A Gatwick Customs officer enjoyed a lavish lifestyle by helping a drugs gang smuggle in cocaine, a court heard.

Richard Riley allowed couriers carrying drugs worth millions of pounds to walk through the airport knowing they would not be searched.

They were so confident, the court heard, they filled their suitcases to the brim with cocaine packages without even worrying about hiding them.

Southwark Crown Court heard the Customs officer systematically betrayed his bosses to protect a drug gang flooding Britain with cocaine worth millions of pounds.

Riley, 53, described as an "absolutely central figure" in the long-running operation, is thought to have ensured the success of a string of lucrative drugs runs.

Apart from feeding his partners in crime highly confidential information, he played a leading role in arranging the drug runs from the Caribbean as well as ushering teams of couriers through Customs with suitcases bulging with the cocaine.

Oliver Sells QC, prosecuting, said: "His presence meant that the smuggling became a wholesale operation." In the process, Riley pocketed a string of massive pay-offs.

The money, which his social worker wife Marjorie, 51, helped launder, enabled the couple to enjoy a "lavish lifestyle".

But eventually the Customs officer's colleagues began to suspect what he was doing.

A lengthy surveillance operation was launched and his car was bugged.

On July 1 last year he was videoed guiding two of the smugglers safely through the green channel at the airport.

Riley, of Dulwich, London, admitted two charges of conspiring to smuggle drugs through Gatwick and money laundering. His wife confessed to money laundering after paying the money her husband earned into their account.

Together, Stephen Abrahamson, 29, and "visibly pregnant" Kelly Little, 24 - specifically selected in the hope her condition would further help them evade detection - were carrying £2.4 million of cocaine. Mr Sells said: "There was nothing else in their suitcases."

As the couple wheeled their trolleys to what they thought was certain success, gang member Harline Young sidled up to them and commented: "Not far now."

"They all laughed," said Mr Sells. "Then at that moment they were arrested."

In the dock with the Rileys are Abrahamson and Little, both from Ponders End, Enfield; 41-year-old Young, of Northolt; Steven Dixon, 35, of Dollis Hill, north-west London, and Peter Crosdale, 46, of Edgware, north London.

They variously deny three counts of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine between January 1 and July 2, 2004, one charge of simple smuggling and two of money laundering.

Opening what was expected to be a two-day sentencing hearing, Mr Sells said the gang smuggled in very substantial quantities of the drug.

Altogether £125,000 was paid into a string of bank accounts that the Customs officer and his wife controlled between January and June last year.

Mr Sells told the court once the surveillance operation was under way, evidence against those involved mounted quickly. Riley's value rapidly became apparent.

Investigators also discovered the gang used a special code in a bid to avert suspicion.

Emails between some of the principal players frequently mentioned "music", a reference to drugs, and "musicians", which meant couriers.

Mr Sells said the £2,000-a-time air tickets and the expensive hotels the couriers always stayed in were invariably paid for in cash.

At one point it became clear the gang had at least four teams of couriers in Barbados.

One of them used a six-year-old boy to provide a veneer of respectability to their trip.

As the surveillance continued Riley was repeatedly heard underlining the importance of having photographs of the smugglers he was to escort.

It was important he spotted them before any of his colleagues and supervised their green channel clearance with a helpful: "This way please."

Sentencing was expected to continue today.