WASHINGTON - U.S. officials said Saturday that they have broken up a major drug trafficking operation that used commercial ships to haul Colombian cocaine around the world.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Customs Service said 43 people have been arrested and almost 25 tons of cocaine confiscated during the two-year investigation, dubbed ''Operation Journey.'' Officials believe the organization transported at least 68 tons of cocaine to 12 nations over three years.
A big part of the operation was announced in recent days by Venezuelan officials, who said they seized 10 tons of cocaine and arrested 16 people in a series of raids.
Among those in custody is the suspected leader of the organization, Ivan de la Vega, a Colombian citizen arrested Aug. 16 in Venezuela. He has been turned over to U.S. custody and faces charges in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
The operation began as separate investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Athens, Greece, the Customs office in Houston and other agencies. The investigations were eventually united and coordinated by the Justice Department.
In a statement, Customs described the organization as ''a one-stop shipping service for Colombian cartels interested in moving cocaine via maritime vessels to U.S. and European markets.''
The organization used eight to 10 freighters. Some were owned by the organization; others by shipping companies in Greece and other nations.
Cocaine would be transported by land or air from Colombia to the Orinoco River Delta in northeastern Venezuela. It would be hidden in the jungle before being taken by boats to offshore freighters. It would then be stored in secret compartments until it reached its destination, where boats carried it ashore.
The organization would try to throw off investigators by making ''dry runs'' with legitimate cargo. But working with foreign police agencies, the DEA and Customs obtained information about specific cocaine shipments heading to Europe, Customs said.
''This case demonstrates what can be achieved when nations of the world work together against a common enemy,'' Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in the statement.
''Law enforcement has forged the international alliances required to cripple sophisticated transnational criminal organizations like de la Vega'' and ''Operation Journey is only the beginning,'' said DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall.