Investigators have seized 23 tonnes of cocaine in a record haul of the drug in Europe, with a street value of billions of euros, German customs said Wednesday.
The 28-year-old owner of an import company in Rotterdam was arrested early Wednesday in the Netherlands over the illicit cargo, as Dutch police searched two premises—one in the port city and another in a nearby village.
The drugs intercepted were all bound for “the same destination in the Netherlands,” Dutch police said.
“The seized mega shipments to the Netherlands together form an absolute record. Never before has so much cocaine been intercepted at once,” they said in a statement.
German officers had first discovered 16 tonnes of cocaine hidden in containers from Paraguay at the port of Hamburg on February 12, following a tip from a company based in the Netherlands.
Joint investigations into the stash led authorities to swoop on another 7.2 tonnes in cocaine at the port of Antwerp in Belgium, German customs said.
The stash in Belgium was hidden in a container full of wooden blocks, investigators said.
“The find counts among the world’s top five,” Hamburg customs office chief Rene Matschke told AFP.
Customs officers at the busy Hamburg port took a closer look at the Paraguayan containers as they noticed “clear irregularities” with its contents—tin cans that were meant to be filled with putty.
Ordering the containers unloaded, they found that “beyond a layer of genuine goods packed just behind the container door, numerous tin cans were in fact filled with other goods.”
In all some 16 tonnes of cocaine were eventually found in over 1,700 tin cans.
“We are estimating a street sales value of between 1.5 billion and 3.5 billion ($1.8 billion-$4.3 billion) for the 16 tonnes ,” Matschke told AFP, noting the higher value if the drug was sold “cut” or diluted with other substances.
In all, 102 tonnes of cocaine headed for the European continent were intercepted last year by an international law enforcement project co-implemented by the UN.
The bulk of the cargo arrived at Europe’s second biggest port Antwerp, where an all-time record of 65.5 tonnes were seized in 2020.
The drugs come from Latin America—principally Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador—and are usually found hidden away in cargo containers offloaded from ships.