A coalition of law enforcement agencies has seized a shipment of Europe-bound cocaine worth an estimated €175 million off the coast of South America.
In the largest cocaine bust in the Atlantic since 1999, the US Coast Guard, Trinidad & Tobago units and officers from the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) discovered a 4.2 tonne consignment of the drug on a 70-foot flagged fishing vessel named the Lady Michelle.
The boat was intercepted in international waters off the coast of Suriname last month.
The operation resulted in the arrest of four Guyanese crew members, who will now face prosecution by the US Attorney’s Office for the Virgin Islands.
The agencies involved in the operation published images of stacks of cocaine bales piled up on a quayside in San Juan, Puerto Rico after the seizure.
NCA Head of International Operations Steve Reynolds said: “We believe that the drugs were headed for West Africa, a well-known staging post for cocaine destined for the European market.
“Based on UK prices, our estimate is that this shipment would have had a wholesale value to organised crime of more than £150 million, but if cut and sold on the streets of Britain or Europe it could generate two or three times that.
“This seizure will have put a massive dent in the pockets of organised criminals in South America, Africa and Europe.”
Columbia, Bolivia and Peru are thought to send up to 170 tonnes of cocaine to Europe every year. Some of this is flown directly from the Andes countries, but West Africa is becoming an increasingly important hub for South American smugglers looking to get their product into EU countries.
The UN estimates that drugs worth an estimated €950 million a year are smuggled into Europe via West Africa annually.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)’s 2016 EU Drug Trafficking Report, West African organised crime groups play a significant role in smuggling South American cocaine to Europe.
African gangs often break up large shipments of drugs into smaller consignments so as they can be more easily smuggled into Europe without being detected, according to the EMCDDA. Drugs shipped to West Africa from South America are typically loaded on boats or planes for their onward journey north.
The gangs have also become known for smuggling heroin into the EU.
“There are indications that West African organised crime groups control much of the heroin trafficking activity through East Africa and are the main receivers of the considerable cash profit derived,” the EMCDDA report says.
“For example, Europol has noted that they trade with [criminal organisations] based in source countries, such as Pakistan, to obtain heroin and traffic it to Europe, relying primarily on couriers.”