French police have seized a record haul of 1.3 tonnes of pure cocaine, stored in 31 suitcases in the hold of an Air France flight to Paris from Venezuela. Not one was registered to a real passenger.
The drugs, which had a street value of €200m, were reportedly destined for the Calabrian Mafia known as the ‘Ndrangheta. The Italian criminal organisation is reputed to control 80 per cent of the cocaine exported from Latin America to Europe, after moving into drug trafficking in the 1970s.
The French police, cooperating with British, Spanish and Dutch colleagues, arrested several people last Friday when they confiscated 900 kilos of cocaine at Charles de Gaulle airport. A further 400 kilos were found inside a lorry heading from Paris to Luxembourg after arriving from Venezuela. Together, it was the biggest ever drugs haul on French soil.
The arrests came after weeks of investigation. All of the colourful 31 suitcases containing the drugs which were checked in for the Caracas to Paris Air France flight were registered to fictitious passengers. The suspects, of various nationalities, were still being questioned on Sunday on charges of belonging to an international drugs smuggling ring. Police will be trying to establish whether the traffickers were working with airline or airport insiders.
Venezuelan police are also investigating how the shipment came to be on the plane. Venezuela is not a cocaine producing country but is becoming a trafficking hub.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, speaking at a news conference on Saturday, hailed the operation as a “fine victory” for French authorities which have been combating a rise in drugs shipments in recent months. Four tonnes of cocaine have been confiscated since the beginning of this year. According to Mr Valls the number of drug smuggling rings which have been dismantled by police has risen by 12 per cent since January.
Mr Valls, standing in front of the suitcases emptied of the drugs, also stressed the need for tightened cooperation with other European police. He said that international drug traffickers “are constantly setting up new strategies. They are diversifying drug routes, so we therefore have to adapt our operations, and our strategies to these developments.”
In previous years, French police at the port of Le Havre seized 700 kilos of cocaine in March 2011 in a shipment from Panama. In May 2009, 584 kilos were discovered in a lorry travelling from Spain. According to the 2013 annual report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the world’s largest cocaine seizures continue to be reported from Colombia (200 tonnes) and the United States (94 tonnes). But while North America and Europe earlier dominated the cocaine market, today they account for roughly one half of users globally, according to the UN.