TWO Irishmen have been arrested after police smashed a suspected European-wide multi-million drug smuggling operation from Spain to Dublin on the back of a routine traffic accident.
rug squad officers on the Costa Blanca made the seizure after a “bungling” drink-driving Irishman arrived to take charge of a lorry he owned which a British pal had crashed while driving without a licence.
The 45-year-old was found to be over the limit when he arrived at the scene the worse for wear in a Peugeot van – and nearly four kilos of marijuana were discovered in the back of his lorry when both vehicles were searched.
A Bulgarian lorry driver parked nearby who had spent the afternoon with the unnamed Irishman also ended up being held after walking up to officers to find out what was going on – and sparking a third vehicle search which led to the discovery of nearly 300 kilos of marijuana buds and 150 kilos of cannabis resin hidden in the back among lettuces and cabbage bound for Dublin.
Local police in Elche near the holiday resort of Torrevieja subsequently discovered a warehouse a few feet away was rented by the Irish expat taken into custody.
A search of the premises hours later carried out by specialist drug squad officers led to the seizure of more marijuana and drug-related paraphernalia including weighing scales and the same vacuum-packed bags the buds found hidden in the lorry were inside.
The 350 kilos of drugs believed to be marijuana and cannabis seized have been valued at just under €840,000.
The second Irish national held is a 41-year-old whose passport was discovered in his compatriot’s van at the crash scene and was already in custody over an unrelated break-in earlier the same day.
He was taken to hospital after injuring himself in a fall while he allegedly trespassed at a commercial premises near to the crash scene.
Police are understood to be still hunting two suspected accomplices they believe could be Irish friends of the alleged intruder who fled and left him behind.
The traffic accident involving the Brit was a minor one but the Spaniard he bumped into called police because he couldn’t get the other man to understand him.
The extraordinary sequence of events has resulted in an ongoing criminal probe which is expected to lead to further arrests.
Detectives are working on the theory the chief Irish suspect set up an import-export company as a front firm with an alleged accomplice and bought fruit and veg from a reputable organisation before mixing it with drugs and sending the cargo by lorry to an industrial estate in Dublin.
The Bulgarian lorry driver, who has been released on bail pending an ongoing criminal probe, has told police he had no idea he was carrying marijuana and cannabis.
He said he was asked to stop in Elche by his transport firm boss for a “quality control check” after leaving the neighbouring province of Murcia with a lorry-load of lettuces and cabbages and was met by the Irishman arrested for drink-driving.
The 56-year-old told cops he suspects the drugs were hidden in his legal cargo while he was invited to eat at a nearby McDonalds after leaving his vehicle at a warehouse thought to have been the same one searched by police.
The trucker is believed to have been arrested after approaching officers who had just held the Irishman following his pal’s traffic accident to tell them they had spent the afternoon eating a late lunch together.
It was not immediately clear today if the other three people arrested have been bailed after appearing before a judge in a closed court hearing or have been remanded in custody.
They declined to answer questions during their court appearance.
The arrests happened on October 2 but details have only just leaked out. Police have not yet made any official comment.
The lorry heading to Ireland is understood to have been on its way to the northern Spanish city of Bilbao and was due to board a ferry to Rosslare before continuing its journey to Dublin.
None of the suspects have been charged with any crime as formal charges are only laid in Spain shortly before trial, but they have all been placed under official investigation.
Elche is a 40-minute drive north of Torrevieja where convicted drugs smuggler John Gilligan is based.
He has just been told he could face eight and a half years in prison if convicted over drugs and gun charges at a trial expected to take place next year.
The 69-year-old was held in October last year at his expat home as part of an operation which culminated in nearly a dozen arrests in two phases.
Gilligan, charged with unlawful weapons possession, membership of a criminal gang and public health crimes linked to cannabis smuggling and the illegal export of powerful sleeping pills used by heroin addicts to numb pain, is one of nine people including his son Darren who are facing prosecution.
There is no suggestion the latest police operation is in any way linked to the case Gilligan is caught up in.