Six Chinese nationals said to be sergeants in one of the biggest cannabis growing operations uncovered by police in Northern Ireland have been jailed for a total of 18 years, although given time served on remand, all but one of them will be freed within days.
Antrim Crown Court heard yesterday that planned police raids on two homes in the town on June 4 last year led officers to a network of 14 other properties scattered throughout Northern Ireland from Londonderry in the north to Clogher in the west and Kilkeel in the south.
One of the biggest sites was uncovered was a warehouse in Ahoghill which together with the other cannabis growing sites was capable of producing a harvest worth between £2-3m.
The court also heard that when police raided the houses at Grangiers Mill and Alexander Park in Antrim, they also recovered almost £155,000 in sterling and euros, in addition to a number of bogus identification documents.
Prosecuting QC David Hunter said that those arrested in the raids could be described as “sergeants” operating above the so-called “gardeners” who grow the cannabis.
Mr Hunter said while they were not “the commanders in chief... they were facilitators of that operation”.
The six, three men and three women, who were each jailed for three years for conspiring to produce the Class C drug, also received concurrent terms of six months to a year for possessing either the cash and face driving licences and identity cards.
Passing sentence Judge Gemma Loughran told the six, who all pleaded guilty, that they had been involved in a “very sophisticated system for the production of a very large quantity of cannabis”.
The judge told them while their roles were not minor, it was just one more rung up from that and that there was little to distinguish between the roles each of them played.
However, Judge Loughran described them as “vulnerable individuals who were subject to the manipulations of much more sinister and shrewd people”.
The judge concluded by saying that a decision on whether they be deported following their release was not a matter for the court but for the Border Agencies”.
Police later described the operation by officers from the Organised Crime Branch as one of the most successful in recent history.
Since early 2008 104 suspects had been arrested, 84 of which were charged with offences and cannabis worth £17m seized.
Detective Inspector Peter Moore, who led the operation claimed the “impact this has had on organised criminal gangs, originating from south Asia cannot be underestimated” and that the sentencing of more people sent out the clear message drug dealing or operating “will not be tolerated”.
However, Mr Moore said now was not the time to be complacent as more recent success “shows that the threat still remains”.
He also asked landlords to be vigilant in renting out properties and to check the details of prospective tenants.