By Anthony Piovesan and Walter Finch
When officers from the Policia Nacional stopped a small yacht bound for South America and found enough MDMA powder to make more than one million ecstasy pills, the boat’s mechanic was shocked.
“‘Why are you bothering to check the boat?’,” he asked the team of officers, the lead detective said.
After all, what on earth could be suspicious about a boat leaving Europe for South America.
But detectives from Spain’s crack Policia Nacional outfit, GRECO, knew better, having received a tip-off about a previously unknown route of drug smuggling into the continent that produces 95% of the world’s cocaine.
A new mafia activity that may force them to completely reassess how they police Spain’s ports.
“Of course, he was surprised because normally only boats coming into Spain are checked,” the Marbella-based detective leading the three-month criminal probe revealed to the Olive Press this week.
But what the ship’s mechanic didn’t know was that the police had caught onto this ‘new tactic’ the gang of drug traffickers had adopted.
Instead of the drugs being brought into Spain via the notorious Costa del Sol, this time they were being transported the other way.
Their goal was clear: to open up lucrative new markets in countries where ecstasy is harder to find, and prices were extremely high.
Speaking exclusively to the Olive Press, the under-cover detective from GRECO, part of the National Police’s Udyco organised crime and drug unit, revealed the mega haul was the first known case of MDMA seized en-route to Latin America from Europe.
“This will make police all over Europe open their eyes and change the way drug trafficking is investigated,” he told the newspaper.
“It is not only about what comes in, but what goes out.”
Police intercepted the yacht bound for South America this month after first learning in October that a criminal gang on the Costa del Sol was planning to ship the MDMA – nearly 30 million euros worth – to Argentina.
Cops in Buenos Aires informed them that a 47-year-old resident – who the Olive Press can today reveal as Ezequiel Z. – had arrived in Spain, via Brazil, in October.
He was to be the captain of the boat, and had already taken charge of the same vessel on another previous drug-smuggling operation, the usual route, bringing 1,500kg of cocaine into Spain from South America, in April 2020.
Anchoring up in upmarket Sotogrande, the boat was completely renovated and altered over a couple of months.
“On the outside it was virtually a new boat,” the detective said.
The criminals had repainted it a new colour and renamed it ‘Arhoa’ to avoid it being linked to the previous police investigation.
The inside had been clandestinely refitted and stocked to store the huge stash of drugs.
Police had eyes on them for weeks and they would never leave the boat unoccupied, the detective said.
They arranged for some of the most suspicious movements to coincide with Spain’s World Cup matches in Qatar, believing police would be watching the game instead.
Spanish authorities then received a tip-off from Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) that the boat was set to depart on December 2.
They followed the boat as it set off from Sotogrande, but it only made it as far as Tarifa after the vessel broke down.
When the repairs had been completed, they left port again, planning to resupply again in the Canary Islands.
It was just leaving Tarifa when police officers stormed the boat, finding 28 packets inside a secret compartment containing all of the MDMA.
They were neatly sealed and covered in diesel to mask the smell.
In the operation, called Operation Conjura, which involved dozens of police with members of Spain’s customs, a total of five Argentinians were arrested, one woman and four men – one of them residing in Marbella.
Police from the United Kingdom, Portugal, Argentina, and Spain were involved in the investigation.