Police in Italy say customs officers with the help of a police dog found more than 2,700 kilos (about 3 tons) of the cocaine hidden in 78 tons of boxed bananas shipped from Ecuador.
Stacked in refrigerated silver containers, the 78 tons of bananas hiding the cocaine were coming from Ecuador and being shipped to Armenia, said Italian officials.
Police estimated that the cocaine, which they described as of the finest quality, could have brought traffickers more than 800 million euros ($900 million) in street sales if it had reached its ultimate destination in Armenia.
Customs police became suspicious about two containers on a cargo ship that recently arrived at the port of Gioia Tauro, in the ‘toe’ of the Italian peninsula and a stronghold of a ‘Ndrangheta organized crime clan – a highly sophisticated global network dealing in international narcotics that operates in 40 countries.
Custom officials inspecting shipments arriving from South America – many of which held exotic fruits – found the cocaine hidden in the containers in various ways, officials said.
They found the drug amongst the fruits, hidden in false bottoms or in external hiding spots on the containers, officials said.
Police told Italian state radio that documents and a background check indicated the shippers of the bananas weren’t in the business of moving that much fruit.
Officers used scanning machines and the dog, named Joel, to uncover packets of cocaine hidden in boxes stacked meters-high in container trucks.
Joel leaped high and eagerly when the officers opened the back doors of the truck, and furiously hit the unloaded boxes with his paws to try to move the bananas aside, police recounted.
Of the drugs were not detected, the containers with the cocaine would have continued through the Mediterranean to a Black Sea port in Georgia for eventual transport to Armenia, authorities said.
The Gioia Tauro port, one of Italy’s busiest, has long been under the watch of anti-Mafia investigators because of its proximity to towns where the ‘Ndrangheta has bases.
Earlier this month police across Europe staged a vast, coordinated operation against the ‘Ndrangheta and took 132 people into custody in an effort to stem the flow of cocaine into the continent.
The crime clan is one of the world’s most powerful cocaine traffickers. Since the start of 2021, and including the latest seizure, customs police at the port have intercepted and seized a total of 37 tons of cocaine, the police said.
Cocaine is the second most used drug in the European Union, just after marijuana, according to the analysis, which estimates the EU is a 10.5 billion market for cocaine.