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Cocaine galore: a tidal wave of drugs

It's white, illegal, and washing up in unusual quantities on the beaches of Cornwall and south Wales. Cahal Milmo reports

The seas around Ramsey Island off Pembrokeshire are justly renowned for dramatic vistas and plethora of wildlife from porpoises to puffins. So it was natural that when Beth Swan and her husband spotted a large floating object on one of their wildlife excursions they would speed towards it in the hope of catching a glimpse of a diving seal or of removing debris endangering animal life.

It was only when they pulled their inflatable speedboat alongside their semi-submerged target, disturbing a resting gull, that the couple and their passengers realised they were dealing with an altogether more alarming and threatening visitor to the Welsh coast than a passing pod of cetaceans.

Helped by Brian Ball, a former marine pilot from nearby Milford Haven, who was celebrating his 42nd wedding anniversary with his wife, the crew hauled aboard a tatty square package wrapped in ripped layers of sacking and waterproof polythene surrounded by rope netting to allow it to be lifted.

It was only when a knife was inserted into the bundle and a fine white powder emerged that these salvagers realised exactly what they had found: 30kg of finest South American cocaine worth at least £1.5m.

Mr Hall, who cut into the bundle, said: "I recognised the smell and appearance from a stand at the county show a couple of years ago where samples of various drugs were put out to help people recognise illegal substances. I thought it was a fishing float at first, but it was heavy and wrapped in layer upon layer of hessian and polythene."

The suitcase-sized package, found three weeks ago but whose discovery is revealed now after a search for further consignments, is being examined by forensic experts from Dyfed-Powys Police. The bundle equalled the amount of cocaine seized in the region in the past year.

Ms Swan, who has run her Venture Jet nature excursions off Pembrokeshire with her husband, Tim Brooke, for the 26 years, added: "It was the very last thing we expected to find. We thought it might be a seal or maybe waste that needed to be collected in case it was threat to the wildlife. It was incredibly heavy and once we saw what was inside we immediately called the coastguard. We used the mobile phone rather than a radio just in case someone was listening in and sailed straight to the nearest harbour to deliver it to the police. I've never been so glad to get rid of something."

Police say such finds are increasing. In the past three months alone, at least nine consignments of high-purity cocaine worth an estimated total of £13.5m have been found on beaches or in coastal waters off Wales and Cornwall. Were there any doubt about the origin of some of the packages found on the Cornish coast, their dispatchers wrote "Colombia" on the side to aid identification.

When added to a spectacular haul discovered off Cork in the Irish Republic, a total of 1.7 tonnes of the drug worth more than £360m has been found floating off the British Isles in the past year.

Law enforcement agencies charged with trying to stem the illicit tide from the narco-industries of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru say this tale of "Cocaine Galore" is part of a much wider and more sinister proliferation of the routes and tactics used by the drug cartels to reach their most lucrative market, Europe, where the high price of the euro maximises financial returns, and the UK in particular, which at £40,000 per kilogram has among the highest cocaine prices in the world. About 350 tonnes of cocaine enters Europe each year, officials say. The United Nations warned in March that governments are allowing the kingpins of the £160bn-a-year international drug trafficking trade to escape with virtual impunity by operating sophisticated and multi-faceted distribution networks while police forces spend a disproportionate amount of time pursuing low-level dealers and addicts.

Britain's Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca), billed as the UK's answer to the FBI when it was unveiled by Tony Blair two years ago with a remit to "make life hell" for "Mr Bigs", is a key player in Maritime Analysis Operations Centre, a new Lisbon-based agency which co-ordinates police, navy and customs officers from across Europe to intercept drug shipments. In its first year of operation, it has seized 27 tonnes of seaborne cocaine, about two-thirds of the UK's annual cocaine consumption.

But it is grim testimony to the sheer scale of the trafficking industry that these seizures – and the tatty bundle hauled aboard Beth Swan's boat by bemused nature lovers – represents only a tiny proportion of the amount of processed coca leaves being sent to Europe. A Soca spokes-man said: "There have been very significant successes in tracking and seizing drug shipments and prosecuting those behind them. But we are talking about huge amounts getting through using a variety of methods.

"We have shipments coming through on traditional cargo vessels and the development of major smuggling routes through west Africa. And we also still have a significant quantity on small yachts, fishing vessels or other boats from places such as Venezuela destined for the Iberian peninsula and on to the UK. The packages found on British shores are likely to have been jettisoned when they feared discovery, or lost during a transfer."

Frank Partridge, 54, clerk of his local parish council and daily visitor to Pentreath beach on the Lizard peninsula in south Cornwall, found another of the frayed packages containing 25kg of cocaine worth more than £1m during his constitutional along the shore with his dogs in February.

He took the contraband home in a wheelbarrow and police collected it. Mr Partridge said: "I thought if I left it and the wrong people came along then it's gone."

The finders of bales include a university researcher studying porpoises, a Welsh firefighter and the crew of a Cornish trawler which dragged another 25kg cocaine package from the depths in its nets off the Lizard this year. Some recent packages were encrusted with barnacles, suggesting they had been in the water for weeks or months after being thrown overboard in the Caribbean.

Last week the trial opened in Cork of three Britons charged with trying to ferry the £350m of cocaine found off the Irish coast last July from a catamaran to shore. The court heard that the gang, who had allegedly spent months planning the operation, mistakenly put diesel in their speedboat's petrol engine and were cast adrift in stormy seas.

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