A French court on Friday jailed British drug kingpin Robert Dawes for 22 years for large-scale cocaine trafficking at the end of a two-week trial.
Dawes, 46, was convicted of arranging for 1.3 tonnes of cocaine to be smuggled into France on an Air France flight from Venezuela to Paris in 2013.
Dawes had denied organising the shipment ever since police arrested him at his luxury villa on the Spanish Costa del Sol in 2015.
"I continue to claim my innocence," the 46-year-old said in his final statement to the special non-jury court hearing the case before the five judges retired to consider their verdict.
But Spanish police secured a video filmed at a Madrid hotel in which they say he claimed ownership of the drugs. They extradited him to France shortly after his arrest.
The state prosecutor had sought a 25-year prison term for aggravated drug trafficking.
"Far from a small-time fall guy, today we are judging men in the highest ranks of organised crime who supplied European networks," prosecutor Isabelle Raynaud told the court during the week.
Dawes had hoped to get the video dismissed on legal grounds, but prosecutors discovered his defence team had submitted a forged Spanish document trying to prove the recording was illegal.
He then surprised the court – and evidently his lawyers – by saying his claims in the video were "just a made-up story" intended to provoke the police into arresting him so that he could prove his innocence.
Dawes, from Sutton-in-Ashfield outside Nottingham, central England, had never previously been convicted of drug trafficking.
But police believe he became one of the largest drug importers to Europe, with alleged links to the Italian mafia and South American cartels.
At the time of his arrest, Spanish police said Dawes "headed up the biggest criminal organisation in Britain and Europe devoted to drug trafficking, money laundering and murder".
He is also accused of buying large amounts of drugs from Italy’s secretive ‘Ndrangheta mafia, which is thought to run much of Europe’s cocaine trade from Calabria.
His alleged empire stretched from Portugal, France and Belgium to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Venezuela and Mexico.
Dawes maintains that he and his family made their money from a variety of businesses in Spain, including furniture and window manufacturing, management consulting and property investments.
The cocaine found on the Air France flight from Caracas was stuffed in 30 unregistered suitcases, and had a street value of some 240 million euros ($275 million).
The discovery caused a stir in Venezuela where the interior minister admitted the suitcases had gone through security scanners that had clearly showed the presence of drugs.
Venezuelan police arrested 25 people, including members of the military, which manages security at Caracas’s airport, and an Air France manager.