ROME (Reuters) -Italian police have seized 4.3 tonnes of cocaine with a street value of 240 million euros ($255.86 million), carrying out an elaborate sting against the Colombian Clan del Golfo drugs gang, investigators said on Tuesday.
Magistrates said it was one of the largest such seizures in Europe and followed daring subterfuge by undercover agents, with Colombian authorities sequestering the cocaine before it left for Europe, without the dealers being aware their operation had been busted.
The drugs were then flown to Italy where undercover agents passed it on to awaiting Italian traffickers, who were subsequently arrested in possession of the banned narcotics.
"The purchasing organisations were different and did not know that the cocaine had already been seized, the producer in Colombia had already been paid and did not know about the seizure," Colonel Leonardo Erre of the Trieste Guardia di Finanza police told a press conference on Tuesday.
"And so thanks to front companies and undercover agents, we were able to run the operation, delivery after delivery for over a year until the end of May," he added.
Italian investigators said they had issued arrest warrants for 38 people in Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Colombia.
The investigation lasted more than a year and involved both the Colombian judiciary and U.S. Homeland Security. Besides the cocaine, police also confiscated 1.85 million euros ($1.97 million) in cash.
Colombian authorities said last November they were focused on breaking up the Clan del Golfo gang, whose network extends to 28 countries around the world, after the capture of the group's leader, Dairo Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel", in October.
"Another hard blow to the most important group among Colombian narcotics gangs," Italian investigators from the northeastern city of Trieste said of the seizure.
They said their work had uncovered a "dense network" of ties between South American cocaine producers and European buyers, who answered to organised crime groups operating across Italy, including in Calabria, home of the 'Ndrangheta mafia.
They said police had followed 19 consecutive deliveries of drugs from May last year, enabling them to identify "important middlemen" in the global drug trafficking system and a "substantial number" of carriers.
($1 = 0.9380 euros)
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Emilio Parodi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)