BUENOS AIRES • Argentine Customs agents found about 30kg of cocaine hidden in a novel way, when drug-sniffing dogs found the drug absorbed into grains of rice headed for Europe via Africa, an official said.
The bust on Wednesday underscores the role Argentina has come to play, as a shipping point for cocaine produced in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia destined for Africa, and then smuggled north to the lucrative markets of Europe.
In this case, imaginative drug runners soaked rice in water that had been mixed with cocaine, said Mr Guillermo Gonzalez, chief of narcotic investigations for Argentina's Customs agency.
When the water evaporated, he said, the rice was left invisibly "impregnated" with the addictive stimulant.
"It's a new method," Mr Gonzalez said. "This is the first time we've seen technology this sophisticated."
He said that rather than employing a chemical process to extract the cocaine from the rice once it reached its destination, the traffickers probably planned to just grind the grains into fine powder and sell it as cocaine.
"Pure cocaine is too strong to be ingested without being cut with something. It may have been their plan to cut this shipment with the same rice that was used to carry it," he added.
Twelve suspects, among them Argentines and Colombians, have been arrested in what people are calling "Operation White Rice".
The scheme was discovered last week, when drug-sniffing dogs detected cocaine in a cargo of 50kg rice sacks at a warehouse in the port city of Rosario. It was kept secret for a week while security agents hunted for more suspects.
"The investigation indicates we have to keep looking. We know that these are international criminal organisations," Mr Gonzalez said.
The plan was to ship the cargo to Guinea-Bissau, a tiny former Portuguese colony dubbed by crime experts as Africa's first "narco-state".
Argentina is a major world food provider, and the banks of the Parana River, Rosario, are a point of departure for millions of tonnes of soya bean, wheat and corn harvested from the vast Pampas grains belt.
But international drug-enforcement officials have taken to calling Rosario "The Tijuana of Argentina" for what it has in common with the Mexican border city used to move cocaine into the United States.
Experts say the drug enters Argentina by truck or plane from Andean cocaine-producing countries to the north. The smuggling routes narrow as the shipments get closer to Rosario, increasing competition among gangs to control the final steps towards the Parana River, which leads south to Buenos Aires and the shipping lanes of the Atlantic.
Drug-related killings spiked so high in Rosario last year that federal forces were called in to provide security.