MV Matthew: The Poster Child of an Overlooked Problem
By Christopher Gomes, November 14, 2023
How Ireland’s biggest cocaine seizure underscores the need for ownership transparency in the world of international shipping.
Choppy seas tossed boats off the coast of Cork, Ireland on a Sunday in September. As millions went to bed getting ready for the week, a fishing boat, the Castlemore, alerted Irish authorities that it ran aground off Blackwater, Wexford. However, the Gardaí (Irish National Police) were not the only ones listening to the distress calls.
Around the same time, the MV Matthew, a Panamanian-flagged ship, suddenly slowed down in the Irish Sea. Having dramatically turned around just 12 hours prior, the MV Matthew began to sail south, back towards Cork due to reported engine troubles.
While such a movement would usually not raise suspicion, the MV Matthew was being tracked for the previous five weeks across the Atlantic. Irish authorities were given information from the US Drug Enforcement Agency that the MV Matthew was heading towards Ireland with a massive shipment of cocaine. Unbeknownst to the crew, the Irish Navy was already planning to interdict the ship.
Following a day of sporadic movements in the Irish Sea, Irish Navy boat LÉ William Butler Yeats made contact with the MV Matthew and instructed it to take a certain course. Aware of their growing predicament, the MV Matthew ignored the Irish Navy’s instructions, resulting in two warning shots being fired across the ship’s bow.
The Irish Army Ranger Wing, Ireland’s Special Forces, descended onto the MV Matthew via helicopter, taking command of the ship by force. A video released by the Irish military highlights the rapid action taken in order to bring the ship into custody.
Once escorted into Cork, 2253 kg of cocaine were found on board. Estimated to be worth over $165 million, the seizure was the largest in Irish history.
But to understand the significance of the MV Matthew, we must look to August 10th, 2023. On this day, Matthew Maritime Inc purchased the MV Honmon from a Chinese company and renamed the ship to the MV Matthew. Based in the Marshall Islands, a popular site for shell companies and questionable shipping activity, Matthew Maritime Inc seems to be a legitimate corporation.
A simple Google search leads one to a company website that promotes Matthew Maritime Inc’s “shipping expertise.” However, all of the company’s social media links revert back to the website’s home page. Flashy and professional, the website imitates those of other shipping companies in order to seem real at first glance.
According to shipping database Equasis, Matthew Maritime Inc is a single-ship company. The company website claims to have hosted 1,000 deliveries and 1,216 voyages- quite a number for a single-ship firm that was created in August. Which raises the question, why would a company that only has a single ship put in this much effort to create a functioning website in the first place?
Single-ship “fleets” are often connected to illicit activities, and are based in countries with easy registration processes, such as the Marshall Islands. Matthew Maritime Inc seemed to be creating a façade to distract attention from any illegal activities.
Following the purchase of the MV Matthew, the newly-named cargo vessel departed Curacao on August 19th. Sailing along the Venezuelan coast, the ship remained largely stagnant for about two weeks off the coast of Guyana, a popular loading point for Latin American drug cartels.
Eventually traveling across the Atlantic, the MV Matthew slowed once again near the Canary Islands. It is here where a fishing boat named Mathieu is believed to have had a ship-to-ship transfer with the MV Matthew. Beginning its journey in Guyana, just like the larger cargo ship, the Mathieu was intercepted by Spanish authorities with 40 bales of cocaine on board (worth $79 million), two days after the seizure of the MV Matthew.
If narcotics were transferred between ships this delivery process would indicate a revolution in the way cargo vessels transport drugs. Rather than simply disseminating narcotics once they arrive in port, any section of coastline could become a drop-off point to smaller boats that are loaded by a “mothership.”
This same technique is believed to have been used with the Castlemore, but the ineptitude of the two boat operators ended up alerting authorities to the fishing boat before it could ever receive cocaine from the MV Matthew.
Recent developments have implicated the Kinahan Cartel, a notorious Irish crime syndicate based in the UAE. However, while a paper trail connects the Kinahans to Matthew Maritime Inc’s website, connecting the crime family to the cocaine itself is near impossible due to the complex use of shell companies through various countries.
The MV Matthew seizure has created massive interest in combating drug smuggling via cargo ships in Ireland, and across Europe. Various Irish leaders have commended Irish authorities for their quick action, with Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald calling for more investment into Ireland’s defense and border forces.
While the case has certainly drawn attention to the illegal underworld of commercial shipping, a lot more must be done in order to achieve true transparency. The MV Matthew case is certainly just one of an unknown number of vessels delivering narcotics, counterfeit goods, etc. all around the world while lining the pockets of unknown owners.