More than a half a ton of cocaine was smuggled aboard a private jet that landed in Switzerland after departing from Uruguay, revealing that traffickers could be increasingly using the Southern Cone country as a major exit point for drugs destined for Europe.
Authorities recently released new details about the May 16 seizure of 603 kilograms of cocaine found in suitcases on the jet after it had landed in Basel, Switzerland, the Swiss news site SWI reported. The plane had departed from Carrasco airport in Uruguay's capital city of Montevideo, and then made a stopover in Nice, France, before landing in Switzerland.
Three passengers -- foreign nationals from Croatia, the Czech Republic and Montenegro -- were arrested. Little was revealed about them. One, however, is suspected of being a top leader in what was described as a Balkan criminal group.
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Authorities also seized two million euros in cash and one million euros worth of luxury goods from the private plane, according to Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency.
The drug bust was part of a larger worldwide operation targeting the Balkan criminal network. It led to the arrests of 16 people in five different countries, including another suspected leader of the group based in Croatia.
In a press conference announcing the arrests, officials from Europol said the group used private planes to smuggle South American cocaine to Europe and Asia.
Meanwhile, authorities in Germany announced this month that 4.5 tons of cocaine was discovered inside a shipping container at the northern port city of Hamburg. The shipping container -- said to contain soybeans -- also came Montevideo, and was destined for the Belgium port of Antwerp, custom's officials said. The seizure was the largest in the nation's history, Deutche Welle reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
Uruguay has long been seen as being free of the high-level drug trafficking that plagues other countries in the region, such as Brazil and Colombia. But recent seizures indicate that is changing.
In the first seven months of 2019, for example, authorities in Uruguay have seized over 1.5 tons of cocaine, nearly double last year’s total.
Besides smuggling drugs aboard planes, traffickers have also used maritime routes. Since August of last year, there have been three major seizures of cocaine hidden in cargo on ships destined for Europe that originated in or passed through Uruguay.
In April, German authorities discovered 440 kilograms of cocaine concealed in bags of rice on a container ship that docked in Hamburg. The ship had travelled from Montevideo, where authorities said the drugs were smuggled on board, El País reported.
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In September of 2018, 417 kilograms of drugs were seized at the port of Montevideo. The drugs were hidden among bundles of wool aboard a ship that was heading to the Belgium port of Antwerp.
In an interview with Uruguayan news site ECOS, the country's top anti-drug official said that the country has always been an alternative transit point for cocaine.
European demand, however, for cocaine is growing. With street prices there higher than in the United States, traffickers will likely look for ways to increasingly rely on Uruguay as a launching pad to feed the cocaine pipeline to Europe.