For the inhabitants of two sleepy Dordogne villages, the latest English arrivals must have seemed much like the other members of the Anglo-Saxon influx who have flooded into this most Anglicised corner of France for a slice of the Gallic good life.
Only when officers from France's elite judicial police raided the homes of three unobtrusive Britons in Augignac and Champniers et Reilhac, two villages barely 10 miles apart, residents realised they had been living side by side with the alleged ringleaders of an international drug-smuggling network with possible links to Premier League football transfers.
The French authorities confirmed yesterday that they were in the process of dismantling a suspected cocaine and money-laundering operation run by alleged British gangsters who had used the quiet image of ex-pats seeking the simple pleasures of rural France as a cover for their criminal activities.
Detectives involved in the joint investigation with British counterparts in the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) have arrested 10 Britons across France and believe the Dordogne served as the hub of a sophisticated smuggling network used to transport large quantities of money and cocaine from Spain through France and on to the United Kingdom.
The police operation began last May when customs officers stopped a Mercedes car with British number-plates on the motorway between Narbonne and Toulouse in south-west France. In a secret compartment behind the passenger seats police found €540,000 (£484,000) in used notes.
The 35-year-old British driver, named only as Stephen C, claimed the cash was the commission on transfer deals in the notoriously unregulated market for players in the English Premiership. Forensic tests found traces of cocaine on the cash. Police said cocaine and linked cash were being delivered to Britain from boats from Africa. Guy Sapata, the officer leading the investigation, said: "Those arrested have explained the cash as being commissions for acting in player transfers. Unfortunately, organised crime networks are involved in all kinds of activities, meaning there could be an overlap between drugs, money-laundering and big money transfers."
Interviews with Stephen C, who admitted 20 similar trips across Europe to deliver money to the UK, led detectives to focus on Augignac and Champniers-et-Reilhac, near Perigueux. Attracted by distinctive honey-coloured stone buildings and dramatic landscape, the inward flow of "les Anglo Saxons" has been so widespread that the region is referred to as "Dordogneshire".
The targets of the Anglo-French inquiry were found to be leading quietly ostentatious lives, allegedly laundering the proceeds of their drugs network by buying chateaux and villas across the Dordogne. In the Champniers-et-Reilhac home of the parents of one of the alleged ringleaders, named as Mark B, officers found a sky-blue Aston Martin DB9 and a Mercedes, also with a hidden compartment.
Mark B was arrested on 14 February in London on a European warrant as he checked into a private clinic. Two more suspects, named as Michael K and Sophie S, were arrested on 24 February in Augignac. Police found documents showing they owned a €175,000 villa and other property in France worth €325,000.
A French officer added: "The cars were typical of the kind of flash, luxury goods these suspects have been using. They had stacks of money and were regularly investing in land and luxury properties. They are also believed to have been investing in Cyprus. All those arrested are being questioned pending court appearances."Reuse content