Police in Spain have dismantled a multinational drug trafficking network led by Colombians that is the latest example of how traffickers use sophisticated chemical processes to disguise cocaine shipments.
In raids in five Spanish provinces police arrested five Spaniards, five Colombians, a Nigerian and a Peruvian. They also seized 229 kilos of cocaine, along with arms, chemicals and lab equipment.
The network was allegedly moving cocaine into Spain disguised in palm kernel meal, a brownish powder used in animal feed. Police say the group, which authorities said was led by a Colombian national and had operatives based in Spain, brought a Colombian chemist into the country specifically for the extraction process.
The operation was the culmination of an investigation that began in 2013 after Colombian and US investigators tipped off the Spanish authorities over the operations of Colombian traffickers in the country.
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Spanish local media suggest the network was processing coca base into cocaine. But it appears the chemicals and lab equipment were employed to extract the powdered cocaine hydrochloride from the palm kernel meal the traffickers used to disguise the drugs.
Such sophisticated methods of disguising cocaine are becoming ever more apparent, with this case following the seizure of nearly three tons of cocaine disguised in oil used for electrical transformers in the Colombian port of Cartagena earlier this year.
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As in this case, this often involves exporting knowledge as well as drugs. In Bolivia, for example, where Colombians run many of the cocaine processing and trafficking operations, underworld sources have told InSight Crime that one of the most popular trafficking techniques is now to spray liquid cocaine onto clothes.
The case is also a reminder of the growing influence in Spain of Colombian networks, which appear to retain control over the market despite the widely reported incursion of Mexican groups.
Sources in the Spanish police have told InSight Crime that the Colombians control the cocaine trade in the country and that there are between 12 and 20 of the Colombian criminal structures known as “oficinas de cobro” (“collection offices,” which act as unofficial arbiters of the underworld) active in the country. Police also said they are braced for the Colombian presence to increase further when visa restrictions are eased next year.
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