Three drug smugglers have been convicted of transporting as much as £1.6bn worth of cocaine and heroin into the UK using a fleet of fake ambulances.
Members of the gang wore bogus paramedic uniforms and even carried fake patients to make their cover more authentic.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) established that the gang trafficked drugs, packaged in colour-coded parcels and hidden behind false panels in the ambulances, from the Netherlands to the UK.
They would park in car parks or industrial units, where members of UK criminal gangs would meet them and pick up consignments that they would then sell.
Sources within the NCA said they believed 20 different gangs around the UK relied on the ambulance racket for supplies of class A drugs.
Leonardus Bijlsma, 55, was convicted by a jury at Birmingham crown court of conspiring to smuggle class A drugs. Two others, Olof Schoon, 38, and Richard Engelsbel, 51, admitted the charge.
The three were not regarded as “Mr Bigs” but as important facilitators. The search for others involved in the racket is continuing in the UK and the Netherlands. A fourth man, Dennis Vogelaar, 28, was acquitted at Birmingham crown court.
The jury was told that the smuggling operation may have brought up to £420m worth of “top-quality” class A drugs into the UK via the Channel’s ferry ports.
When the high-purity drug packets were cut down to individual street-value wraps, the total cash value could increase fourfold, reaching a “staggering” amount, said the prosecutor Robert Davies.
He said: “The prosecution suggest this was a top-level, audacious, and – up to the point of interception and the arrests – a successful and lucrative criminal conspiracy.”
Davies said the conspiracy was finally broken up when NCA officers swooped on one of the ambulances after tracking it to a scrapyard in Smethwick, in the West Midlands, on 16 June.
Inside the back of the ambulance, concealed behind panels in six “hides”, were neatly stacked, colour-coded packets of class A drugs, including cocaine with a street value of more than £30m and heroin worth £8m. Officers also found 60,000 ecstasy tablets.
Schoon, who was director of the Schoon Ambulance Company, was described in court as “the central player”. He owned a a fleet of ambulances, ostensibly transferring patients to and from the UK. Four were found to have “hides” like the one stopped in Smethwick.
The court was told that the company’s records showed the fake ambulance journeys had been “going on over weeks and months”. At least 45 trips were made in 14 months.
Bijlsma was described in the court as Schoon’s right-hand man. The prosecution told the jury that a rivet gun was found with Bijlsma’s DNA on it. It said this gun was used to fasten the panels inside the ambulance.
Bijlsma said in court that he was paid €250 (£175) a time by Schoon to be his “co-driver” during 16 trips across the Channel. Bijlsma said Schoon had sleep apnoea and could fall asleep while driving, so he took Bijlsma as a back-up driver and also to hunt for scrap cars to use for spares.
Claiming that he was never allowed in the back of the vehicle as it had to remain “sterilised”, he said: “I have nothing to do with drugs, it’s not for me.”
The three men will be sentenced on 7 December.