Nearly 850 pounds of cocaine was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday, after the crew of a freighter tossed the load into the water while on their way to the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro, at the tip of Italy's boot.
The shipment, packaged in 17 waterproof bags and worth an estimated $84 million, was found floating attached to buoys, according to a police statement, first noted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
According to Italian authorities, the cocaine was of very high purity.
The freighter, the Rio de Janeiro, had carried the drug load from Brazil, which is a major embarkation point for cocaine and other drugs bound for Europe. Nine crew members — all citizens of the tiny Pacific country Kiribati — have been arrested.
Italian authorities had been monitoring the shipment and detected when the crew members tossed the load overboard. The effort was attributed to the 'Ndrangheta, a Italian criminal group.
While transporting drugs by sea is not a recent innovation, tossing them overboard to float "is considered a fairly new trick used by traffickers to bypass authorities," the OCCRP noted.
The 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian gang thought to be behind the smuggling attempt, is considered one of the wealthiest and most powerful European criminal groups, and its network is believed to include families in the US as well as partnerships with criminal groups in Latin America.
This summer, a multicountry effort rounded up 150 suspected members of a transnational drug-trafficking group allegedly led by two brothers suspected of being members of the 'Ndrangheta.
Smugglers are still believed to rely on shipping containers to move drugs into Europe.
"Since 2006, maritime seizures that involve containers have increased sixfold, with a particularly steep increase since 2010," the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction wrote in its 2016 report. "Container seizures made up three-quarters of maritime seizures in 2012 and 2013, compared with one-tenth in 2006."
Even though the amount of cocaine seizures and the amount of cocaine seizures are below mid-2000s levels, cocaine is the second-most intercepted drug in Europe, behind marijuana.
Southern and Western Europe are the main entry points for the drug.
"The countries that seized the most cocaine over the period 2011–14 were Spain (accounting for about 50 % of all seizures) and Belgium, followed by France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Portugal," the EMCDDA noted in its report.
In early September, Spanish police in Sevilla intercepted a shipment of Colombian bananas that had nearly 2,000 pounds of cocaine packaged among the fruit.
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