Massive drug seizures in twin operations across Africa and Middle East

17 May 2021
The successive Lionfish operations, coordinated by INTERPOL, saw nearly 1,000 bricks of cocaine seized in South Africa

LYON, FRANCE: Two recent INTERPOL-coordinated operations aimed at disrupting drug trafficking in Africa and the Middle East mobilized law enforcement in 41 countries to arrest 287 individuals and seize illicit narcotics estimated to be worth nearly EUR 100 million.

International drug trafficking is just as globalized as the world’s economy. The results of these operations, codenamed Lionfish, provide a snapshot of the international underworld of drug trafficking, with criminals constantly seeking new routes and ways to smuggle narcotics across borders.

The Lionfish operations, which took place in March and April, saw police and customs officials coordinate enforcement actions at borders and other hotspots during a specific two-week period, first on the African continent and then in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

“The striking results of these two operations demonstrate the sheer scale of the trade in illicit drugs and its international nature,” said Jürgen Stock, Secretary General of INTERPOL.

“Drug trafficking is a threat that we collectively face and the massive seizures achieved in Operation Lionfish show what is possible when law enforcement fights back together,” added Secretary General Stock.

973 cocaine bricks

The results of the operations included 17 tonnes of cannabis resin, valued at EUR 31 million, confiscated from warehouses in Niamey, Niger – the largest seizure in the country’s history. Shipped from Lebanon to the Togolese port of Lomé and then transported over 1,000 kilometers by lorry, the drugs were destined for Libya.

“We are seeing a marked increase in drug traffickers using Libya as a transshipment point, including for drugs from as far as South America,” said Brigadier General Adel Abulkasem Al Sharwy Bentaleb, Head of Libya’s INTERPOL National Central Bureau. “While many of these drugs are neither produced nor consumed here, this has not spared us from the violent crime inevitably wrought by such activity, which we are determined to combat alongside INTERPOL.”

Meanwhile, the South Africa Police Service seized 973 cocaine bricks, worth an estimated EUR 32 million, from a fishing vessel off the country’s Western coast, arresting 10 individuals.

“Drug trafficking most often is the causal factors to so much of the violent crimes plaguing our societies,” said General Khehla Sitole, National Police Commissioner of South Africa. “I don't believe that there is any country in this world that is immune to drugs and this is what makes our collaborative effort even more critical to overcoming this scourge.”

Operational results

In addition to the above results, the two Lionfish operations recovered:
-    200 kilos of amphetamines
-    56 kilos of heroin
-    30 kilos of methamphetamines
-    21 kilos of cocaine powder and 169 pieces of crack cocaine
-    214 ecstasy tablets
-    More than 4.5 million tramadol tablets
-    720 kilos of cannabis
-    10,000 steroids

Other types of contraband were also seized during the operations, including live pangolins, uncut diamonds, illicit cigarettes and vehicles.

In total, 287 individuals were arrested
The total value of illicit narcotics seized is estimated at nearly EUR 100 million
Operation Lionfish demonstrated the constantly shifting smuggling methods used by drug traffickers
"Operation Lionfish show what is possible when law enforcement fights back together,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock
The Lionfish operations provide a snapshot of the international underworld of drug trafficking
The operations saw police and customs officials coordinate enforcement actions at borders and other hotspots
“Drug trafficking most often is the causal factors to so much of the violent crimes plaguing our societies,” said South Africa's National Police Commissioner
INTERPOL Purple Notices are international police alerts to provide information on modus operandi and concealment methods used by criminals
Criminals are constantly seeking new routes and ways to smuggle narcotics across borders
Other types of contraband were also seized during the operations, including live pangolins, uncut diamonds and illicit cigarettes
The South Africa Police Service seized 973 cocaine bricks, worth an estimated EUR 32 million
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Crystal meth in sandals

Operation Lionfish also demonstrated the constantly shifting and opportunistic smuggling methods used by drug traffickers.

In South Africa, crystal meth bound for Australia was hidden in sandals and inside sculptures of animals. South Africa later requested that INTERPOL issue a Purple Notice detailing some of these different concealment methods uncovered during the Lionfish operation, sharing this information with law enforcement in 194 countries.

INTERPOL Purple Notices are international police alerts to seek or provide information on modus operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals.

Operation Lionfish

The following countries participated in the two Lionfish operations: Angola, Bahrain, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso,  Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Operation Lionfish is conducted under the umbrella of INTERPOL’s Project AMEAP (Africa-Middle East-Asia Pacific) and is supported by funding from the United Arab Emirates and the INTERPOL Foundation for a Safer World. The operations were also supported by the European Union’s AIRCOP and Crimjust projects.