Eight caught in global drug bust

Eight members of an alleged international drug-trafficking ring, believed to be connected with a plan to smuggle 1.2 tons of cocaine aboard a ship to Europe earlier this year, are facing lengthy jail terms if found guilty for their involvement in the alleged racket.

Czech police detained the gang members while other alleged associates were arrested in Slovenia as part of an ongoing operation, the police’s National Anti-Drug Center (NPC) said June 14.

NPC Detectives, working alongside counterparts from anti-drug units in Bulgaria, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay and the United States, first launched “Operation Phoenix” in 2009.

In January, in a sting involving international law enforcement cooperation, two sailing boats flying the British and Spanish flags were caught in the Martinique area of the Caribbean.

Onboard one of the ships, police uncovered a total of 1.2 tons of cocaine designated for Europe. The drug was in a highly pure form and was expected to be diluted for the European market. Seven people on the boat were arrested.

In subsequent raids this month, another eight alleged gang members were detained in Prague and Ostrava, north Moravia, as part of Operation Phoenix.

“The Czech Republic wasn’t the target country; it was all of Europe,” said NPC spokesman Michal Hammer. “From what we know so far, the main safe-haven country was Spain, where [the cocaine] was to be divided into smaller parts.”

The plan was to distribute those portions in Sweden, Slovenia, Bulgaria and other countries, Hammer said, but added this was still under investigation.

“The amount of cocaine is enormous, so it is likely all major criminal organizations from Europe were participating,” he said.

During searches of flats and other premises in Prague and Ostrava, police found 400 grams of top-quality cocaine, computer and telecommunications equipment, a large amount of jewels containing precious metals, firearms, two cars and cash in various currencies worth a total of 700,000 Kč.

All eight arrested are being prosecuted on suspicion of illegal production and other handling of narcotics and psychotropic substances and poisons. The courts in Prague and Ostrava remanded six of the group in custody, while the other two accused were to be prosecuted without being taken into custody.

All the alleged gang members face up to 12 years behind bars if found guilty. Another 14 people believed to be connected with the drug smuggling plot were detained in Slovenia following information passed on by the NPC.

The NPC said Operation Phoenix had not yet ended and other perpetrators were expected to be detained in other countries as investigations continued.

“Heroin use has been in decline for a few years already, while cocaine has been on the rise for a few years. Drugs like pervitin, which is often labeled as a cheaper brother of cocaine, are also becoming popular,” Hammer said.

Just last month, authorities in Europe arrested 30 people as part of an international police operation targeting a major cocaine-smuggling ring.

The operation, codenamed “Kings of Cocaine,” detained 15 Bulgarians, 12 Italians, one Slovenian, one Romanian and one Georgian. It was hailed at the time as a success of cooperation between Bulgarian, Italian, French, Swiss and Spanish authorities.

Andrew Greene can be reached at

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