A large portion of the three tonnes of cocaine smuggled aboard the “narco-submarine” seized by Spanish police last weekend would have ended up on British streets, according to the UK National Crime Agency (NCA).
The 20-metre semi-submersible craft was intercepted off the coast of Galicia, north-west Spain, on Sunday following a joint operation with police forces from the UK, Portugal, the US and Brazil. The NCA said the cocaine was worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
Two alleged crew members were arrested after attempting to leave the boat and swim ashore. A third is still being sought by Spanish police officers.
“It is highly likely a lot of this cocaine would have ended up on the streets of the UK, fuelling serious violence and impacting on the most vulnerable members of society,” Tom Dowdall, the NCA’s deputy director international said on Wednesday.
“Seizures like this are vital in disrupting and dismantling transnational crime groups trafficking deadly drugs, and ultimately protecting the public from the damage they cause.”
In a statement, Spain’s Guardia Civil said 3,000kg of cocaine, divided into 152 bales, had been removed from the vessel, which is now in the port of Aldán in the Galician province of Pontevedra.
The operation began after the EU’s Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre told Spain’s counter-terrorism and organised crime intelligence centre that a suspicious craft carrying cocaine was crossing the Atlantic, headed for Spain.
An air-sea search was launched and more officers sent to reinforce the police presence around the Galician coast.
“Conditions at sea meant that the semi-submersible wasn’t able to deliver the drugs to a second vessel,” said the statement.
“Its crew members then headed towards the coast, where they scuttled and abandoned the vessel. The manoeuvre was detected by a Guardia Civil patrol using night-vision goggles, who then noted the boat’s arrival point and the subsequent fleeing of its crew.”
The force said one person had been arrested at the scene wearing a wetsuit, while another had been captured at 9am on Sunday. The whereabouts of a third remains unknown.
“The investigation into both the origin of the drugs and the gang that was set to handle them in Spain is ongoing,” the statement added.
“Although the use of these submarines is very common in the Americas, this is the first time that such a transportation system has been used [here].”
Galicia’s rías, or inlets, have long been a smuggler’s paradise, but in recent years local drug clans have used them as the main European entry point of Colombian cocaine.
In 2011, six men were jailed for two years for attempting to use a homemade submarine in a failed attempt to bring 750kg of cocaine into Galicia. Their sentences were later increased by a year by Spain’s supreme court on the grounds that use of such a vessel constituted an aggravating factor.