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Dozens arrested, 8 tons of cocaine seized in major operation in Europe

Cocaine smuggled in rollerblades from South America to Wisconsin
Cocaine smuggled in rollerblades from South America to Wisconsin 00:32

European police forces have arrested around 40 people in a years-long operation to bust a major drug smuggling ring, leading to the seizure of eight tons of cocaine, Europol said Thursday.

The cartel, whose leaders were based in Turkey and Dubai, had been dealt a major blow after a final set of arrests Wednesday, the Hague-based police coordination agency said.

The network had "the capacity to transport tons and tons of cocaine all over the world", Oscar Esteban Remacha, head of the anti-drug trafficking unit at Spain's Guardia Civil, said at a news conference in Madrid.

Europol released images and a nearly 10-minute video Thursday, showing K-9 dogs and officers finding bags of suspected drugs as well as multiple suspects being detained. The video also shows at least one boat being intercepted at sea with officers unloading bags of suspected narcotics.

European police forces have arrested around 40 people in a years-long operation to bust a major drug smuggling ring, Europol said Thursday. Europol

According to Europol, the final phase of the operation began with the August 2023 discovery by the Guardia Civil of 1,540 pounds of cocaine in a boat off the Canary Islands, which was crewed by Croat and Italian citizens.

Spain is a main entry point for drugs into Europe given its ties with Latin America and its proximity to Morocco.

After exchanging their findings with other police forces, investigators found links with previous seizures, leading to the identification of the ring's leaders, officials said.

Many members of the network were from countries in the Balkans, Europol said.

In all, some 40 people were arrested in six countries, including two top Croat members of the network, who were arrested in Istanbul late last year.

The last four arrests were made Wednesday in Spain, Europol said.

"Bombings, killings, professional assassinations"

Heavily armed Guardia Civil officers arrested a 40-year-old suspect during a dawn raid Wednesday at his home in Marbella, the Mediterranean seaside resort, according to an AFP journalist who witnessed the operation.

"This is one of the biggest operations against the Balkan cartels to date," a Croat police officer, Tomislav Stambuk, said at the news conference.

"Serious assessments are that the Balkan cartel is responsible for the supply of... more than half of cocaine" in Europe, Stambuk said.

Much of the network's assets, with a total value of several tens of millions of euros, had been seized or frozen, Europol added. It said the smugglers shipped the cocaine from South America to logistical hubs in West Africa and the Canary Islands.

It was then sent on to centers in Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy and Spain, for distribution across Europe.

The bust comes at a time when cocaine production is "skyrocketing," the head of Europol's narcotics department Robert Fay said. Cocaine seizures at European ports have reached record levels, he said, calling the rise in drug-related violence across the bloc "worrying."

"We see bombings, killings, professional assassinations, shootings happening almost every day in the European Union," Fay said.

The arrests in Spain come about a month after Spanish police seized 1.8 tons of crystal meth that Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel was trying to sell in Europe, the country's "biggest-ever seizure" of the narcotic, officials said.

Authorities around the globe have made other major cocaine busts recently. Just a few days ago, Colombian naval officers seized two semisubmersible vessels loaded with nearly 5 tons of cocaine in the Pacific Ocean. 

The week before that, the U.S. Coast Guard said it offloaded $63 million worth of cocaine at a port in Florida after a high-speed shootout that sank a suspected drug smuggling boat and its crew in the Caribbean Sea. Last month, the French Navy said it confiscated 2.4 tons of cocaine from a fishing boat in the Atlantic Ocean.

Colombia produces about 60% of the cocaine in the world.

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