Two traffickers who tried to smuggle into the UK £32 million worth of cocaine disguised inside root vegetables have been jailed for a combined 36 years, authorities said.

Juan David Perea Lopez, 26, and Bashar Fares Al-Safee, 31, arranged the importation of 400kg of the class A drug – which was concealed inside a shipment of yams from Costa Rica in 2016, said the National Crime Agency(NCA).

They were convicted on Thursday following a seven-week trial after being charged with conspiracy to import and conspiracy to supply Class A drugs, said the agency.

The container arrived from Costa Rica to the London Gateway Port in Essex in June 2016, and was due to be delivered to an industrial estate in north-west London, it added.

A number of boxes had false bottoms stuffed with compressed blocks of cocaine powder, which had a purity of 61% to 68% after being cut with deworming agent Levamisole.

Echo: Juan David Perea LopezJuan David Perea Lopez

The NCA said its investigation found that “Lopez had leased the £17,000 per-quarter industrial unit by pretending to work as an assistant to a Saudi Arabian Sheikh who needed the space to store high value cars”.

The duo were sentenced at Southwark Crown Court on Friday, with Al-Safee, of north Kensington, west London, getting 21 years in prison and Lopez, of New Cross, south London, sentenced to 15 years, said the NCA.

An NCA spokesman said: “Al-Safee had also hijacked the identity of a real fruit import business and set up false e-mail addresses and a virtual office in an attempt to appear legitimate.

“NCA investigators were able to link Al-Safee to pre-paid ‘burner’ phones at the specific times they were used to arrange the importation, and also obtained expert voice analysis to show that Al-Safee had arranged payment for the shipment with currency brokers – despite him using a false name.

Echo: Bashar Fares Al-SafeeBashar Fares Al-Safee

“The company that sent the consignment was investigated by Costa Rican authorities. This resulted in the arrest of one of the directors and the seizure of a tonne of cocaine following the search of a fruit packing plant.”

Regional head of investigations at the NCA, Jacque Beer, said: “This seizure and the investigation that followed has kept a huge quantity of cocaine off UK streets, and brought traffickers to account in the UK and Central America.

“Lopez and Al-Safee sought to profit from a trade that fuels violence and exploitation throughout the UK and all along the international supply chain.”