$1bn haul of cocaine seized in 12-nation operation

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The Independent US

International law enforcement officers have seized 27.5 tons of Colombian cocaine, worth about $1bn (£625m), from a port on Venezuela's eastern Atlantic coast in one of the biggest drugs operations in history.

International law enforcement officers have seized 27.5 tons of Colombian cocaine, worth about $1bn (£625m), from a port on Venezuela's eastern Atlantic coast in one of the biggest drugs operations in history.

United States customs officials believe most of the shipment was bound for Europe. "We wiped out a sprawling organisation whose tentacles reached around the world," said Raymond Kelly, head of US customs. "Massive amounts of cocaine will be kept off the street."

"Operation Journey", a two-year investigation in which a dozen countries shared information, led to 43 arrests and the confiscation of five commercial freighters. Authorities said the smugglers had dispatched 68 tons of cocaine, mostly to Britain, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Albania, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, and the United States were also part of the scheme that involved 10 vessels.

Julio Mercado, of the US Drugs Enforcement Agency, praised the Venezuelans for locating a huge jungle storage facility near the Orinoco river delta. "Today's drug gangs are too powerful for one nation to fight alone," he said.

Even though the cartels in Medellin and Cali are nearly defunct, high-yield Peruvian coca has been recently transplanted to Colombian tracts, quadrupling the harvest. Hundreds of US military advisers are training anti-drug battalions to seize the illegal crop that funds left-wing insurgency in the country.

Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, refuses to let either Colombian or US anti-drug aircraft chase smugglers inside his country's airspace, yet authorities there intercepted 10 tons of cocaine earlier this month and are now committed to cracking down on criminals who use Venezuela as the principal Caribbean cocaine conduit and a money-laundering centre.

The cocaine was loaded on to speedboats in the Orinoco delta and moved out to cargo ships. Agents found ingenious hiding spots built into someholds, while other packets were disguised under tons of sugar.

The suspected ringleaders - Ivan de la Vega, a Colombian, and his Cuban-American partner, Antonio Luis Navia - have been extradited to Florida.

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