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Trucker arrest sparked €1m cocaine probe

Man lifted in Dublin for money laundering led to UK drugs bust

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Seized: The 21kg of cocaine was found during a search of the lorries

Seized: The 21kg of cocaine was found during a search of the lorries

Seized: The 21kg of cocaine that was found during the search of the lorries

Seized: The 21kg of cocaine that was found during the search of the lorries

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Seized: The 21kg of cocaine was found during a search of the lorries

THE INVESTIGATION that led to UK police smashing a plot to import more than €1million worth of cocaine into Northern Ireland has its origins in the arrest of a trucker on money-laundering offences in Ballymun, Dublin, more than three years ago.

Sources have confirmed to the Sunday World that the arrest of the Derry-based trucker Ryan Johnston, of Ryan Johnston International, who had €166,720 in his possession sparked a major investigation involving three separate police forces.

He was arrested on M50 roundabout in Ballymun in 2016.

Johnston, of Cedar Grove in Magherafelt, Derry, was convicted of money laundering, contrary to section 7 of the Criminal Justice Money Laundering and Terrorist Act at the Courts of Criminal Justice in Dublin on March 5 of this year.

He received a sentence of three years and six months, with the final 18 months suspended. A confiscation order was issued for the €166,720.

Sources have now confirmed how in the wake of Johnston arrest, gardaí notified their colleagues in both the UK's elite National Crime Agency and the PSNI.

One source said Johnston's arrest prompted police in the UK and NI to take a very close look at his associates - both on this island and in the UK.

On Thursday of last week, those investigations culminated in a series of raids in Essex, Norths Wales and Northern Ireland.

During the raids, five men, including four from Northern Ireland, were arrested by the National Crime Agency on suspicion of attempting to import cocaine worth £1 million (€1.1 million).

Officers moved in to arrest the five, detaining three in the Essex area and two more in North Wales. As part of the investigation, three lorries were also seized.

The men are suspected of being involved in the importation of cocaine from the continent.

Four of those arrested are known to be based in Northern Ireland, while the other man is from the north of England.

They are all aged between 21 and 59.

Specialist border force officers were called in to conduct detailed searches of the lorries.

The NCA said a "complex concealment" was located in one which was found to contain around 21kgs of cocaine.

At the same time, officers from the NCA and PSNI time carried out searches at a number of properties in Northern Ireland.

The five men were questioned by NCA officers, and have now been released on bail.

NCA regional head of investigations Gerry McLean said it was "a highly significant operation" in terms of targeting organised crime impacting on Northern Ireland.

"In making these seizures we have both prevented a large quantity of drugs from reaching our streets, and denied criminals an important avenue for smuggling," he said.

Detective Superintendent Rachel Shields, from the PSNI's Criminal Investigation Branch, said: "Our detectives have been working in collaboration with the NCA in relation to this operation for some time.

"These arrests and seizure are significant in terms of the quantity seized, and in terms of the disruption caused to organised criminals.

"We will continue to work closely with, and support the NCA in their work to disrupt the nefarious activities of organised crime groups."