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Colombian coca cultivation hits record high as cocaine production soars

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Colombian coca cultivation

The cultivation of coca leaf in Colombia hit a record high last year, with the amount of land used to grow the plant in the South American country surging to never-seen-before levels, according to a US government report.

Figures released yesterday by the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) showed that coca cultivation increased by 11% to 209,000 hectares (516,450 acres) last year, reaching a peak that has not been since comparative records began more than 20 years ago.

In total, overall cocaine production in Colombia is estimated to have risen 19% to 921 tonnes last year, despite the US government spending billions of dollars on counter-narcotics efforts in the country.

Increased cocaine production in countries such as Colombia is widely accepted to relate directly to a growing demand for the drug in the US.

Cultivation of coca in Colombia has consistently been on the rise since 2013, when negotiations began with the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which were hoped to help reduce production of cocaine across the country.

After the demobilisation of FARC, new armed groups moved into remote jungle areas used to grow coca and took over established trafficking routes.

The peace accord with FARC involved plans to provide incentives to poor Colombian farmers to grow legitimate crops in the place of coca plants, but a lack of resources has resulted in the programme failing to fully materialise.

This, coupled with the Colombian government’s decision to end aerial spraying of herbicide over illicit coca crops in 2015, has allowed cultivation to thrive.

In 2016, cocoa production in Colombia rocketed by 52% compared to the previous year.

Commenting on the figures, which serve a significant blow to US anti-drugs policy, ONDCP Deputy Director Jim Carroll said: “President Trump’s message to Colombia is clear: the record growth in cocaine production must be reversed.

“Colombia is an important United States partner with a critical role. We will continue to work with them to reduce drastically the production of cocaine destined for the United States.”

Last November, law enforcement authorities in Colombia revealed they had seized 12 tonnes of cocaine with an estimated US wholesale value of $360 million, which was thought to be the largest-ever shipment of the drug intercepted in the country at the time.

The haul was found by counter-narcotics investigators concealed underground at a number of banana plantations in the northwest Antioquia province, near the border with Panama.

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Australian police arrest Malaysian flight attendants accused of helping drugs gang smuggle heroin and crystal meth

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Australian police arrest Malaysian flight attendants

Two flight attendants working for Malaysian airline Malindo Air were among eight people arrested by police in Australia over the past two weeks during an investigation into an organised crime network suspected to be behind the importation of heroin and methamphetamine worth an estimated A$20 million ($14.35 million) into the country.

The two cabin crew members are suspected of having links to a Melbourne-based Vietnamese gang involved in the importation of high-purity heroin and methamphetamine into Australia from Malaysia.

In a series of raids on a number of properties in Melbourne that resulted in the arrest of the suspects, investigators from a coalition of Australian law enforcement agencies seized 6kgs of high-grade heroin with an estimated street value of A$14.5 million, and 8kgs of methamphetamine with a street value of $6.4 million.

Police also confiscated 0.5kgs of cocaine, assorted drug paraphernalia, a large quantity of cash, and a number of cars, including a Porsche Macan.

Six of the suspects were remanded into custody after appearing before Melbourne Magistrates Court, where they were charged with a multiple offences including importing a marketable quantity of border controlled drugs, and dealing with the proceeds of crime.

Malindo Air, a subsidiary of Indonesia’s Lion Air, said it had suspended one of the cabin crew members with immediate effect pending termination.

In a statement, the company said: “Malindo Air stands ready to co-operate with all the relevant authorities be it in Australia or in Malaysia in this regard…

“As a responsible international air carrier, Malindo Air does not condone any act that is criminal in nature or misconduct by our personnel.”

Congratulating the officers who took part in the operation, Victoria Police Crime Command Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh said its success sent a strong message that Australian law enforcement agencies remain focused on disrupting major drug trafficking conspiracies.

“This was a well organised syndicate we know had operated across Australia undetected for many years,” she said.

“To be in a position to make these arrests and dismantle this group is a significant win for both police and the Victorian community.

“The amount of heroin alone involved in this investigation amounts to almost fifty thousand hits in real terms.

“We know the harm that drugs bring – not just the physical and health impacts on users, but the negative flow on effects to the broader community such as property crime, assaults and drug driving.”

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Police in Belgium and Portugal dismantle organised crime gang behind sham marriage conspiracy

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sham marriage conspiracy

Law enforcement agencies in Belgium and Portugal have broken up an organised criminal gang that paid mostly Portuguese women to enter into sham marriages with Pakistani men.

In an operation supported by Europol and Eurojust, investigators today arrested 17 suspects in Belgium and a further three in Portugal in a series of coordinated raids.

The gang is said to have paid the women thousands of euros to marry the men, who were looking to illegally secure the right to live and work in the EU.

After being married in Portugal, the couples would travel to Belgium, where the wives would be employed by suspected bogus Belgian firms.

The gang would then arrange for the husbands to buy shares in the companies their sham wives worked for, allowing them the right to remain in the EU and apply for residency.

After doing so, the Pakistani men were then able to apply for social security benefits.

Once each sham marriage had been established, the women would typically return to Portugal after being paid, returning to Belgium occasionally as and when required to complete any necessary immigration or police checks.

Belgian authorities were first alerted to the scam back in 2015 when local officials became aware of an unusual rise in the number of mixed marriage certificates being issued in Ypres, a city in the Flemish province of West Flanders.

A Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was established due to the international nature of the conspiracy, which culminated in today’s raids in Ypres and Brussels in Belgium, as well as in Lisbon and Algarve in Portugal.

Officers from each country took part in the day of action in both Portugal and Belgium.

Raids on 18 properties in Belgium resulted in the discovery of 43 irregular migrants, who were mostly of Pakistani origin, as well as the seizure of counterfeit documents and mobile devices.

Meanwhile in Portugal, police detained three suspects during searches of nine properties, during which laptops, desktops and other mobile devices were confiscated.

In a statement, Europe’s law enforcement agency said: “Europol supported the joint operation on-the-spot.

“Analysts were deployed to Belgium and Portugal for real-time information cross-checks and mobile phone forensics.

“This coordinated international cooperation proved very useful in the dismantling of this criminal network.”

In August last year, a similar Europol-backed operation resulted in the arrest in Romania and Poland of five members of a gang suspected of smuggling Indian and Nepali nationals into the EU through sham marriages.

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Trudeau slams death sentence for Canadian man convicted of smuggling methamphetamine in China

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sentencing to death of Canadian man

A Canadian national has been sentenced to death in China after being convicted of plotting to smuggle a large quantity of methamphetamine out of the country.

In a development that has led to a further souring of relations between the two countries, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg on Monday fell afoul of China’s super-strict drugs laws when an appeal court ruled that his original 15-year jail sentence had been too lenient, and that he must now be put to death.

The Canadian national, who is thought to be aged 36, was arrested in 2014 on suspicion of plotting to smuggle nearly 227kgs of methamphetamine from China to Australia.

Prosecutors argued that Schellenberg and an accomplice bought tyres to use to repackage the drugs before shipping them out of the country in containers.

Schellenberg’s new sentence comes after Ottawa and Beijing came to blows when Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, at the beginning of December.

Meng is currently fighting extradition to the US in relation to allegations that she violated sanctions on Iran.

Following her detention, Canadian nationals Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arrested in China on suspicion of endangering national security, prompting concerns that Beijing might be using its legal system to bargain for Meng’s release.

Commenting on the new sentence handed down to Schellenberg, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all countries should be concerned about the manner in which China is behaving, adding: “It is of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies, that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply the death penalty, as in this case facing a Canadian.”

Schellenberg now has 10 days in which to appeal his sentence.

Reports relating to his case started to appear in Chinese media following Meng’s arrest, leading to his original sentence being upgraded on the grounds that it was not severe enough.

While the court said the new sentence could not be commuted, commentators have suggested that Schellenberg will now be used as bargaining chip as the Chinese government negotiates to secure Meng’s freedom.

In a travel warning issued in response to the appeal court’s decision, the Canadian foreign ministry cautioned its citizens in China over “the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

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