Police in southern Spain have seized a nearly nine tonne haul of cocaine hidden in a boat transporting bananas from Colombia – the largest ever shipment of the drug found entering Europe.
Spain’s interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, announced the record seizure at the Bay of Gibraltar port of Algeciras after an international operation involving Europol and the Colombian government.
The haul of 8.74 tonnes was found stashed among 1080 boxes of bananas on the boat, Mr Zoido said, hailing it as “the biggest stash seized in a shipment in all of Europe”. The drugs are estimated to have a street value in the hundreds of millions.
Six arrests have been made in an operation against the trafficking network involved, Mr Zoido said – four in Spain and two in France. He did not give details of the identities or nationalities of those detained, though one was reported to be a member of Spain’s Guardia Civil.
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The Colombian government said in a statement that the shipment belonged to the Gulf Clan, the former paramilitary group that has become the country’s largest and most powerful drug cartel. It had departed on a Singapore-flagged boat from the northern Golfo de Urabá 15 days ago, authorities added.
South American traffickers are increasingly focusing their efforts on smuggling to Europe as an alternative market to the United States, after Mexican cartels took control of smuggling routes to their northern neighbour.
Cocaine production has surged to record levels in Colombia throughout the course of the peace process with the FARC, as cartels vie for the slice of the market relinquished by the drug trafficking guerrilla group. An end to aerial spraying with herbicides has also contributed to the rise.
European officials have pointed to a dramatic leap in the size of shipments arriving on the continent in the last two years. In November, a Spanish-Colombian operation led to the seizure of a 5.8 tonne haul, also in Algeciras.
Spanish authorities have been sounding the alarm about cartel activity in the Bay of Gibraltar, announcing reinforcements in the face of local police warnings that the area is becoming a “little Colombia”.
Long a gateway for cannabis smuggling from Morocco, cocaine trafficking in the area rose 300 percent last year, and emboldened gangs are becoming increasingly confrontational in their activities.
In La Linea de la Concepción, the Spanish town lying across the border from Gibraltar, some 30 gangs are said to be active. In February, around 20 masked men mounted an audacious assault on a hospital to break out an arrested trafficking suspect from under the noses of police.
Mr Zoido vowed on Wednesday to combat traffickers and to "keep drugs off the streets".