Farnborough Airport cocaine: Four guilty of smuggling

Media caption,
The National Crime Agency said no attempt had been made to disguise the haul

Four men have been convicted of smuggling half a tonne of cocaine with a street value of more than £41m into the UK on a private jet.

Fifteen suitcases of the drug were found at Farnborough Airport in January on a plane returning from Colombia.

Allessandro Iembo, Martin Neil and Victor Franco-Lorenzo were jailed for 24 years each while Jose Ramon Miguelez-Botas was jailed for 20 years.

Border Force officers said the haul was one of the largest they had dealt with.

Italian national Iembo, 28, Neil, 49, and Spanish national Franco-Lorenzo, 40, all from Bournemouth, and Miguelez-Botas, 56, from Spain, were found guilty of fraudulent evasion of a prohibition in relation to a class A controlled drug, between 30 October last year and 30 January.

Neil's brother, Stephen, who was also on trial, was found not guilty of the charge.

The court heard the four convicted men - along with Stephen Neil, who had been described by lawyers as "naive" - travelled together to Bogota, Colombia, in a jet from Luton Airport on 26 January at a cost of £138,500.

They arrived at Farnborough Airport three days later with 15 suitcases of cocaine on board.

Image source, NCA
Image caption,
Allessandro Iembo, Martin Neil, Jose Ramon Miguelez-Botas and Franco Lorenzo were all found guilty

They were met by a fleet of cars hired to carry their baggage but were stopped by Border Force officers.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) said no attempt had been made to disguise the haul, which weighed 500kg and were labelled with a "Superman" logo, thought to be linked to a major Colombian cartel.

In the investigation that followed, it emerged three of the men - Iembo, Franco-Lorenzo and Martin Neil - had made a previous undetected trip in December 2017.

A woman had called a private jet broker saying she represented a group of rich men who worked in the music industry and were involved in cryptocurrencies.

She said they were travelling to Colombia to see singer Bruno Mars perform and wanted to hire a plane from Luton Airport and would pay £128,500 in cash.

Image source, Border Force
Image caption,
The private jet arrived at Farnborough Airport in January with cocaine on board

X-ray pictures of their baggage, retrieved later, appeared to show millions of pounds in banknotes used to pay for the drugs.

Iembo told jurors he had made trips as a personal assistant for a charity and had assumed the suitcases, which were loaded on to the plane before the trip, contained charity documents.

When the plane returned, suitcases were taken to an address in Bromley.

Investigators found the gang had a corrupt official working for a ground handling company at Bogota Airport who ensured the drugs were loaded on to the plane.

A parallel investigation in Colombia led to five arrests. Police discovered criminals in Bogota had used armoured vehicles and a bogus police officer with a fake sniffer dog to "inspect" the luggage before it was taken on to the plane.

Martin Neil celebrated as his older bother was cleared on Thursday.

Judge Philip Shorrock said the "serious and commercial operation" nearly succeeded in bringing an "enormous haul" of cocaine into the UK.

Image source, Border Force
Image caption,
Border Force officers found 500kg of the drug in 15 suitcases

He said, while the four did not mastermind the operation, they played a "crucial part" in the hope of walking away with a "substantial" amount of money.

NCA senior manager Steve McIntyre called the January seizure "an audacious smuggling attempt" which highlighted "a border vulnerability".

He said: "There are over 3,000 airports or airstrips in the UK and there's no way on this earth that any law enforcement agency is going to be able to man those all the time.

"By working collaboratively, we are making headway now. It's about intelligent policing and profiling better."

Mr McIntyre said, despite being bricklayers, the Neil brothers and their co-defendants "lived an interesting lifestyle of lavish motor vehicles to get them to the aircraft".

He said: "They were using the charity as a cover story, saying they were dealing in cryptocurrency and they were involved in the music industry and that was part of their VIP story."

Image source, NCA
Image caption,
X-ray pictures retrieved from a previous trip appeared to show suitcases full of bank notes

In 2016, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration raised concerns that customs checks at smaller airports were not rigorous enough, including at Farnborough.

Monique Wrench, deputy director of Border Force Heathrow, which also looks after Farnborough, said: "We've taken that report incredibly seriously and upped our effort."

The Farnborough seizure, she said, demonstrated Border Force officers could pick out passengers and bags which looked suspicious for further checks.

She added the haul had been "an amazing morale boost".

"This is one of the largest seizures in our region's history and it's a day we want to celebrate," she said.

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