Two men who attempted to smuggle 17 kilos of cocaine into the UK inside live tropical fish have today been jailed.
Olaf Urlik, 33, and Norbert Jarzabek, 32, both originally from Poland, first practised and then attempted to smuggle the high purity cocaine, worth an estimated £1.6m at wholesale, from Colombia into the UK.
The drug was dissolved in bags of fluid and then stored inside larger bags with the live fish, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) said.
More than 16,000 fish died, and 34 survivors, including stingrays, catfish and tetras, are currently recovering in ZSL London Zoo.
Jarzabek carried out a trial run last April in a lock up garage in Islington, London, after collecting a consignment of fish at Heathrow airport.
Urlik and Jarzabek then plotted the shipment which would contain cocaine, unaware that investigators from SOCA were watching.
The shipment of 25 double boxes of tropical fish arrived on July 9, labelled "Live Tropical Fish, Handle With Extreme Care."
When Soca and UK Border Agency officials scanned the boxes, they found ten containing bags of dissolved cocaine.
Jarzabek picked up the fish at the airport two days later. The consignment was loaded into the back of a van and driven to a property in Glade Avenue, Nottingham.
Urlik joined Jarzabek at the flat around 2am after flying in from Amsterdam.
An hour and a half later, officers from SOCA and UKBA swooped and arrested the men at the scene, where a number of fish were found dead or dying in a colander due to a lack of oxygen.
Urlik and Jarzabek were jailed for 11 years each at Nottingham Crown Court today after admitting conspiracy to import cocaine at an earlier hearing.
Sentencing the pair today, His Honour Judge Head, said: "This was a highly sophisticated operation.
"Both these men had a substantial awareness of what they were doing, each had a leading role and both set to gain substantially." .
Following the hearing, Gerry Smyth, from SOCA, said: "These two were exceptionally callous. They used living creatures as a test run and then effectively as packaging for their drugs, seeing only the profits they would make.
"SOCA is grateful to the expert teams at ZSL London Zoo who helped us out in this very unusual case.
"Partnerships at a national and international level are vital if we are to tackle drug trafficking. Drugs cause misery for families and communities. These criminals are now facing lengthy jail terms and they've been denied their profits."
Rachel Jones, from London Zoo, who are looking after the surviving fish, said: "Despite the awful way that they came about being here, we are pleased to say that the fish are now thriving at ZSL London Zoo's Aquarium.
"When we first got the fish, most of them were drastically underweight, and they'd been living in cold, dirty water for days.
"Since we've been caring for them, we've seen vast improvements in their health; they're growing really fast and they've joined groups of other Amazonian species for the public to see. They have a great future ahead of them, here at the Zoo".
Jacqueline Finn, senior lawyer in the CPS organised crime division, said: "This case demonstrates the extraordinary and innovative lengths that drug dealers will go to so they can ply their evil trade.
"Urlik and Jarzabek thought that by having diluted cocaine hidden in bags of fish they would escape detection and net huge profits but they did not realise their plot had been detected.
"The joint investigation by SOCA, UKBA and Nottinghamshire Police provided the Crown Prosecution Service with detailed evidence against the two men.
"We worked closely with the agencies to build a strong case and when confronted with the evidence against them, Urlik and Jarzabek both pleaded guilty."