British cocaine ring smashed in France, police believe
Police believe they have smashed a multi-million pound cocaine smuggling ring run by Britons in France with a string of arrests in quiet villages in the Dordogne.
Up to ten Britons have been seized in a joint French and British police operation. Investigators said the suspects spent most of the year in a peaceful rural Dordogne area, from where they are accused of plotting drug runs to Britain from Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium to the UK.
The lush southwestern French region of Dordogne is generally seen as a haven for British expatriates seeking warmer climes and a better quality of life far from urban British woes. After an initial influx of a wave of pensioners, the region now has a growing population of working Britons, but has never been associated with drugs. There is no suggestion the suspects provided local expats with cocaine.
The police investigation, between the Toulouse judicial police and Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency began in May last year after French customs officers stopped a man in southern France driving a British-registered Mercedes on a southern French motorway, and discovered 545,000 euros (£485,000) in cash in the back of the vehicle.
The suspect, Stephen Campbell, allegedly insisted the money came from commissions he had earned from arranging professional footballer transfers, but investigators soon found that the notes were covered with traces of cocaine powder.
In all he and others ring members are accused of transporting several hundred kilos of cocaine to Britain worth several million pounds.
Later that year, Stephen Farrant, who lived in Dordogne, was arrested after a surveillance operation on suspicion of transporting cocaine from Spain back to Britain.
British police snatched him in Hove, East Sussex, on 11 December.
They found 8.5 kilograms of cocaine, worth almost half a million euros.
French police learned that the suspected ring masterminds, Mark Bridges and Mickael Keating, lived in two small Dordogne villages – Augignac, population 821, and Champniers-et-Reilhac, population 508. They had invested in several plots of farmland and "luxury" properties.
The pair are suspected of recruiting drugs runners in "deprived London neighbourhoods" who carried cocaine from Belgium, Spain and Netherlands to the UK by car, police said.
On December 14, the Toulouse police arrested Mr Keating in Dordogne, while British police tracked down Mr Bridges on February 14 of this year to a private clinic in a London suburb, where he was about to have surgery.
They also found 3 luxury vehicles and documentation on property investment in Cyprus, where they are suspected of having laundered money.
On February 24, police arrested Sophie Smith, Mr Keating's partner, in Augignac. They found 3 notary's deeds in the house; the first for ground and a villa worth 175,000 euros (£157,000) in Augignac, the second for a villa and grounds worth 150,000 euros (£135,000) in Montrbon, and the third for three plots of land in Teygat. Miss Smith is in detention under investigation for suspected money laundering and drug trafficking.
The police also visited Mr Bridges' parents, who live in Champniers-et-Reilhac, and found a sky blue Aston Martin DB9 and Mercedes.
The parents were about to cash in £50,000 in treasury bonds to pay for their son's defence. They said their children "were very generous" with parents, according to an investigator.
A senior police official in Toulouse described arrested suspects as living "comfortably without ostentatious luxury as they didn't want to draw attention to themselves," he told the Daily Telegraph.
"To find a bunch of Britons living in Dordogne is hardly a surprise: they had no trouble blending in," he added.
Police have seized the group members' properties and belongings. The investigation is "ongoing but almost complete" and may implicate "up to ten people".
By Henry Samuel in Paris
Published: 7:00AM GMT 23 Mar 2010
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