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EU makes biggest ever cocaine haul

February 24, 2021

"Never before has so much cocaine been intercepted at once," said Dutch police, speaking about the mega-shipment worth billions of euros.

Packets of cocaine
EU authorities said this bust far exceeds past drugs hauls they have madeImage: Orlando Barra/Agencia EFE/imago images

Investigators uncovered a total of 23 metric tons (25 US tons) of cocaine with a street value of billions of euros in a cross-European drugs bust, German customs said Wednesday.

The cocaine was uncovered in Germany and Belgium.

The mega shipments together are an "absolute record," Dutch police said in a statement. "Never before has so much cocaine been intercepted at once," they added.

How did authorities uncover the cocaine shipment?

A company based in the Netherlands gave German authorities a tip-off. This led to them finding 16 metric tons of cocaine at the port of Hamburg on February 12.

The cocaine was hidden inside containers from Paraguay.

packets of cocaine
The street value of the drug ist estimated to be worth between €1.5 billion and €3.5 billion ($1.8 billion and $4.3 billion) for the 16 tonnes found in HamburgImage: Amin Chaar/GlobalImagens/imago images

Customs officers at the port took a closer look at the Paraguayan containers after noticing "clear irregularities" with its contents — tin cans that were meant to be filled with putty.

The customs officials ordered for the containers to be unloaded. They found that "beyond a layer of genuine goods packed just behind the container door, numerous tin cans were in fact filled with other goods."

In all, some 16 tons of cocaine was eventually found in more than 1,700 tin cans. Each contained eight cocaine packages weighing more than 9 kilograms (20 pounds) each.

Joint investigations into the stash led authorities to find another 7.2 metric tons of cocaine at the port of Antwerp in Belgium, German customs said.

Antwerp is Europe's second largest port.

The stash in Belgium was hidden in a container full of wooden blocks, investigators said.

The drugs were all bound for "the same destination in the Netherlands," Dutch police said.

Trafficking cocaine

Has anyone been arrested?

The 28-year-old owner of an import company in the major port city of Rotterdam was arrested early Wednesday in the Netherlands over the illicit cargo.

The arrest was made as Dutch police searched two premises  — one in Rotterdam and another in the nearby village of Vlaardingen.

"It's now important for the Dutch investigators to find out if he's really responsible for this large cocaine operation or if he's more like a man hiding a larger criminal network," Benedikt Strunz, a drugs trade and organized crime expert with the German public broadcaster NDR, told DW.

The cocaine's street value

"We are estimating a street sales value of between €1.5 billion and €3.5 billion ($1.8 billion and $4.3 billion) for the 16 tons," Hamburg customs office chief Rene Matschke told news agency AFP, speaking on the amount found at the German port.

The higher value would apply if the drug was sold "cut" or diluted with other substances.

Dutch prosecutors estimated the wholesale value of the combined shipments at some €600 million ($730 million).

Tramadol – the poor man's cocaine

How often do authorities find such shipments?

In all, 102 metric tons of cocaine headed for the European continent were intercepted last year by an international law enforcement project co-implemented by the UN.

The majority of the shipments arrived at Antwerp. Last year, a total of 65.5 metric tons were seized there in 2020 —this is an all-time record for the port.

The drugs come from Latin America — mostly from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador.

Europe is facing a 'cocaine wave,' says expert

Strunz put Wednesday's drugs haul into context for DW: "We are facing an enormous cocaine wave floating all over Europe. And this is causing enormous problems" both in terms of addiction and crime.

"The criminal networks are not focusing so much on one nation. They don't really care in Europe about national borders," Strunz said.

"Security experts say this huge cocaine seizure here in the port of Hamburg has to be a wake-up call for European politicians," he added.

What's next for European law enforcement?

"We are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg," Germany's Green Party lawmaker Irene Mihalic said on the latest bust.

Further investigations are set to be carried out on behalf of the Hamburg public prosecutor and in close coordination with Dutch authorities.

kmm/aw (AFP, dpa)