Suspicious bookings, illogical cargo led police to discovery of smuggled drugs

A van that had just arrived from Sicily was found to be carrying 29kg of cannabis, 5kg of cocaine and 4kg of heroin

The van was found to have a total of 38kg of drugs concealed behind panels on its interior (Photo: Police)
The van was found to have a total of 38kg of drugs concealed behind panels on its interior (Photo: Police)

The discrepancy between the transport costs and the value of the declared cargo, was one of the factors that led the police to the discovery of drugs in a van arriving from Sicily on Sunday.

The van’s driver is now facing drug trafficking charges after the van was found to have a total of 38kg of drugs concealed behind panels on its interior.

Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras presided over the first sitting in the compilation of evidence against Mustafa el Madhoun, a Bulgarian national, arrested in connection with Sunday’s seizure of the consignment of drugs, which are estimated to have a street value of €1.5 million.

El Madhoun, 28, who does not have a fixed address in Malta at the moment told the court today that he was an architecture student.

Police Drugs Squad Inspector Justine Grech testified about the arrest, telling the court that the accused had been behind the wheel when the police had stopped the van. El Madhoun had provided the police with documentation showing that the cargo consisted of sawdust and animal feed and had been dispatched from Austria, she said. 

A sniffer dog was used to check the van, which was found not to be full upon opening. The dog indicated that it had detected the presence of drugs and so the van was then escorted to the police vehicle check site and emptied of its cargo. By knocking on the van’s interior panels police found a hollow area in the partition dividing the cabin from the cargo compartment, said the inspector.

A number of substances suspected to be drugs were found stashed inside the hollow area. The duty magistrate was then informed and a number of experts were appointed to assist in the inquiry.

“I asked him whether he wanted to cooperate with the police, and he said he did at that point. Arrangements were made for a controlled delivery, but because some time had passed and because his mobile phone had been receiving several phone calls, even during his arrest, it could not be done,” said the inspector.

El Madhoun did not want to be assisted by a lawyer at first, but later asked to be assisted by a legal aid lawyer during his interrogation. He chose not to answer most of the questions, the court was told.

Inspector Grech clarified that the substances hidden in the van were later found to consist of 29kg of cannabis, 5kg of cocaine and 4kg of heroin.

Asked by defence lawyer Jose Herrera as to what had flagged suspicions to the police, the inspector said the repeated changes to the booking had raised a red flag, but said she did not want to divulge details of police investigation methods. Random checks are carried out on catamaran arrivals, the court was told.

Herrera dictated a note, telling the court that the defence felt that there was no reasonable suspicion behind the decision to stop the accused’s van. He explained that he was doing this in order to safeguard the defence’s position in case of a future case law which might develop the legal interpretation of reasonable suspicion, in a manner more favourable to the accused.

Replying to the defence’s assertion about reasonable suspicion, the inspector explained that vehicles arriving and departing from Malta were monitored and that the police had noted suspicious circumstances in the manner that the booking had been repeatedly amended. The cargo manifest did not appear to make sense in view of the cost of the voyage, added the inspector, and so the police had gone on the scene to inspect the van. 

“The driver's answers to basic questions about the cargo continued to fuel the police's suspicions. Then the sniffer dogs were called in and pointed out the drugs.”

The compilation of evidence was adjourned to 17 August.

Lawyers Jose Herrera, Charles Mercieca and Gianluca Caruana Curran appeared for the defendant.