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British police divers discover 302 pounds of cocaine beneath bananas on Panamanian cargo ship

Criminal organizations are now using the Colón Free Trade Zone, near the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal to distribute cocaine all over the world with an emphasis on Western Europe

Bananas | Shutterstock

October 31, 2023 9:29am

Updated: November 1, 2023 7:33am

British investigators with the Metropolitan Police Dive Unit discovered millions of pounds worth of cocaine concealed below the water line of a Panamanian container ship in Sheerness, Kent.

Investigators determined that the total amount of cocaine stashed in the ship weighed 302 pounds and had a U.S. street value of more than $12 million, according to the British National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

Police found the illegal street drug hidden in four large holdalls in the ship’s sea chest, an intake area that allows sea water to assist stability.

The cargo ship was headed for the Netherlands, but its voyage has been halted by British police as a result of the cocaine discovery. Police searched the ship after they received a tip when it docked on Oct. 14 at Sheerness Port, southeast of London.

Police divers spent five hours removing the cocaine from the ship as part of an underwater ship, according to the British National Crime Agency. They said the murky British waters slowed divers down as they searched for the narcotic drug in the ship’s hull.

The discovery is not the first of its kind. More than a hundred pounds of cocaine were found in a similar ship at Bristol in November 2021.

Still, police said the discovery is unusual. NCA operations manager David Phillips described the find as an example of “extremely rare and sophisticated concealment.”

The national British law enforcement agency said it was coordinating a transnational law enforcement effort with police in Panama and the Netherlands to identify the parties responsible for sending the drugs from Central America and those who were scheduled to receive them in Europe.

“The combined efforts of the NCA, the Met Police and Border Force, have prevented £10m worth of cocaine from plaguing our streets and countries nearby,” said Stephen Whitton, deputy director of Border Force Maritime Command, according to a reportpublished by the British Broadcasting Company.

A Metropolitan Police Dive Unit spokesman also said their aquatic search involved “detailed planning” to make sure the diving officers could probe the ship safely.

“All of the teams worked collaboratively to manage the risks which included reduced visibility, tidal movements and depth of the water,” he said. “All of those risks and more demonstrate the difficult working environment in which the teams were operating.”

In January, the Guardian published an investigation reporting that criminal organizations are now using the Colón Free Trade Zone, near the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal to distribute cocaine all over the world with an emphasis on Western Europe.

“Colón is one of the world’s great logistical hubs, but criminal organizations use this infrastructure to move drugs all over the world,” Michael Chen, president of Colón’s chamber of commerce told the Guardian. “Every day the situation seems to worsen … organized crime and gangs find more creative ways of getting through what’s left of my city.”

Alejo Campos, a regional director for Crime Stoppers Latin America said that many drug trading gangs are targeting the zone because they want to use shipping containers at ports as a way to secretly transport illegal drugs to other ports throughout the world.

“The objective of the gangs is to gain control of the points where containers can be contaminated with drugs in the free zone and the ports,” he said.