Operation Venetic: Corrupt steward hid cocaine consignment on cruise liner

A corrupt cruise worker transported more than £2m worth of cocaine on his boat and then lowered it overboard to accomplices.

Milos Bigovic custody imageSerbian Milos Bigovic, 22, hid 28kg of cocaine aboard the Marella Discovery 2 but was caught when he tried to offload it to two members of a British organised crime group who were waiting in a RHIB (rigid hulled inflatable boat) to collect it.

Bigovic worked on the liner as a bar steward but as lockdown began in March 2020, its Caribbean voyage was abandoned, passengers disembarked in Jamaica and the cruise returned to Europe with her crew.

Bigovic is one of six men who were convicted after a National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation into two international conspiracies to smuggle cocaine with a total street value of nearly £9.5m to the UK.

In the early hours of 25 April 2020, when the cruise was moored off the Isle of Wight, Bigovic dragged a holdall containing the drugs from his cabin to a portside deck, attached a rope to it and lowered the bag down.

The drugs – which were smuggled onto the cruise in Cartegena, Colombia, a month earlier – were so heavy the rope burned the skin from Bigovic’s hand.

Waiting below were Benn Bath, 36, and Joshua Paige, 31.

Bath, of Staplehurst, Kent, and Paige, of High Halstow, Kent, were experienced seamen who worked in the maritime industry.

In the preceding days, they had sailed Bath’s own boat, the Chatham Albatross, from the River Medway in Kent to the Isle of Wight.

They had bought the RHIB for £5,000 and towed it from the Albatross so they could get close to the Marella and accept the drugs under cover of darkness.

It is not known for sure whether it was Bath or Paige who manned the RHIB and sailed it solo from the Chatham Albatross, which was waiting nearby, to the cruise.

But as the cocaine transfer happened, NCA’s colleagues from Border Force were watching.

They moved into arrest the pair after the RHIB returned to the Albatross.

Realising they were about to be arrested, the duo dissolved the drugs into the sea.

Bigovic, of Pozarevac, which is about 50 miles east of Belgrade, was arrested and admitted importing cocaine. He was jailed for 11 years in 2021.

Yesterday (Thursday), at Winchester Crown Court, Bath and Paige were convicted of the same charge alongside Christopher Mealey, 47, of Upper Park Street, Liverpool, and Paul Farrel, 44, of Alexandra Street, Bolton and Clinton Avenue, Manchester.

The 28kg of cocaine was originally supposed to be smuggled ashore somewhere in Europe.

But when the Marella Discovery changed course because of lockdown, the OCG behind the drugs had to change their plans.

Unknown offenders contacted Mealey and Farrell – who ran their own OCG from the north west of England – to see if they could get the cocaine off for them and they were put in touch with Bigovic.

Mealey and Farrell employed Bath – who is married to Mealey’s niece – and Paige to collect the drugs from Bigovic.

Though Bigovic, Bath and Paige were arrested straight after the drugs transfer, it wasn’t until June when Mealey and Farrell were arrested after a breakthrough in Operation Venetic – the NCA-led, UK response to the takedown of encrypted comms platform EncroChat.

Mealey, Farrell and Bath all used EncroChat devices.

On 12 June 2020 EncroChat administrators alerted all users that they believed the platform had been compromised and users should power off their devices and throw them away.

The next morning Mealey was arrested at Folkestone, Kent, as he tried to flee the country through the Channel Tunnel.

He had bought documentation to show he had employment in Spain. He was carrying £19,000 in cash.

Farrell was arrested two days later.

Evidence provided in Operation Venetic revealed the planning and communications behind the conspiracy to recover the drugs from the cruise.

It also revealed another conspiracy.

Mealey, Farrell and Bath were also convicted by a jury of conspiring to import 90kgs of cocaine with Liam West, 31, of Apton Hall Road, Rochford, Essex, in late March 2020. Paige was acquitted of this charge.

On this occasion, under the pretence of a legitimate job delivering and collecting barges in Rotterdam, West skippered a tug – the Battler – that towed a barge to the UK from the Netherlands. Hidden in the barge was 90kgs of cocaine.

Farrell and Mealey were the organisers – the others were tasked with supervising, coordinating the importation; collecting and delivering money, and lending general assistance.

Farrell was also convicted of failing to comply with a serious crime prevention order (SCPO). He was given the SCPO in 2014 after being convicted of smuggling cannabis and he was banned from using a second mobile device and not allowed to use an encrypted device.

Today, the OCG members were sentenced.

Farrell to 23 years; Mealey to 22 years; Bath to 18 years; Paige to eight years; and West to 14 years.

NCA operations manager Jules Harriman said: “The Venetic evidence in this case was a game changer and showed the extent of these men’s offences.

“This OCG clearly had international connections and was able to orchestrate crimes with accomplices abroad that damaged the UK.

“The NCA has the reach and capabilities to tackle such harmful crime groups that have strands overseas and we work with key partners, such as Border Force, to protect the public from the Class A drugs threat.”

8 March 2024