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Spanish Police Bust Cocaine Smuggling Ring in Canary Islands

cocaine smuggling ring
Courtesy Guardia Civil / Europol

Published Aug 22, 2023 5:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

Spanish authorities have arrested four men in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring in the Canary Islands, and investigators believe that the operation was linked to the Italian mafia. 

The investigation began in March 2022 when the Central Operating Unit (UCO) focused on a Polish-flagged sailboat, the Rossio, which had moored at the island of Gran Canaria. Through exchanges with the Croatian police, Spain's Guardia Civil suspected that the boat could be part of a system of smuggling in cocaine from South America.

The Guardia Civil monitored the crew of the boat for months. Two members were Italian citizens linked to the notorious ´Ndrangheta mafia family, and another was a Croat closely linked to the Balkan Cartel. Both groups are well-known for involvement in the cocaine trade. Over the course of months, investigators examined how the crew maintained a high standard of living without any obvious source of income, and dedicated themselves just to maintaining their vessel. The crew made a few small outings to "demonstrate normality," the agency alleged, but otherwise stayed at the pier. 

On July 27, 2023, the Rossio began an unusual trip. With the two Italian crewmembers on board, it began sailing west, traveling more than 750 nautical miles in an itinerary around the Canary Islands. Its destination was a remote location in the Atlantic Ocean. After reaching this site, it began its return trip on August 2.

On August 5, the sailboat was boarded at a position about 500 NM northwest of the island of Gran Canaria. A specialized boarding team found multiple packages inside that yielded a total weight of 700 kilos of cocaine.

Courtesy Guardia Civil

At the same time, in Las Palmas, the Croat crewmember and a Serbian national were arrested on suspicion of coordinating the smuggling operation from land. They were allegedly carrying phones linked to instructions provided to the crew. 

Upon direction from the investigating court in Las Palmas, the suspects are being held without bail pending trial. 

Major drug busts occur with regularity off the Canary Islands, which are located on the shipping lanes between Brazil, North Africa and the European mainland. Recent interdictions include the adverse boarding of the freighter Blume in December 2022, resulting in the seizure of 4,500 kilos of cocaine.