Chinese police worked with authorities from Hong Kong, Peru and Australia in foiling an international drug smuggling plot that resulted in the seizure of 117kg (258 pounds) of cocaine, the head of the country’s drug enforcement agency has said.

The November 18 operation led to the arrests of six suspects, including two from Russia, one from India, one from Spain and one from Hong Kong, the head of the Narcotics Control Bureau Liang Yun told reporters on Wednesday, hailing it as a sign of China’s growing cooperation in international anti-drug efforts.

China has strict anti-drug laws and has cracked down heavily on domestic production. However, rising affluence has made it a growing market for imported narcotics, such as cocaine.

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The seizure shows the drug problem is growing “increasingly severe” in both the region and globally, Liang told reporters. However, the successful operation shows the “high expertise of Chinese drug enforcement agencies in combating maritime drug trafficking crimes”, he said.

The cocaine had been stored aboard the freighter South Wisdom that sailed from South America and arrived in the northeastern Chinese city of Tangshan on July 25, Liang said.

Members of the gang travelled to the city but were unable to unload the drugs, after which a search turned up 22kg of cocaine, he said.

Ringleaders of billion-dollar transpacific cocaine gang held in mainland China

Following a trip to Shanghai for maintenance, the ship returned to Tangshan, where a further search turned up 95kg of cocaine hidden behind a panel in the steering department. The six suspects were caught while making a second attempt to retrieve the illicit cargo.

Liang also detailed three other cases of drug seizures at sea, including one on January 24 in which the crew set their boat on fire as coastguard vessels appeared, in an apparent attempt to destroy the evidence.

Police boarded the burning boat, arrested the crew and towed it to port, where inspections found it had been carrying about 1 tonne of methamphetamine, Liang said.

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