YET another international drug trafficking cartel operating between the Costa del Sol and Ecuador has been smashed in a ‘mega operation’ that intercepted 3.2 tonnes of cocaine.
Police carried out 21 raids in Spain, with Marbella and Malaga most prominent, and further searches taking place in Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Granada, and Cadiz.
Simultaneously, across the Atlantic, Ecuadorian police kicked down 56 doors at various locations across the country.
The operation brings down an Albanian mafia that had managed to capture the highest office in Ecuador in order to flood Europe with Colombian-grown cocaine.
Authorities said the criminal operation sought to import at least 3.2 tonnes into ports in Spain disguised among bananas, taking advantage of Ecuadors position as the world’s number one exporter of the fruit.
Over 30 members of the transnational crime group, led by alleged kingpin Dritan Gjika, 48, have been arrested, with 12 being cuffed in Spain.
Albanian national Gjika, who settled in Ecuador in 2013, was among the 18 suspected cartel members arrested in the South American country.
Gjika, who allegedly oversaw cocaine production in Colombian drug laboratories, had murky business connections to impeached Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso.
The other detainees come from a rainbow of nations which include Argentina, Albania and Colombia – and even as far as China.
The sweeping operation has seen authorities in Spain freeze a number of luxury villas and properties valued at over €13 million.
Luxury real estate of the type that proliferates around Marbella and the Costa del Sol has long been a key vehicle to launder narco money.
The complex criminal collaboration involved transporting cocaine grown and cultivated in the Valle del Cauca in Colombia to the port of Guayaquil in Ecuador, according to Ecuadorian authorities.
From there it would be craftily concealed among shipments of bananas and loaded onto cargo ships destined for the port of Malaga and other entry points into Europe.
As well as the logistical effort, the cartel was involved in wholesale money laundering of the drug proceeds, thought to be in the region of €32 million.
Not just content with moving large quantities of cocaine, the cartel also had an extensive network of businesses and front companies to disguise these flows of cash.
Willian Villarroel, the counter narcotics director of Ecuador’s Policia Nacional, said that the group used six companies in Ecuador and four in Spain to place the drugs among banana shipments.
“They had a great deal of commercial activity through which they facilitated money laundering,” he said at a press conference.
Despite managing to keep a clean criminal record in Ecuador since he arrived in the country, crime boss Gjika raised suspicions with his business operations.
A two-year investigation uncovered his position at the head of production and logistics in South America, overseeing not just the production but the teams that delivered the cocaine to Ecuadorian ports.
His name became known after his connection to murdered businessman Ruben Cherres, whose body was found with signs of torture in Santa Elena, on the Ecuadorian coast.
Cherres was a friend of corrupt former president Guillermo Lasso’s brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera.
He was also a key witness willing to spill the beans on a network of businesses suspected of shielding the drug money flows, some of which was directed to Lasso’s office.
The ongoing operation has so far seized more than €400,000 in cash, a large number of properties, high-end vehicles, and various financial assets.
It is just the latest multi-jurisdictional take down of cocaine cartels flooding Europe through Spain’s ports – and not even the first this week.
On Monday, police announced the arrest of a senior Malaga port official who acted as the ‘inside man’ for another cocaine cartel.
The head of the port’s Risk Analysis Unit was part of a smuggling operation that effectively controlled the facility’s drug inspection scanner ‘for a year and a half’.
And just last week, a major Dutch-Moroccan cocaine kingpin was arrested in Marbella after a years-long pursuit by police.
He was brother of notorious crime lord Samir ‘Scarface’ Bouyakhrichan, who was gunned down outside a Benahavis bar in 2014.
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