by the Garda Síochána that the two shipping containers may have been used in an attempt to transport up to half of a tonne of cocaine into Ireland," the Garda said in a statement.

Street value

If most of the bags are found to contain cocaine, as is suspected, the potential street value of the haul will be up to €35 million.

By comparison, the total amount of cocaine seized during the whole of 2020 was valued at €9.5 million

FSI scientists will have to subject the drugs to chemical processes to extract the drugs from the substances.

The investigation is ongoing and the Garda said it anticipated it would make a number of arrests in the near future.

“This is a significant development in An Garda Síochána’s effort to disrupt and dismantle organised crime groups suspected to be involved in the importation of cocaine and other drugs into Ireland,” said Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, who heads Organised and Serious Crime within the Garda.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times