British customs officials in France discovered more than 30 pounds of cocaine in a shipment of protective face masks bound for the United Kingdom, government officials reported on Tuesday. The attempt to smuggle cocaine hidden among boxes of personal protective equipment comes in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Officers with the UK Border Force discovered the cocaine in a Polish-registered van that was attempting to cross into the UK via the Channel Tunnel at Coquelles, France on Tuesday. The shipment of protective face masks and 15 packages containing 14 kilos of cocaine were seized by customs officials. The driver of the van, a 34-year-old Polish national, was arrested and is being held for questioning.

Officials estimated the cocaine’s street value at 1 million British pounds, or about $1.25 million. The face masks, which are in short supply because of the pandemic, are being checked by regulators, according to the UK’s Home Office.

“This seizure shows the lengths drug smugglers will go to,” said Ian Hanson, the Border Force regional director for Coquelles. “It is despicable to think they would try and exploit the current situation in this way to get their dangerous drugs on to the UK’s streets.​”

Smuggling Investigation Continues

The Border Force has turned the investigation into the smuggling over to the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA). Darren Herbert, the NCA Dover branch operations manager, said that the seizure of the cocaine has dealt a serious blow to those behind the smuggling, who at this time remain unknown.

“We are now investigating who was behind this attempt, but what is clear is that they have taken a substantial hit,” he said. “At UK street prices this haul might have raised more than £1 million once adulterated and cut down – profit that they have now been denied.”

Herbert also said that some criminal organizations have been attempting to use the pandemic as a cover for their illegal operations. Europe’s cocaine market is estimated to be worth more than $10 billion yearly.

“This seizure is further evidence of the way criminal networks are attempting to exploit the coronavirus outbreak to their own ends, covering this load of drugs with what would seem like vital protective equipment,” Herbert said.

As of Thursday, the UK has seen nearly 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Almost 13,000 of those who have contracted the disease have died and 370 have recovered.

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