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$77 million worth of cocaine seized at Port Newark

The shipping container bust of 1.5 tons of drugs was law enforcement's largest haul at Port Newark in about 25 years.

Container ships docked at Port Newark, N.J.

Container ships docked at Port Newark, N.J. Photo Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

Federal and state officials announced Monday the seizure of 3,200 pounds of cocaine — about 1.5 tons — from a shipping container in the Port of Newark, the largest haul by law enforcement at that facility in about 25 years.

The cocaine was discovered on Feb. 28 during a container inspection in Newark and had a street value of an estimated $77 million, officials said. According to investigators, inspectors at the port noticed that the container appeared to have been tampered with and upon opening it discovered over 60 burlap packages containing the cocaine.

The shipment had come into Newark on a container ship from Buenaventura, Colombia, and was destined to be trans-shipped to Antwerp, a major port city in Belgium which in recent years has emerged as a major smuggling area for cocaine into Europe. No arrests were made in the U.S. seizure but officials said the investigation was continuing and would be involving European officials.

In Newark, federal officials with Customs and Border Protection secured the seized drugs. Investigators with Homeland Security Investigations, the NYPD and New York State Police also played roles in the seizure, said Ray Donovan, New York special agent in charge for the DEA.

"Cocaine, New York's nemesis of the 90s, is back, indicating traffickers push to build an emerging customer base of users mixing cocaine with fentanyl," Donovan said in a statement.

In recent years cocaine traffickers have been lacing their product with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, which boosts the potency of the drug by as much as 50 to 100 times, something that can very easily lead to an overdose and has been linked to numerous deaths in the area. 

Fentanyl does have legitimate medical uses in cases of severe pain but has been made illegally for use in the illicit drug trade. Fentanyl is considered so dangerous that police officers are told to use special protective gear and breathing apparatus whenever they handle substances believed to contain fentanyl.

The size of the latest seizure illustrates what officials believe is a resurgence of cocaine following years of being surpassed in popularity by heroin, which has also been laced with fentanyl. Statistics compiled by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, an agency of the U.S. government, show that since about 2013 overdose deaths for cocaine nationally, often involving opioid mixtures, began to rise precipitously, hitting nearly 14,000 in 2017.   For heroin the overdose deaths hit 15,482 in 2017, with about half involving opioid mixtures, the institute reported.

Aside from the United States, the main areas of cocaine consumption appear historically in Europe, which has reported the second largest tonnage of seizures, according to statistics compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 

 Cocaine use has witnessed a resurgence in Europe. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the European cocaine market amounted to at least 5.7 billion euros in 2013, about $6.4 billion in today’s exchange rate. Although a relatively small country, Belgium has become a major destination point for cocaine smuggling, with 15.6 tons seized in 2016, the largest for any nation in the European Union, the monitoring center reported.

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