HAMBURG, Germany: German customs authorities Wednesday announced the largest seizure of cocaine in European history, more than 23 tonnes discovered in two raids this month at ports in Hamburg, Germany and Antwerp, Belgium.
German customs official Rene Matchke told reporters the 28-year-old owner of a Dutch import company was arrested Wednesday in the Netherlands, where police say both shipments were bound.
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 Netherlands-based company. German and Dutch investigations led the officials Sunday to seize another 7.2 tonnes of cocaine at the port of Antwerp.
German and Dutch police confirm the two shipments account for the largest amount of cocaine confiscated in a criminal investigation, and one of the top five in the world.
German customs officials say the investigation is ongoing and that they do not believe the man who was arrested acted alone. They say the drug haul would have been worth billions of dollars.
The mega shipments together are an “absolute record,” Dutch police said in a statement. “Never before has so much cocaine been intercepted at once,” they added.
A company based in the Netherlands gave German authorities a tip-off. This led to them finding 16 metric tonnes of cocaine at the port of Hamburg on February 12.
The cocaine was hidden inside containers from Paraguay.
Customs officers at the port took a closer look at the Paraguayan containers after noticing “clear irregularities” with its contents — tin cans that were meant to be filled with putty.
The customs officials ordered for the containers to be unloaded. They found that “beyond a layer of genuine goods packed just behind the container door, numerous tin cans were filled with other goods.”
In all, some 16 tonnes of cocaine was eventually found in more than 1,700 tin cans. Each contained eight cocaine packages weighing more than 9 kilograms (20 pounds) each.
Joint investigations into the stash led authorities to find another 7.2 metric tonnes in cocaine at the port of Antwerp in Belgium, German customs said.
Antwerp is Europe’s second largest port.
The stash in Belgium was hidden in a container full of wooden blocks, investigators said.
The drugs were all bound for “the same destination in the Netherlands,” Dutch police said.
The 28-year-old owner of an import company in the major port city of Rotterdam was arrested early Wednesday in the Netherlands over the illicit cargo.
The arrest was made as Dutch police searched two premises — one in Rotterdam and another in the nearby village of Vlaardingen.
The cocaine’s street value
“We are estimating a street sales value of between €1.5 billion and €3.5 billion ($1.8 billion and $4.3 billion) for the 16 tonnes,” Hamburg customs office chief Rene Matschke told news agency AFP, speaking on the amount found at the German port.
In all, 102 metric tonnes of cocaine headed for the European continent were intercepted last year by an international law enforcement project co-implemented by the UN.
The majority of the shipments arrived at Antwerp. Last year, a total of 65.5 metric tonnes were seized there in 2020 —this is a record for the port.
The drugs come from Latin America — mostly from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador.
“We are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Germany’s Green Party lawmaker Irene Mihalic said on the latest bust.
Further investigations are set to be carried out on behalf of the Hamburg public prosecutor and in close coordination with Dutch authorities.