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The Rising Tide of Open-Water Drug Busts

The intercontinental battle to stop cocaine from coming from South America to Europe by boat.


Illustration by Alessandra De Cristofaro

On September 23 of last year, 300 miles off the southern coast of Ireland, the Irish navy sent a flotilla of small boats to the Makayabella under the cover of darkness. On board the 60-foot luxury yacht, its exhausted three-man crew, including 70-year-old skipper John Powell from Yorkshire, sheltered themselves against the elements.

The Makayabella was on the last leg of a 7,700-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Venezuela. Stowed on board, in 41 waterproof packages, was a ton of high-purity Colombian cocaine, edging steadily closer to the noses of British coke snorters. It wasn't the world's largest cocaine shipment, but if cut and bagged, it would make around 3 million gram-size street deals.

Unfortunately for the crew, the yacht had been tracked by British and French intelligence agencies. It was red-flagged just after it disembarked from the Grenadines, where it was purchased, for around $295,000, by Powell's son Stephen earlier in the year. Their caper came to a swift end. A boarding party of Kevlar-covered Irish sea ninjas piled on deck with guns trained on the crew.

Embarrassingly, 48-year-old Stephen, who was supposed to meet the Makayabella in a smaller boat to offload the drugs (a practice called coopering), ran out of fuel and had to be rescued and taken to shore by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Stephen soon gave himself up, telling officers at a police-station front desk: "I believe you have got something of mine." When asked what that could be, Stephen replied, "Sixty-three million pounds [93 million USD] of cocaine." He was sentenced to 16 years for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine at Leeds Crown Court. His father and two other suspects await trial in Ireland.

The Makayabella was one of a series of high-profile cocaine seizures from yachts traversing the Atlantic at the end of last year. During eight sea raids over eight weeks between September and November, 5 million grams of high-purity cocaine was intercepted en route to European shores, according to detectives at the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre–Narcotics (MAOC-N), a joint venture between France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. MAOC-N, which coordinates intelligence and resources to combat drug smuggling across the Atlantic, is cautious about declaring any sort of progress.

"There is no better way for this generation of criminals to raise large amounts of money quickly than by buying cocaine in South America and selling it in Europe, and the most common way of getting it over here is by boat," said Frank Francis, a senior British officer from the UK's National Crime Agency who has been tapped to be MAOC-N's next director. Cocaine's illegality creates a dramatic price surge from producer to consumer nation: A kilo of cocaine can be bought for around $1,500 in Colombia and sold for $75,000 in the UK.

Francis has noticed a change in the modus operandi of the Atlantic coke smugglers, most notably the more frequent use of yachts. "In 2007, when MAOC-N started, we had big seizures of merchant ships carrying large amounts of cocaine," he said. "Now we are seeing a lot more well-equipped yachts and pleasure craft doing these runs, usually carrying smaller amounts, but more often."

In the 1990s, smuggling by yacht was a rarity. It was usually done in merchant ships. By 2007, a third of MAOC-N seizures were made on yachts, and by 2013 that figure had risen to 70 percent.

When cocaine started arriving in Europe in the 1990s, as Colombian cartels sought fresh markets away from the US, much of it came on slow-moving vessels before being transferred onto small, fast boats to be taken ashore. Initially, the Colombians worked with seafaring organized-crime groups in Galicia, on the rugged coast of northwest Spain. There, smuggling cocaine became a lucrative hobby in an economy dependent on mussel fishing. Soon, British gangsters hiding out in the Costa del Sol got a piece of the action.

Now the Colombian wholesalers, operating out of a semi-lawless Venezuela, are dealing with a wider network of European criminals. Importing drugs is no longer a business monopolized by a chosen few. As long as you have the three key ingredients—a South American wholesaler, a boat, and a European buyer—then all that's between you and mounting a successful coke-smuggling operation is luck and a good skipper.

It isn't just the usual seafaring suspects involved—the British, Dutch, Irish, Portuguese, and Spanish. The rise of Eastern European gangs on the world stage is now being mirrored at sea. In November, a yacht called the Liberty Belle, crewed by a Serb and two Ukrainians, was seized 200 nautical miles off the Canary Islands while carrying a ton of cocaine. Ten days beforehand, the Meguem, a yacht with a four-man Czech crew, was found off the Canaries with 599 kilos of coke aboard.

The Atlantic remains the major importation route of cocaine into Europe. The amount of cocaine seized while crossing the ocean certainly dwarfs the transactions being made via the far more media-friendly online drug trade. The 3 million gram bags that would have been sold using the contents of the Makayabella's hull are double the entire number of drug transactions that took place on Silk Road between 2011 and 2013.

In the cat-and-mouse game of maritime drug smuggling, the stakes are huge. For the authorities, catching large drug batches "upstream," before they are broken up in their destination countries, is a big hit. But the Atlantic Ocean is 40 million square miles. Bumping into a drug boat does not happen. It requires detailed intelligence, and even when that comes in, MAOC-N has to hope there is a warship available to intercept these increasingly fast yachts.

At MAOC-N's office in Lisbon, Portugal, they are aware of 170 "vessels of interest," of which 80 are suspected of being involved in smuggling on a regular basis. Francis told me that intelligence about potential smuggling operations comes from "matching up the pieces of a puzzle, classic policing.

"Loose lips, informants, undercover officers, and basic surveillance, we use it all. If you hang around any port for long enough you will notice something amiss. Are these people really on that yacht for pleasure sailing? Why is that guy paying for his maritime fuel in cash? What is a Ukrainian deckhand doing on a yacht coming out of Venezuela?"

When a yacht was seized at Southampton in 2011 with 1.2 tons of cocaine aboard, it was revealed in court that police had snared the Dutch gang by using wiretaps. The Hygeia of Halsa, a yacht crewed by two Jersey men seized on the Caribbean island of Martinique in November with 250 kilos of cocaine aboard, was flagged using intelligence from the Metropolitan Police that a London crime gang with connections to the island was organizing a shipment.

For the Atlantic smuggling crews, there isn't only the risk of getting a decade or two behind bars—the journey itself can be hazardous. Smugglers are often required to continue traveling in bad conditions that regular sailors would avoid, unwilling to take the risk of heading into ports for shelter. Because they need to cooper with smaller boats that are equipped to whisk the drugs off into small coves, there is usually a tight schedule that must be followed.

The North Atlantic route underneath Ireland into the Welsh coast followed by the Makayabella is not for the fainthearted. In 2008 a yacht called Dances with Waves, which was traveling from Venezuela to Wales with 1.5 tons of cocaine, capsized in a storm not far from where the Makayabella was taken. The drugs and the crew were recovered, and the mastermind—John Brooks, a notorious UK Costa del Crime kingpin who once escaped capture by riding away on a jet ski—was caught and jailed in 2012. Two years before, former police detective turned smuggler Michael Daly was foiled when his boat was shipwrecked off the Irish coast while carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine.

Francis said that MAOC-N, which is assisted by US drug and maritime agencies, is developing further alliances with Colombia and Brazil, "to ensure that we create the most hostile environment for drug traffickers in the Atlantic."

But the cocaine game on the high seas shows no signs of letting up, merely changing as technology develops. As the smugglers adopt more capable marine craft and high-tech satellite navigation to further increase their chances of slipping through the net, so too will law enforcement. But it is a game where the dice are loaded in the criminals' favor.

As long as the patrols that protect the European and West African coastline remain thin on the ground, seafaring smugglers will continue to use the cover of smart-looking yachts to make huge profits.

One former customs intelligence officer, involved in stemming the drift of cocaine across the ocean since the 1980s, told me: "The smugglers know that if they do everything right, there is a good chance they will get through. The only thing that will stop them, apart from the sea itself, is if their plans spring a leak and we get wind as a result of good intelligence.

"But let's be realistic here. People have been smuggling illicit goods across the sea for hundreds of years—it's one of the old-school trades—and there is little to stop them doing so for another hundred years. As sure as the tide comes in, and until successive governments address the societal issues that help create the market, so will the cocaine."