Police divers have found and retrieved a 137kg consignment of cocaine with an estimated street value of more than £10 million, hidden deep inside a ship’s hull at the Sheerness port in Kent.
The discovery is only the second instance of a major underwater concealment of class A drugs being seized off the UK coast – but with three times as much cocaine found as on the first occasion, in Bristol in November 2021.
A Panamanian-registered container ship carrying a cargo of bananas had docked in Sheerness while on its way from Panama to the Netherlands, and on 14 October the divers were sent to investigate its hull, based on intelligence supplied by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
The search was carried out in restricted visibility over five hours by a specialist National Police Chiefs Council dive-team, supported by officers from the Border Force National Deep Rummage Team and port operator Peel Ports.
They eventually found four large hold-alls concealed below the waterline inside the sea-chest, a seawater intake area used to help stabilise vessels. The divers had to extract the bags from behind bolted grilles.
“This was an extremely rare and sophisticated concealment, and shows how far criminal networks will go to get dangerous drugs like cocaine into circulation,” commented NCA operations manager David Phillips. “The sale of such class A drugs is controlled by gangs who inflict violence and exploitation in our communities.”
Thanking the divers for work carried out in “challenging conditions”, Phillips said that the collaborative effort demonstrated “our collective determination to tackle organised criminal groups head-on, and stem the supply of harmful drugs like cocaine”. NCA investigators are now collaborating on the case with Dutch and Panamanian law-enforcement agencies.
Blee pleads guilty in coke-smuggling case
In Australia, meanwhile, a father and son have appeared in court in connection with another underwater cocaine-smuggling operation – but one that went tragically wrong.
The plot emerged after Brazilian rebreather diver Bruno Borges-Martins was found dead beside packages of the drug in Newcastle, New South Wales, as reported on Divernet in May last year. A total of 104kg of cocaine was found, half of it with the diver and the rest in a nearby docked ship’s hull, though it was thought at the time that this formed only part of the consignment.
Scuba diver and marine tour operator James Blee, 63, was later arrested by police and Border Force officers while trying to escape to Singapore, and charged with importing and supplying the drugs.
Police had then launched an unsuccessful search for a second diver, Jhoni Fernando Da Silva, who they believed had also been involved in the aborted operation to retrieve the narcotics consignment.
Blee has now appeared in Newcastle Local Court on 25 October to plead guilty to charges of importing commercial quantities of cocaine, and people smuggling. Court documents indicated that divers Borges-Martins and Da Silva had been smuggled into Australia near Darwin on 27 April. All the offences were said to have been committed between 16 April and 9 May, 2022.
Blee also pleaded guilty to knowingly dealing with Aus $170,000 (£88,750) in proceeds-of-crime money. However, prosecutors dropped a manslaughter charge arising from an earlier accusation that he had provided Borges-Martins with dive-gear knowing it to be faulty.
Blee’s 21-year-old son James Lake-Kusviandy Blee was also in court to plead not guilty to aiding and abetting his father to import cocaine, and dealing with more than $100,000 in proceeds of crime money. A charge of supplying a prohibited drug was withdrawn.
Father and son are due to reappear in court on 23 November.