South American drug gangs in Milan have been using dogs to smuggle cocaine from Mexico to Italy, the police said on Tuesday after an operation that found at least 48 dogs had been killed to retrieve the drugs.
The animals were forced by a vet in Mexico, to swallow plastic packets containing the drug before being sent to Italy on flights that usually landed at Linate airport in Milan.
The packages were wrapped in black vinyl tape to shield them from X-ray checks at the airports.
On arrival, they were killed and dismembered to retrieve the cocaine.
The suspected gang members, between 19 and 37 years old, are thought to be part of youth drug gangs known as "pandillas".
According to the investigative judge Fabrizio D'Arcangelo, the armed gangs were involved in several crimes in and around Milan.
The drug trafficking operation was first uncovered in March, when 75 suspects were arrested.
There were outraged reactions from Italian associations for the defence of animals that expressed their support for police involved in the operation. "Many of the dogs must have died before arriving in Italy, as a small leak of cocaine would have been enough to kill them," they said.
The 49 Latin Americans will stand trial for organised crime and court proceedings have been set for 9 October.