Police cutters have intercepted a drug smuggling boat loaded with marijuana after a dramatic high-speed chase in the Adriatic Sea.
Three boats from Italy’s Guardia di Finanza were despatched after a Spanish police helicopter spotted the traffickers’ vessel, which was found to be carrying 1,413kgs of marijuana estimated to be worth more than €280,000.
The helicopter’s crew reported seeing the small inflatable making its way towards the Italian coast to officials in Rome, who quickly scrambled three coastguard ships to intercept it.
Two men on board the smugglers’ boat vainly attempted to outrun the police helicopter, before being brought to a halt by officers on the Italian vessels sent to intercept them.
Police searching the traffickers’ inflatable, which was able to reach speeds of 35 knots while its captain attempted to get away, discovered 77 packages of marijuana stashed beneath tarpaulin.
After arresting the men on the boat, police took the vessel back to the port of Bari, capital of Italy’s Puglia region.
“The helicopter crew made their sighting known to intelligence officers at the International Coordination Centre in Rome, staying in the area while coordinating local police as they proceeded to their detention, giving the position of the vessel and carrying out a discreet surveillance away from the boat to avoid being detected,” Spain’s Guardia Civil said in a statement released yesterday.
The drug smugglers were spotted by police working on Operation Triton, a joint initiative of 15 countries set up by EU border security agency Frontex to monitor for suspicious activity such as drug smuggling and human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea.
Led by the Italian coastguard, Operation Triton is funded by voluntary contributions from a number of European countries; Croatia, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Malta.
While the operation is primarily concerned with monitoring the movements of people smugglers, illegal migrants and refugees, it has previously experienced some success in intercepting drug shipments off the coast of Italy.
In December 2015, local police working under the initiative boarded a cargo ship carrying 13 tonnes of herbal cannabis close to Italy’s Pantelleria Island.
Eurosur Fusion Services provided by Frontex had been monitoring the 80-metre cargo ship alongside Italian authorities, who discovered 500 packages of hashish after inspecting the Panamanian-flagged vessel’s cargo.
Eleven members of the ship’s crew, who were said to be Ukrainian and Georgian nationals, were arrested during the raid.
The Eurosur Fusion Services use optical and radar satellite technology to help locate vessels suspected of being engaged in cross border crime, according to Europol.
The Frontex website claims Operation Triton has a monthly budget of some €2.9 million.