'Lionfish' busts drug smuggling ring

DAVID MCFADDEN
Last updated 11:57 03/07/2013

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The international police agency Interpol has led an operation in the Caribbean and central America that seized roughly US$822 million (NZ$990m) worth of cocaine and other drugs and led to 142 arrests, law enforcement authorities in Europe have announced.

The Europol police agency supported the Interpol-led initiative dubbed ''Operation Lionfish'' targeting maritime drug and gun smugglers across the two regions.

It involved some 34 countries and territories, including some 20 Caribbean nations, as well as countries in Central America.

The Netherlands-based Europol said coordination units were based at Interpol's bureau in El Salvador and the command centre of the French West Indies Coast Guard on the island of Martinique.

During the anti-smuggling operation between May 27 and June 10, authorities were able to share information and conduct speedy checks against the Interpol and Europol intelligence databases to cross-check suspicious vessels and cargo containers and then select them as targets to be tracked and boarded.

Patrols were conducted by land and sea. Regional police, customs, immigration and naval forces participated in the international effort to combat organised crime groups behind narcotics and illicit weapons smuggling in the Caribbean and central America.

Besides confiscating drugs and making arrests, Interpol said the operation targeting maritime smuggling by criminal networks also resulted in the seizure of 15 vessels, 42 guns, US$170,000 (NZ$210,000) in cash and 8 tons of chemical precursors used to manufacture cocaine.

Michael O'Connell, Interpol's director of operational support, said in a statement that the initiative also focused on strengthening law enforcement cooperation in the region.

He said France-based Interpol's global services were providing frontline officers with the ''tools they need to do their job, which is to identify and arrest criminals''. 

Paul Noel of the St. Lucia-headquartered Caribbean Customs Law Enforcement Council said the initiative helped speed up the process in identifying drug-and-gun traffickers because ''we can do the joint checks right here if there is a suspect target in the Caribbean''.

The Caribbean council and the World Customs Organization were partners in the anti-smuggling operation, which was also supported by the French Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

''Disrupting this activity is not only critical for the source and transit countries of these drugs and weapons, but also for the destination countries such as Canada,'' Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson said in a statement from Ottawa.

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said that South American cocaine was typically smuggled to Europe by sea, most often in container shipments. 

It was usually trafficked to the North American market from Colombia to central American nations or Mexico by sea and then by land for the rest of the way.

- AP

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