Spanish police arrested the alleged recipient of a massive cocaine shipment in a cargo container in Barcelona with the help of Italian authorities in a sting operation, authorities said on Thursday.

The operation, involving investigators and customs officials in both countries, has led to the seizure of more than 2.7 tons of drugs — the largest for Italy in the past 25 years according to the country’s authorities.

Italy’s financial police said the organized crime networks behind the trafficking belonged to a group called the “Gulf Clan” that is active in several European ports to receive drugs for sale on the European market.

Police first seized 644 kilograms of cocaine worth some 130 million euros ($148 million) hidden in bags of Honduran coffee on Jan. 15 at the port of Livorno, Italian police had announced earlier this week.

It said the container traveled aboard a Portuguese-flagged cargo ship and that it had originated in Puerto Cortes, Honduras, with transfers in Costa Rica and southern Spain.

Then, on Jan. 23, investigators found 2.1 tons of Barcelona-bound pure cocaine dispatched from Colombia’s Turbo port. The drug, divided into 1,801 blocks, travelled in a container that had been declared as empty, according to Spain’s national police.

Col. Maurizio Cintura of Italy’s financial police said authorities intercepted the shipment and quickly replaced the cocaine with salt before sending it on to Barcelona as planned to help authorities there arrest the 59-year-old Spaniard who was to receive it.

Spanish police said that using an allegedly empty container was a new technique used by criminal organizations there. It said the sealing of the container had been forged so recipients in the port of Barcelona could remove the illegal shipment without being noticed.


Winfield reported from Rome.

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