Pubdate: Tue, 19 Sep 2000
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd
Contact:  PO Box 496, London E1 9XN, United Kingdom
Fax: +44-(0)171-782 5046
Author: Giles Tremlett


Europe's biggest drug operation has ended in fiasco, with British and Spanish police in Las Palmas giving up the search for a huge cargo of cocaine on the Panamanian-registered Privilege.

The failure to find what was originally claimed to be ten tonnes of cocaine left police facing awkward questions about what happened to the drugs that the British had said were loaded by a Colombian cartel known as Los Mellizos, or "The Twins", in the Orinoco River, Venezuela, last month.

The tip-off about the suspected smuggling came in July after two sailors caught on a Los Mellizos ship told of a secret compartment in the Privilege. The Privilege was tracked to Venezuela and British police watched her as she prepared to sail to Europe.

British satellites tracked the vessel and police yesterday refused to confirm whether they had failed to notice the Privilege make an "unscheduled" stop in the Caribbean.

The ship was seized by the Spanish on August 31 and sailed to the Canary Islands. The secret compartment was found, but it was empty.

The Spanish claimed to have proved that the vessel belonged to Los Mellizos, but were clearly embarassed at finding no cocaine. "This operation was wrong from the beginning," one police officer said. "If it was ever there, they managed to get rid of it."
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