Four members of an organised crime group have been jailed after attempting to smuggle 139 kilos of cocaine into the UK hidden in a consignment of bananas.

The container had arrived from Ecuador and was searched at London Gateway port.

Border Force officers found a number of cocaine packages in the roof area. These were removed and the container was resealed.

A few days later, Robert Ball, who was later found to be acting on behalf of an Albanian organised crime group, contacted the shipping line to ask them to release four containers, including the one he thought contained the drugs.

Ball, 59, from Altrincham, Cheshire, arranged for a transport company to collect and move the containers to a storage company in Herald Way, Coventry.

These movements were watched by NCA surveillance officers.

Ball, along with accomplices Florjan Ibra, Mirgent Shahu and Arman Kaviani, arrived a few days later, on 15 April 2022 (Good Friday). Ball had driven from Cheshire earlier that day, collecting Shahu at a Costa Coffee in Kings Heath, Birmingham.

Ball and Shahu gave instructions to Kaviani and Ibra at the storage yard, who used a forklift truck to get on top of the container.

They ripped open the roof using a crowbar and starting unloading packages they believed contained the drugs, but as they did so NCA and police officers moved in to arrest them. Kaviani and Ibra attempted to flee but were apprehended.

All four men were later charged with cocaine importation offences. Ball and Shahu were convicted by a jury at Warwick Crown Court on 26 May this year, while Ibra and Kaviani pleaded guilty at a previous hearing.

At the same court today (1 November) Ball and Shahu were each sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. Ibra was jailed for 13.5 years and Kaviani to 12 years and nine months at previous hearings.

The operation was collaborative working between the NCA and Border Force using Home Office Drug Strategy funding to protect the security and integrity of the UK border.

NCA Operations Manager David Phillips said: “Ball and Shahu oversaw the nuts and bolts of this conspiracy on behalf of the organised crime group behind it.

“This group enlisted the assistance of Ibra and Kaviani, who they hoped would retrieve the drugs and make their efforts worthwhile.

“Unfortunately for these men, NCA officers were watching their every move before moving in to arrest them.

“Cocaine fuels violence and exploitation, including gang culture and firearm and knife crime in the UK and around the world.

“Removing this consignment from circulation will have been a sizeable blow to this criminal network, preventing them from generating profits that would have been invested in further criminality. We are determined to dismantle major international crime groups like this one from top to bottom.”

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said: “This is the latest example of Border Force officers seizing millions of pounds worth of cocaine and dismantling an abhorrent criminal gang.

“This case demonstrates how Border Force use cutting-edge technology to stay ahead of organised crime groups to keep our borders secure and protect our communities from illegal and dangerous substances.”

Caroline Hughes, Specialist Prosecutor for the CPS, said: “The offenders in this case were involved in a sophisticated criminal operation to import a significant amount of cocaine into the UK.

“The supply of drugs is motivated by greed. It is a lucrative business for those involved. It has disastrous consequences for those using drugs, their families and the community: a vast amount of crimes affecting the public are committed by users to pay for their habits.

“The CPS worked closely and effectively with the National Crime Agency to dismantle their dangerous operation, by building a strong case and bringing all of the offenders involved to justice.

“We will be pursuing confiscation proceedings against Robert Ball to recover the money he made from his criminality.”