BUENOS AIRES — Police officers seized more than 1,200 pounds of cocaine and discovered a clandestine airstrip this week, underscoring fears that Argentina has become a major transit route for international cocaine traders.
The seizure was the largest ever in Argentina and was considered so significant that authorities stored the drugs in a vault in the government's Central Bank. More than half the cocaine was found in shrimp crates for export.
The police arrested eight people in raids Tuesday and Wednesday in Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata, including two from Colombia. In the same operation, policemen found the clandestine airstrip in Santiago del Estero, near the Bolivian border, along with spare airplane parts and Colombian documents.
The case fueled speculation that the so-called Medellin cartel in Colombia, which controls much of the world's cocaine traffic, is diversifying its export channels and using the south of the continent to reach markets in the United States and Europe. Nearly all cocaine is produced in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru and is usually flown north from those countries.
Federal Police Chief Juan Pirker told reporters that the 556 kilograms (1,223 pounds) of nearly pure cocaine seized in the operation exceeded the amount confiscated in Argentina in all of 1987. Last year, authorities seized 540 kilograms, up from 360 in 1986.
Pirker said the domestic Argentine market could not absorb a fraction of the amount seized.
"We are concerned that our country is being used as a springboard in the transit (of cocaine) abroad," he said. "Our goal must be to ensure that Argentina is forgotten as a potential export base."
President Raul Alfonsin congratulated Pirker on the operation. He said the the government was "pledged to an all-out struggle" against drugs.
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Theodore F. Gildred gave Argentina a computer to be used in setting up a data bank in the war on illicit drugs. Under an agreement signed this year, the United States agreed to provide $250,000 to Argentina for equipment to combat drugs. Gildred said another agreement, calling for for an additional $360,000 in aid, will be signed before the end of the year and that the money will help Argentina patrol against trafficking on its northern borders.
Watch on Warehouse
Chief Pirker said police had been planning Tuesday's operation for some time but expected a haul of no more than 20 to 30 kilograms of cocaine. After watching a warehouse in the Avellaneda district of southern Buenos Aires for several days, agents moved in before noon and found 256 kilograms of the drug hidden in shrimp boxes.
That night they found a van containing 300 additional kilograms, apparently abandoned by members of the gang who had avoided the raid in Avellaneda.