The Policia Nacional, in a joint operation with the Spanish Tax Agency, collaborating with the French authorities (DNRED), have seized a cargo ship carrying 20 tons of hashish. The eleven crew members of the ship, named the “Natalia”, have been arrested and jailed. The boarding of the ship was carried out on the high seas by two Customs Surveillance patrol boats, some 40 nautical miles southeast of Fuerteventura. The merchant ship was thought to be at serious risk of sinking, due to its poor state of repair. It is common for smuggling organisations to use vessels in poor condition, perhaps making their last voyage, so that, once they have successfully completed their journey, they can be destroyed or scrapped.
The investigation leading up to this daring operation began in January 2021, focused on a naval company located in Lebanon, which provided various logistics services related to maritime transport for private clients. This company was linked to a seizure of 13.6 tons from a cargo ship in 2016 in Libya.
Supported by CITCO (The Intelligence Centre for Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime) and the Maritime Coordination Centre, agents observed how in July 2021, one of the ships owned by the company, located in Turkey, made a series of significant changes to the vessel’s registry, which aroused suspicions. The alterations were to her name, and her flag, having previously sailed under the West African flag of Togo, she now sailed under the flag of the Micronesian island of Palau.
The investigators monitored the geographical area of operation and the company’s links to previous seizures, noting how the ship’s departure from Turkey to cross the Mediterranean, confirming investigators’ suspicions as she headed towards Morocco.
After detecting the proximity of the merchant vessel in the waters of the Canary Islands, it was decided to urgently intercept it, so two patrol boats from the Customs Surveillance Service left last Saturday night in search of their target.
Eleven detainees of Syrian origin
On the 8th of August the ship was located about 40 nautical miles southeast of Fuerteventura. Once secured, officials detected that the merchant vessel had significant leaks and engine deficiencies. The operatives were able to verify that in addition to carrying out an ordinary cargo transport of plaster, the merchant ship was also carrying, in its hold, a significant quantity of hashish, for which her eleven crew members were arrested.
The boat was transferred to the Port of Las Palmas and docked there on Sunday night. The poor condition of the ship, with multiple leaks and risk of fire in the machine room significant challenges in bringing her in to harbour.
On Monday, a more exhaustive search of the vessel was carried out during which a total of 638 bales were located, totalling 19,876 kilos of hashish. Within one of the common areas of the vessel, about 26 kilos of pollen were also found, which was likely not part of the main cargo and would have been introduced by the crew themselves in order benefit further from the illicit activity. The detainees, all Syrian, will be brought in front of the National High Courts.