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Sunday, 27 August, 2000, 06:37 GMT 07:37 UK
Major drugs cartel smashed
seized cocaine
The seizures are the culmination of a two-year operation
United States customs officers have smashed a major Colombian cocaine smuggling operation, seizing 25 tonnes of the drug worth an estimated $1bn.

"Operation Journey", which lasted two years, culminated in the arrest of 43 people, including the suspected Colombian ringleader Ivan de la Vega.

"This investigation was unique for the incredible volume of cocaine it kept off the streets of America and Europe," said US Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Mr Kelly's announcement of the operation's successful conclusion is a boost for Colombia's ongoing anti-drugs campaign.

seized cocaine
Customs officers say the haul is worth $1bn
The investigation culminated with the arrests of Ivan de la Vega and his alleged close associate Jorge Garcia in Venezuela on 16 August.

Both men are now in US custody where they face charges of conspiracy to import and possession of cocaine.

The announcement also comes four days before US President Bill Clinton's visit to the country, where he is expected to give the anti-drugs drive further backing.

Elaborate network

Officials say the operation has led to the dismantling of an elaborate transportation network used by cartels to ship drugs between Latin America, North America and Europe.

According to US drugs and customs officials, local smugglers delivered drugs to hideouts in Venezuela's Orinoco river delta.

cocaine smuggling boats
Small boats were used to move drugs to ships offshore
Consignments were then moved onto ships equipped with hidden cargo compartments waiting offshore.

"Basically, cartels in Colombia would use this organisation to transport cocaine around the world," said US customs spokesman Dean Boyd.

Officials say they managed to infiltrate the smuggling ring, and were able to gather information about the group and its activities from the inside.

Arrests

The first arrests were made in May 1999 when a British naval frigate stopped a Panamanian registered freighter carrying four tonnes of cocaine off the coast of Puerto Rico.


This case demonstrates what can be achieved when nations work together against a common enemy

Raymond Kelly, US customs
Further arrests followed, including the detention of 14 people by Dutch officials in Amsterdam last December.

During a wider crackdown over the past two weeks, cartels' assets were seized all over the world.

This included the interception of a suspect Maltese-registered vessel off Grenada, and raids on four drug storage facilities in Venezuela.

Eight suspected drug runners were also arrested in Greece, and further arrests were made in Italy and France.

Raymond Kelly said that officials had seized one-third of an estimated 68 tonnes of cocaine handled by the cartels over the operation's two year duration.

"This case demonstrates what can be achieved when nations work together against a common enemy," he said.

Law enforcement model

Mr Kelly added that he believed the operation should serve as a model for future international law-enforcement.

The announcement coincided with a statement from Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Jose Vicente Rangel, who revealed that his country has seized 17 tonnes of illegal drugs so far this year.

Mr Rangel said Venezuela, which was at the centre of Operation Journey, would continue to "pursue the complete eradication of drug trafficking" in the country.

The minister blamed Venezuela's previously laissez-faire attitude to drugs, which led to the country becoming a major staging post on international cocaine smuggling routes, on "weakness" and "corrupt practice" of former governments.

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See also:

23 Jun 00 | Americas
US funds anti-drugs war
09 Jun 00 | Americas
My story: Victim of drug traffickers
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