Four men who hired a private jet to smuggle half a tonne of cocaine, worth more than £41m, into the UK have been jailed.
Martin Neil, 49, of Poole, Dorset, Italian national Alessandro Iembo, 28, and Spaniard Victor Franco-Lorenzo, 40, were jailed for 24 years each at Woolwich Crown Court on Thursday following a three-week trial.
Jose Ramon Miguelez-Botas, 56, received a lighter sentence of 20 years imprisonment, for what Judge Philip Shorrock described as a “serious and commercial operation”.
Neil celebrated as his brother Stephen Neil, 53, also of Poole, was found not guilty.
In what was described as one of the largest drugs busts of its kind, the group was stopped at Hampshire’s Farnborough Airport with half a tonne of the drug in 15 suitcases after flying in from Bogota, Colombia.
Border officials discovered the stash on January 29, but police believe the racket may have been successful once before in 2017.
They took off from Luton on a private jet costing £138,500 on January 26 and headed for the South American country.
When they returned, officials searched past a few dirty clothes in their suitcases to find some 513 blocks of cocaine with a purity of around 79%. The total weight was about 500kg.
The wholesale value was £15,390,000 but the cocaine could be sold for more than £41m on the street, the prosecution said.
Profit could have been more than £15m but the defendants were not the masterminds of the operation.
Iembo, Martin Neil and Franco-Lorenzo made an initial three-day trip to Bogota in December, which the judge said showed planning on their parts and earned them longer sentences.
A woman booked that private jet under the guise of the men being “leaders in the field of cryptocurrency” who would be meeting US singer Bruno Mars in Colombia as part of their work in the music industry.
A chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantom was arranged to collect them when they returned to Farnborough on December 11.
They brought back a number of suitcases on that trip, but none were searched.
Lawyers for the Neils said the pair had been “deceived”, believing they were off to Colombia to help with charity work and did not know the suitcases were packed with cocaine.
The jury had to be convinced the defendants were aware they were carrying cocaine in order to convict them.
Ian Truby from the National Crime Agency said: “These men deviated from their seemingly normal lives as bricklayers and waiters to play high-flying businessmen, using luxury cars, hotels and even a private jet to try and pull off a plot they thought would make them millions.
“Although this was not a particularly sophisticated smuggling attempt it clearly had significant financial backing. The loss of profit that would have been made from this seizure will be a huge hit to the wider criminal networks involved.
“Some, if not all, of these drugs were destined to be sold here in the UK by gangs who enforce control using violence, intimidation and exploitation.
“This group had no thought for the damage their actions would cause and even pretended they made the trip to carry out charity work.”
The jury deliberated for more than 13 hours before returning verdicts on Thursday over the charges of fraudulent evasion of a prohibition in relation to a class A controlled drug, between October 30 and January 30.
Martin Neil, who lived with his brother in Bournemouth Road, Iembo, of Richmond Chambers in Bournemouth, and Franco-Lorenzo, of Suffolk Road in Bournemouth, and Miguelez-Botas, of Valladolid in Spain, expressed little emotion as they were led to the cells.
Additional reporting from the Press Association.