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Italy thwarts Colombian cartel with massive cocaine haul (WRAP-newseries)

Italian police on Thursday said they had seized over two tonnes of pure cocaine from Colombia in the biggest drug bust in Italy of the past 25 years.

The drugs, with a street value of around 500 million euros ($574 million), were discovered last week packed into 60 bags at the port of Genoa in a container from the South American country destined for Barcelona in Spain.

“The drugs belonged to several drug-trafficking organisations associated with the armed group known as the ‘Gulf Clan’,” a police statement said in reference to Colombia’s famed drug cartel.

The Gulf Clan accounts for about 70 percent of Colombia’s cocaine production and uses violence and intimidation to control narcotics trafficking routes, cocaine processing laboratories and departure points.

Police replaced the 1,801 packets of cocaine with salt and sent the cargo on its way in a ploy to catch the drug runners, according to media reports.

A 59-year old Spanish national was arrested in Barcelona when he attempted to collect the shipment, police said.

The raid followed an international investigation involving police from Britain, Spain and Colombia, which is the world’s leading coca leaf grower and also the biggest source of cocaine, according to the UN.

– New drug ‘crossroads’ –

The haul followed the news Wednesday that Italian police had discovered almost 650 kilos (1,400 pounds) of cocaine in a shipping container of coffee beans in one of the biggest busts of the past 10 years.

That batch, found in 23 large bags during a search at the port of Livorno in Tuscany, has a street value of 130 million euros ($148.7 million).

The cocaine, discovered on January 15, was in a container that had set off from Honduras, before being transferred to another cargo ship in Costa Rica. Its final destination was Barcelona, police said.

“The port of Genoa, along with Livorno, has become the new crossroads for international smuggling,” Genoa prosecutor Francesco Cozzi told a press conference.

“Genoa port has replaced Gioia Tauro,” he said, in reference to the Calabrian port which is in the steely grip of the powerful ‘Ndrangheta organised crime group, thought to run much of Europe’s cocaine trade.

Italian police netted some 270 kilos of heroin in a container from Iran in Genoa port in November, and arrested two alleged smugglers in an operation involving forces in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Drug-trafficking hunters said Wednesday they had clapped four people from the Casamonica clan in Rome in cuffs for alleged cocaine trafficking in an operation dubbed “Brasil Low Cost”.

Portuguese police meanwhile said Thursday they had seized 2.5 tonnes of cocaine with a street value of some 125 million euros and arrested 11 mainly Eastern Europeans in a raid on a Panamanian-registered vessel off Portugal’s coast.

The vessel was detected in international waters Wednesday some 300 kilometres (160 miles) off Portugal’s southern Algarve region, the head of Portugal’s anti-drugs unit Artur Vaz said.

Portuguese authorities worked in tandem with the operations centre of the Lisbon-based EU monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction EMCDDA to seize the narcotics haul.