Spanish and Moroccan police seized 5,677 pounds of cocaine and arrested 24 suspects in what officials said was a blow against one of the main drug-trafficking organizations operating in Europe, Africa, and South America.
The seizure was part of an operation that started this summer and saw several failed attempts to interdict shipments sent by the multinational trafficking ring to Europe from South America.
This operation, undertaken by Spanish police and their Moroccan counterparts, took place about 100 miles off the coast of Dakhla, in Western Sahara, over which Morocco has de facto administrative control.
After spotting the boat believed to be carrying the drug shipment moving parallel to the coasts of Mauritania and Morocco, authorities moved in with a helicopter and two patrol boats.
With police closing in, 12 people on board, all of whom were arrested, reportedly began throwing bundles of cocaine overboard. Aboard, authorities also found documents, a satellite phone, and about $10,700.
In total, the operation led to the arrest of 18 people in Morocco and six people in Spain, among them two Colombians arrested in Madrid, one of whom was reportedly the leader of the group trying to travel to Colombia, and two Spaniards in Pontevedra, in the northern province of Galicia.
According to Spanish national police, the arrests targeted the "most active" group operating in Europe, Africa, and South America, which had a significant logistical and economic capacity allowing it to deploy a number of ships to move cocaine.
The group reportedly used three or four boats at a time to break up the size of the shipments and complicate police efforts to interdict them.
The police investigation began at the start of summer in Galicia, Spain's northwestern-most province. The operation was stymied at first by the imprisonment (for another crime) of a Galician who was believed to be the contact person for drug shipments arriving in the province.
With that person in jail, responsibility for trafficking passed to a Colombian group that worked with a group in Galicia but was led out of Madrid and had links to Colombia, a major cocaine production center, and Venezuela, a major drug-transit area.
After some failed attempts to intercept shipments, agents from Spain and Morocco began monitoring a vessel departing South America with a new drug cargo. When that cargo reached the African coast near Western Sahara, authorities moved in.
The interdiction was the first joint Spanish-Moroccan anti-drug operation against international maritime cocaine trafficking.
"This latest police action constitutes an important blow against one of the principal narco networks that operates on three continents," said Juan Ignacio Zoido, Spain's interior minister.
Europe's drug gateway
Overall, cocaine seizures in Europe have declined from highs reached in the mid- to late-2000s, but Spain and Portugal remain important entryways for illegal drugs headed to those countries and to other places on the continent.
According to data from the Spanish Interior Ministry, national police, civil guard, and customs authority, the country is seventh in the world in terms of cocaine seizures.
In 2015, the amount of the drug seized there rose to 40% of the continent's total, state security secretary Francisco Martinez said in November. (Martinez stepped down a few days later in a "mutual agreement" with Zoido.)
Northwestern Africa is also a major transit point for illegal drugs headed to Europe.
Overland routes carry drugs from West African countries to southern Europe, while Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, both off Africa's west coast, have also seen drug traffic, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction's 2016 report.
Drug shipments coming directly into Spain and Europe have increasingly come by container aboard cargo ships.
Traffickers in South America load drugs in with legitimate cargos, often with the help of ship or dockyard workers, in addition to Colombia, ports in Brazil and Argentina have also become major departure points for cocaine headed to Europe.
In September, police in southern Spain intercepted 2,000 pounds of cocaine concealed in a shipment of bananas from Colombia.
"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 UK, and Portugal, the EMCDDA reported.
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