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Spanish Police Seize Livestock Carrier With 4.5 Tonnes of Cocaine

Police boarding team prepares to climb a pilot ladder in heavy swell
Boarding team from the patrol ship Fulmar boards the Orion V in heavy seas (Policia Nacional)

Published Jan 29, 2023 2:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

In another daring high-seas boarding, Spanish authorities have seized 4.5 tonnes of cocaine from an aging livestock carrier off the coast of the Canary Islands.

The waters of the mid-Atlantic near the Canary Islands are a favorite transshipment point for cocaine smugglers bringing cargoes from South America to Europe. The area is also within reach of Spanish shore-based counternarcotics teams, who search and seize smuggling vessels on the high seas with regularity. 

Last week, Spain's National Police and Tax Agency Customs Surveillance Service intercepted the livestock carrier Orion V at a position about 50 nm to the southwest of the Canary Islands. The Togo-flagged vessel was nominally carrying 1,750 cattle on a voyage from Cartagena to Beirut.

A boarding team from the Tax Agency patrol ship Fulmar came alongside the Orion V and climbed the pilot ladder in heaving seas. The 28 crewmembers were arrested, and the vessel was diverted to port for an inspection. Search teams found 4.5 tonnes of cocaine hidden in the vessel's cattle feed silos. 

The crew remains aboard the vessel under guard so that they can continue to care for the cattle, according to El Pais. The ultimate fate of the livestock is still under discussion. 

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Spain's countersmuggling and counterterrorism centers, and the Togolese flag state authorities collaborated in the operation.

The 1973-built Orion V was built as a geared yard-and-stay freighter under the name of Vera Mukhina. She began a second life as a converted livestock carrier at some point after 2008, even though she was already past the typical age for demolition. She was purchased in 2022 by a buyer in Florida and reflagged to Togo.

Her recent port state control records are heavy on serious deficiencies, including issues with firefighting equipment, lifeboats, general cleanliness, deck corrosion, deck cracking and "dangerous areas." Port state inspectors in Cartagena, Colombia returned to the ship five times between her arrival in mid-November and her departure on January 7. 

The seizure of the Orion V was the second major high-seas drug bust that the Fulmar completed in the span of a week. On January 18, her crew intercepted another Togo-flagged vessel, the Blume, and found 4.5 tonnes of cocaine on board. In addition, in early December the Fulmar intercepted a sailing yacht off the Canary Islands and seized 2.5 tonnes of cocaine.