Dressed like ninjas, sweating under their balaclavas, brandishing automatic handguns as they kick in ship doors, the boarding unit of the Irish naval vessel LÉ Eithne are on a mission.
As Europe's first line of defence against Colombia's cocaine cartels, the young men and women in their 20s are carrying out mock operations, including scrambling to their inflatable crafts after donning their uniforms - body armour that transforms into a life jacket if they plunge into the treacherous Atlantic - and weaponry.
They also stage a boarding exercise from their inflatables on to the Eithne, storming through the ship's corridors, bursting into berths, providing cover with firearms for those searching the rooms.
With Colombian drug-smuggling networks increasingly targeting the south-west coast of Ireland as a back door for trafficking cocaine into Europe, the Irish navy is playing its part in trying to shut off that gateway.
The overall fleet commander in the Republic, David Barry, says that since a pan-European naval intelligence service was established four years ago, the Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre - Narcotics based in Lisbon, the seven-nation organisation has seized €11bn-worth of drugs, mostly cocaine.
At Haulbowline naval base outside Cork, prior to the Eithne setting sail, Barry says that this example of cross-European co-operation is now being seen as a model across the world for policing the seas in search of drug networks: The Americans, the South Americans are looking at it as a model of how to do business.
Ireland is slap bang on the route between the Caribbean and northern Europe, which is why the cocaine cartels are targeting the Republic's coast, he says.
Recent seizures involving the Irish naval service, Irish customs and the Garda Síochána indicate that the use of isolated places on the Irish Atlantic coastline as "jump-off points" for drug smugglers is growing. Last year the Irish end of the pan-European naval intelligence network seized 1.5 tonnes of cocaine on the yacht Dances with Waves off the south-west coast. The drugs on board were not even destined for Ireland - according to Barry they were due to be shipped on into Britain and northern Europe.
As the Eithne cuts through the choppy waters en route from Cork to Galway on the west coast, the ship passes clusters of islands populated by bird colonies, isolated lighthouses battered by waves, discreet coves and golden beaches. It may be one of the most idyllic shorelines in Europe but for the Eithne's captain, Commander Tom Doyle, it is also a challenging, potentially dangerous environment for his 62-strong crew.
It is a very rugged coastline and there are areas around it which are very isolated. We have many small islands that are sparsely populated so they make ideal areas to land goods or to try and ship goods into this country. It all lends itself to narcotics being landed in Ireland, says Doyle as one of his trainee cadets scans a series of islands to the west with binoculars.
The ship's captain admits that the danger has increased for his crew as the drug-smuggling routes increase from South America and west Africa. Generally these operations take place in the hours of darkness and the weather is sometimes very inclement around Ireland. Our personnel who have to get on to vessels have to put up with these conditions while they are not sure what they are about to confront when they board, says Doyle.
The interception at sea of huge cocaine hauls over the past 18 months - one operation led to the seizure of €700m-worth of the drug - is having a lethal impact on land. The capture of huge quantities of cocaine sent to Irish criminals by the Colombian mafia has sparked one of the bloodiest gangland wars in Dublin. One Dublin gangster has reportedly tried to call in drug debts from addicts as well as trying to wipe out rival dealers in a bid to amass enough money to start paying back the feared Colombian cartels.
As the ship continues to monitor maritime traffic while dolphins swim alongside, Doyle says that the area which eight Irish navy vessels are tasked to patrol is enormous: the smugglers have 137,000 square kilometres of Irish territorial waters to hide in.
At the back of the Eithne, the naval "ninjas" strip down after their mini-exercise. Helping them take off helmets, gun belts, flak jackets and wetsuits is a decorated veteran who was awarded the highest honour for gallantry in the Irish defence forces over the storming of a ship that contained €25m-worth of cannabis. Petty Officer Seaman Patrick Kennedy confronted his first group of drug smugglers at sea 17 years ago. He is still searching for the same foe this summer. "Luckily, back in 1993 we were not fired upon but there is always that possibility [today]. You do think about the dangers, but you try to put that to one side and get on and do your job," he says.
Tuesday 7 September 2010
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Ireland's navy in frontline against Colombia cocaine smugglers