The investigators for Italy’s antidrug unit were used to measuring the flow of hashish from Moroccan fields to European shores one speedboat or Jet Ski at a time.

So when the phone rang with a tip that an enormous freighter loaded with hashish was plying international waters south of Sicily — bound for Libya, hundreds of miles to the east of the usual quick drug route to Spain — Francesco Amico, a senior investigator, immediately knew something odd was going on.

Not just odd, but huge: When two Italian Navy warships eventually stopped the freighter, the Adam, off the Libyan coast on April 12, 2013, agents found a terrified Syrian crew and 15 metric tons of hashish — a stash many multiples larger than Italian officials had ever seen.

“There was so much of the drug that we didn’t know where to put it,” said Mr. Amico, who waited in the Sicilian port of Trapani for the escorted ship to arrive. “We had to go out and rent a warehouse.”

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