Fri, Feb 29, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Cocaine packages on British beaches baffle authorities

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Frank Partridge is partial to a spot of beachcombing. He likes to pop down to Pentreath Beach on the southern coast of the Cornwall peninsula and find out what odds and ends have been washed in by the tide.

But rather than the usual hunks of weather-beaten wood and pieces of broken lobster pot, Partridge's latest expedition yielded a rather more valuable haul -- a package of cocaine with a street value of more than ?1 million (US$1.98 million).

As a law-abiding citizen -- and clerk of the local parish council -- Partridge knew he had to had to prevent the drugs from falling into the wrong hands.

"I thought if I didn't take it, someone who might not go to the police would," he said.

So he dragged the 25kg package off the beach and rolled it home in a wheelbarrow.

Such events have become almost routine in Cornwall. Within the last three weeks five similar hauls -- more than ?6 million worth -- have been discovered on the county's beaches.

Another big haul, worth more than ?1.5 million, washed up on a beach in north Wales and a single package, worth ?100,000 or so, was found in south Wales.

Devon and Cornwall police are working with Interpol and other global agencies to try to find out how the drugs are ending up on British beaches.

The origin does not take much detective work; some of the packages are marked "Colombia" in faded writing. But how they ended up in the sea remains a puzzle.

The age of the packages and the presence of warm water-loving barnacles suggests they may be floating all the way across the Atlantic from the Caribbean. One theory is that smugglers dumped the cocaine overboard as they were pursued by US anti-drug patrols.

Police are worried that other packages may be heading to the UK or may have already washed up on beaches and could fall into the hands of people less scrupulous than Partridge.

The first of the packages washed up in Bude, on the north-east coast of Cornwall, at the start of the month. A few days later a wildlife researcher, James Saulino, came across packages of drugs at Kynance Cove, on the southern coast, while he was carrying out a study of porpoises.

"As I sat there alone waiting for the police, I was waiting for a little mini-sub to surface and two guys with machine guns," he said.

"It's incredible. I always thought the day would come when we would find something extraordinary but I expected an exotic crustacean or turtle," he said.

Last Saturday, another package was found near Portscatho, also on the south coast. And on Sunday, a package was dragged up in the nets of a fishing trawler in Mount's Bay in the far west of Cornwall.

Then, on Monday, Partridge set off for the beach with his two dogs, Tyla and Bessie.

"I often comb the tideline if I have time," he said. "When I saw the package I knew what it was immediately."

The police have yet to confirm that the latest packages contained cocaine, but said they almost certainly did.

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