Four men jailed for smuggling cocaine worth £41m in private jet
Profit could have been more than £15 million, prosecutors said.
Four men have been jailed for trying to smuggle a haul of cocaine worth more than £41 million into the UK on a private jet from Colombia.
In what was celebrated as one of the largest busts of its kind, they were were stopped at Hampshire’s Farnborough Airport with half a tonne of the drug in 15 suitcases after flying in from Bogota.
Martin Neil, 49, of Poole, Dorset, Italian national Alessandro Iembo, 28, and Spaniard Victor Franco-Lorenzo, 40, were jailed for 24 years each at Woolwich Crown Court on Thursday.
Jose Ramon Miguelez-Botas, 56, received a lighter sentence of 20 years imprisonment, for what Judge Philip Shorrock described as a “serious and commercial operation”.
Neil celebrated as his fellow builder brother Stephen Neil, 53, also of Poole, was found not guilty.
The National Crime Agency’s Ian Truby said: “These men deviated from their seemingly normal lives as bricklayers and waiters to play high-flying businessmen, using luxury cars, hotels and even a private jet to try and pull off a plot they thought would make them millions.”
Border officials discovered the stash on January 29, but police believe the racket may have been successful once before in 2017.
They took off from Luton on a private jet costing £138,500 on January 26 and headed for the South American country.
When they returned, officials searched past a few dirty clothes in their suitcases to find some 513 blocks of cocaine with a purity of around 79%. The total weight was about 500kg.
The wholesale value was £15,390,000 but the cocaine could be sold for more than £41 million on the street, the prosecution said.
Profit, despite the luxury mode of transport, could have been more than £15 million but the defendants were not the masterminds of the operation.
Iembo, Martin Neil and Franco-Lorenzo made an initial three-day trip to Bogota, in December, which the judge said showed planning on their parts and earned them longer sentences.
A woman booked that private jet under the guise of the men being “leaders in the field of cryptocurrency” who would be meeting US singer Bruno Mars in Colombia as part of their work in the music industry.
A chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantom was arranged to collect them when they returned to Farnborough on December 11.
They brought back a number of suitcases on that trip, but none were searched.
Lawyers for the Neils said the pair had been “deceived”, believing they were off to Colombia to help with charity work and did not know the suitcases were packed with cocaine.
The jury had to be convinced the defendants were aware they were carrying cocaine in order to convict them.
Celebrating the bust at the time, NCA operations manager Siobhan Micklethwaite said it was “one of the largest flown into the UK by plane in many years”.
The jury deliberated for more than 13 hours before returning verdicts on Thursday over the charges of fraudulent evasion of a prohibition in relation to a class A controlled drug, between October 30 and January 30.
Martin Neil, who lived with his brother in Bournemouth Road, Iembo, of Richmond Chambers in Bournemouth, and Franco-Lorenzo, of Suffolk Road in Bournemouth, and Miguelez-Botas, of Valladolid in Spain, expressed little emotion as they were led to the cells.