Drug smugglers foiled by farmer jailed over £29 million plot
Two men, whose conspiracy to smuggle drugs and cigarettes into the UK was foiled after a farmer accidentally spotted a consignment of cocaine, have been handed lengthy prison sentences today.
The scheme involved the pair using their freight company as a cover to clear shipping containers that held drugs and cigarettes and diverting them from their intended destination to a warehouse they controlled. There they would be offloaded by organised crime groups.
It was exposed when they failed to divert one container which instead went to a farm in Somerset in April 2022. The farmer found plastic covered blocks of cocaine with a street value of £15 million hidden amongst animal feed from Colombia.
He was not sure what the items were but told police he had seen “similar packages on films and tv programmes which were drugs”.
Police body worn footage of Bhardwaj being arrested in late 2022
Anand Tripathi, 61, and Varun Bhardwaj, 39, were convicted in November after a 71-day trial at Isleworth Crown Court. The case was charged and prosecuted by lawyers specialising in serious economic and organised crime at the Crown Prosecution Service.
The court heard that in total the men imported 272.86 kilograms of cocaine and 2,503.36 kilograms of cannabis across four shipments between September 2021 and November 2022. One shipment contained just over two tonnes of cannabis hidden amongst yams from Ghana. Another containing 49 kilograms of cocaine was concealed with oranges from South Africa.
Today, Tripathi was sentenced to 15 years, and Bhardwaj to 19 years.
The drugs had an estimated street value of £28.9 million but were all seized before they could be sold on and later destroyed by police.
The investigation uncovered previous shipments which had been seized by Border Force during routine searches of containers at the docks. By setting up shell companies Tripathi and Bhardwaj tried to remain at arm’s length from police and avoid detection until the bungled delivery to Somerset.
Richard Partridge from the CPS said: “These two men played vital roles in trying to flood UK streets with huge quantities of illegal drugs. The cost and damage to lives that drugs cause in our society is incalculable.
"This conspiracy was only made possible by Anand Tripathi’s experience in importation and customs clearance, and Varun Bhardwaj’s willingness to assume day to day management of their operation.
"There were clearly others involved in the scheme who haven’t yet been identified but this successful operation and their substantial sentences serves as a warning that authorities in the UK work together to disrupt and prosecute smugglers.”
DCI Paul Fisher of the South West Regional Organised Crime Unit said: “The amount seized over a 13-month period goes to show the significant involvement these individuals had in bringing commercial amounts of drugs and into the UK. By working closely and collaboratively with our partner agencies this organised crime network has been dismantled and vast quantities of drugs destined for our streets have been eradicated.
“These are two very serious criminals who I’m glad to see have been given substantial sentences to reflect the magnitude of their offending.”
Tripathi and Bhardwaj were also sentenced for not paying £9,774,220 in import duties and VAT on 18.6 million cigarettes they smuggled on three dates, separate from the drug imports. They were also destroyed by police.
The three consignments of cigarettes came hidden alongside Bombay mix from Mumbai, coconut fibre used to manufacture doormats from Sri Lanka, and biscuits from Chennai.
The drugs and cigarettes were seized on different dates at ports including Portsmouth, Felixstowe and London Gateway.
When police searched Bhardwaj’s home in Hounslow, west London they found a one-kilogram packet of cannabis in a cupboard under the stairs valued at £10,000. He claimed it had fallen out of a shipment while it was being unloaded and he was keeping it as evidence. He did not know what it contained and was going to inform the police but never did. Bhardwaj also refused to disclose the PIN number to one of his mobile phones and was convicted of both possession of cannabis and failing to disclose the PIN.
Notes to editors
- Anand Tripathi (DOB 16/5/1962) was convicted of three counts: importing cocaine, importing cannabis, and evading duty payable on cigarettes. The sentences were respectively: 15 years, 10 years, and five years to be served concurrently, so a total sentence of 15 years.
- Varun Bhardwaj (DOB 22/8/1984) was convicted of the same counts as Tripathi but received a slightly different sentence, respectively 19 years, 10 years, and five years. He was also sentenced on two further counts: possession of cannabis (one year), and failing to disclose a PIN number to a mobile phone (one year). The sentences are concurrent to each other so a total sentence of 19 years.
- The trial at Isleworth Crown Court began on 7 August, the jury retired on 21 November, and verdicts were returned on 24 and 27 November.