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The BBC's David Willis
"Officials say the ship was probably headed for Central America"
 real 56k

Monday, 14 May, 2001, 22:30 GMT 23:30 UK
Record cocaine haul
The Svesda Maru
The cocaine was hidden in a secret compartment
US coastguards have seized nearly 12 tonnes of cocaine in what is thought to be the largest single drugs haul in maritime history.

The cocaine was discovered on a fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean, and was towed to San Diego on Sunday.

Drug enforcement officials became suspicious when they noticed that it was outside normal fishing grounds and did not appear to carry any operational fishing equipment.

It took them five days to find the 11.8 tonnes of drugs because they were stashed in a secret compartment beneath the hold.

Rich pickings

The 10 crew of the Belize-registered Svesda Maru - all from Russia and Ukraine - were due in court early this week on smuggling charges.

Officials say the ship, which was found some 2,400km (1,500 miles) south of San Diego, was probably heading for central America. From there the cocaine would almost certainly have been smuggled overland to the United States.

Preparations for sniffing cocaine
Cocaine is getting cheaper
Cocaine seizures have become increasingly common in the east Pacific as smugglers take advantage of the vast, open waters.

Three months ago the US coastguard seized about 8 tonnes of cocaine from a rusty fishing boat off the coast of Mexico.

Those drugs were also hidden in a secret compartment - buried under ice and fresh fish.

More affordable

The weekend haul of 11.8 tonnes would be worth almost $1bn in a Western city. But our correspondent Stephen Gibbs reports that cocaine has never has been so cheap.

After decades as the drug of choice for celebrities and other high-earners, it is now becoming more affordable. In London in 1995 a gramme of cocaine cost around $120, but the same amount can now be picked up for about $80.

According to a British magazine recently, more than half of all 16 to 25-year-olds in the UK have taken cocaine, and it is also becoming more popular among American students.

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