With the help of a high-leaping dog with a fine nose for cocaine, Italian police seized more than about 3 tons of the drug hidden in 70 tons of boxed bananas shipped from Ecuador, authorities said Tuesday.
Police estimated that the cocaine, which they described as of the finest quality, could have brought traffickers more than $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.
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 pawed furiously at the unloaded boxes to try to move the bananas aside, police recounted.
Had the drug eluded detection, 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.
They didn't specify just when the container ship arrived in Gioia Tauro.
But customs police said that said just days before the seizure, customs police at the same port found some 1,320 pounds of cocaine in six container trucks also laden with exotic fruit from Ecuador. Those shipments had been destined for Croatia, Greece and Georgia, the customs police said.
Anti-Mafia investigative police aided in the seizure of the the cocaine.
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. 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.