Forty people have been arrested and eight tonnes of cocaine have been seized as a result of a four-year international police operation targeting a criminal network that trafficked large quantities of the drug from South America to Europe via west Africa and the Canary Islands.

The long-running investigation – which was led by Spain’s Guardia Civil force and coordinated by Europol’s operational taskforce – discovered that a Balkan cartel was using logistical hubs in west Africa and the Canaries to smuggle cocaine from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador into EU countries.

Once the drugs reached Europe, they were distributed across the continent using handling centres in Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy and Spain.

In a statement released on Thursday, Europol said the leaders of the drug trafficking organisation had been temporarily based in Turkey and Dubai.

“From there, they operated the control and command centres of the criminal network,” the EU law enforcement agency said. “Investigations into this network identified a significant threat – criminal actors’ ability to collaborate closely and deploy criminal associates on a long-term basis on locations to facilitate their large-scale drug trafficking operations.”

Europol said cooperation between nine national forces – Brazil, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Serbia, Spain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates – had proved crucial to taking down the network.

The involvement of the Guardia Civil began in September 2020 when officers from the force intercepted a Croatian-flagged sailing boat bound for the Canary Islands that was carrying one tonne of cocaine. They soon established that the boat had taken on the drug shipment from a freighter off the Gulf of Guinea. Encrypted communications obtained from the devices of the three people arrested on the sailing boat were then shared with Europol, which was already investigating the cartel.

In August last year, the Guardia Civil stopped another boat, carrying 700kg of cocaine, in waters off the Canaries. Information gathered from that bust showed that the same Italian-Croatian crew had used the boat for a similar run to bring 500kg of cocaine from Brazil.

When Europol shared the Spanish intelligence with other partner countries, it emerged that police in Belgium, Germany and Serbia were pursuing the same individual and their associates.

Members of a special unit of the Spanish Civil Guard arrested a 40-year-old suspected drug trafficker at his home in Mijas, near Marbella in Spain. Photograph: Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

As part of the ongoing investigation, Spanish police arrested four people in Málaga and Tenerife on Wednesday and seized jewellery, luxury watches, a gun, electronic equipment and €109,000 in cash.

The Guardia Civil said the “unprecedented” international police cooperation had succeeded in dismantling the west African logistics centres that the cartel used to distribute cocaine across the EU.

“The operation has resulted in the seizure of almost eight tonnes of cocaine, 40 arrests in different countries, the confiscation of €12.5m in cash in different European countries, $3m in Brazil, and the freezing of more than €50m in Serbia,” it added.

In August last year, Spanish police seized 9.5 tonnes of cocaine that had been hidden among boxes of bananas in a container shipped from Ecuador to the southern Spanish port of Algeciras. The stash was the largest ever found in a single container in Spain, the police said at the time.

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