Over the last five years, the cocaine trade has enjoyed an unprecedented boom, with production levels at record highs. Coverage of this has largely focused on the United States and its seemingly endless “war on drugs.” However, smarter traffickers have long preferred another market: Europe.
“For 2019 and the first months of 2020, the thinking was that the flow of drugs entering or passing through Europe was between 500 and 800 tons. We base these numbers in part on the notion that we are seizing 10 to 20 percent of the total,” said one senior European police official and cocaine expert, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
This number rivals the estimates of cocaine entering the US mainland. Consumption in Europe is lower than the United States, so it is likely that a significant percentage of the drugs entering Europe is in transit to other parts of the world. However, in many cases, European organized crime also profits from these shipments, and this trade is boosting the criminal syndicates that pose a growing threat to European nations and the European Union.
Since production began climbing in 2013, cocaine production has more than doubled. And while the rate of growth has slowed, there is still no sign of it hitting a peak. The world is awash in cocaine, yet prices have not collapsed as traffickers have aggressively explored and developed new markets.
Here is where Europe has far more potential than the more saturated US market. Traffickers are pushing eastwards from the more established markets in Western Europe towards Russia and Asia, and feeding every country in between. So while the US remains the natural market for Mexican cartels, Colombian groups have increasingly focused on Europe, as well as developing new markets in Asia and Australia.
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From a business perspective, trafficking cocaine to Europe is a far more attractive prospect than targeting the United States. Prices are significantly higher, and the risks of interdiction, extradition and seizure of assets significantly lower. A kilo of cocaine in the United States is worth up to $28,000 wholesale. That same kilo is worth around $40,000 on average and as much as nearly $80,000 in different parts of Europe.
The United States has deployed massive resources in Latin America to fight the drug trade, with an army of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, as well as work by other agencies like Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the US military’s Southern Command. Europe, on the other hand, has but a handful of police attachés or liaison officers posted to Latin America and some scarce naval assets in the Caribbean. European presence and capacity upstream is minimal.
Europe appears to lack a clear picture of the threats cocaine trafficking presents, which go well beyond public health issues. Europe does not suffer the levels of violence seen in Latin America, nor does it have the type of systematic corruption seen in many Latin American and Caribbean nations. As Europe battles COVID-19, an economic turndown, Islamic terrorism, internal political tensions, and illegal immigration, the cocaine trade has slipped far down the list of government priorities.
Yet Europe is not exempt from the collateral damage of the cocaine trade, nor the distorting effects on the economy that billions of euros of drug money produce as it washes through banks and local economies. There is drug-related violence in most European countries, many examples of policemen, customs officials and port/airport workers corrupted by drug trafficking organizations, and, perhaps most worrying of all, incontrovertible evidence of the strengthening of European mafias thanks to the cocaine trade.
The record flow of drugs is generating billions of euros for European criminal networks and has become a mainstay of mafia groups both old and new. Both Latin American and European criminal syndicates have been immeasurably strengthened in power.
The story of the rise of the ‘Ndrangheta in Italy (and across the globe) is intimately tied to the cocaine trade, while the expansion of the power of Balkans mafias is similarly linked to cocaine. The national security threats presented by these criminal structures is clear and growing.
The damage that the cocaine trade is inflicting in Latin America and the Caribbean should also be of huge concern to Europe. The record levels of violence in the region, the growing reach of corruption, the undermining of democracy and the systematic abuses of human rights, all fed by the cocaine trade, should not be some distant concern. Many European nations have former colonies in the region and overseas territories in the Caribbean. The collapse of Venezuela and the evolution of its increasingly dictatorial and criminalized regime means that many European nations with a presence in the Caribbean now have a neighbor exporting cocaine and criminality as well as an exodus of migrants.
Trafficking to Europe faces one inescapable hurdle. Unlike with the United States, there is no land bridge. Therefore, traffickers must move cocaine via sea or air. In the last decade, they have largely opted for sea routes, focusing mainly on container trafficking. What has resulted has been an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, as traffickers use different methods of hiding cocaine among the millions of containers that reach Europe every year. Yet other ways of moving cocaine into Europe abound. In November 2019, Spanish authorities seized the first drug “submarine” to be found in European waters. It had crossed the Atlantic with three tons of cocaine, which at current European wholesale prices is worth up to $100 million (around 90 million euros).
Well aware that European authorities are paying special attention to containers arriving directly from the cocaine-producing nations of Colombia and Peru, traffickers are using other departure points around the region. Understanding that containers and companies are now being profiled by European police and customs, traffickers increasingly use “rip-on, rip-off” techniques, inserting drugs among legitimate goods with their owners unaware that their containers host cocaine consignments.
While the main air routes for moving cocaine to Europe use commercial flights, there have been cases of charter flights traveling directly from Latin America to Europe carrying significant cocaine consignments. Sailing vessels have also become more accessible and easier to pilot. And with growing traffic between the Caribbean and Europe, this has become an increasingly popular way to move large cocaine consignments.
Reception in Europe has also seen increasing diversification. Spain has historically been the natural home for Latin American traffickers. With its linguistic and cultural links, and thanks to an alliance with Galician smugglers, Spain became the principal entry point for cocaine in Europe from the late 1980s.
Spain has however been eclipsed by Belgium and the Netherlands. Here, traffickers have been attracted by the efficiency of the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam which, combined with excellent transport infrastructure, can rapidly place a container almost anywhere in Europe. Drug traffickers appreciate that kind of efficiency as much as any other businessman, and revel in the sheer volume of containers flowing through these ports, which provides endless opportunities to camouflage their consignments. However, as seizures have increased in these ports, traffickers have also switched to secondary European ports where there is far less scrutiny of incoming containers.
Traffickers have also shipped substantial quantities of cocaine indirectly to Europe via West Africa and North Africa using containers, maritime shipping and drug ‘mules’ on commercial air flights. Seizures on this route have fluctuated over the past 20 years, but there are signs that it may be on the upswing again.
As Latin American criminals moved downstream to Europe to sell their wares, so some European mafias began to move upstream to get closer to the sources of production and so secure better prices for cocaine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Italian Mafia that pioneered the move upstream, securing cheap cocaine in Colombia and establishing a permanent presence in Latin America in the 1990s.
Buying at the source in Colombia and arranging transport back to Europe meant the Italians could pocket most of the massive profits themselves. Other European mafias soon began to mimic this model and it is becoming ever more common today.
However, it is misleading in today’s criminal landscape to think purely of national mafias. The cocaine trade is now populated by a variety of different types of criminal syndicates, which are made up of many different and mixed nationalities. There are no longer criminal structures like the Medellín Cartel that controlled cocaine production in Colombia and sold their drugs on the streets of Miami and New York.
Today, criminal networks rely on subcontracting out much of the work to different transport specialists, assassins for hire, corruption nodes, money launderers and legal actors like lawyers, accountants and bankers. Different criminal nodes will align for a particular shipment, then drift apart, searching for new opportunities and trafficking constellations.
However, despite the boom years it has been enjoying, the cocaine trade, as have all businesses, has been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.
For Kevin Mills, who recently retired from the National Crime Agency (NCA) after a 31-year career and now works as a security and investigations consultant in Bogotá, the cocaine trade to Europe has been hit on six fronts by the coronavirus pandemic:
1. Reduction in container traffic from Latin America to Europe
In the first months of the pandemic, there was a significant drop in the volume of containers coming into Europe. A rise in seizures in Europe in 2020 might be the result of traffickers trying to move the same amount of cocaine in a shrinking flow of containers, thus running a greater risk of discovery.
2. The prohibition on personal travel in and out of Latin America over the last five months
“There is no ability for criminals and planners to fly out [to Colombia] as there is no incoming travel, which makes planning and closing deals more complicated. And there is no outgoing travel that permits a small but frequent supply of mules or cocaine that is hidden in air cargo or suitcases,” said Mills.
3. The huge drop in sailing craft crossing the Atlantic and moving through the Caribbean.
“The yachting threat has been really resurgent in the last 2-3 years from the eastern Caribbean. That is completely dead in the water at the moment, because vessels cannot move between countries,” said Mills.
4. The overall reduction in maritime traffic means that any vessels loitering off the coast of South America attract a great deal of attention, and nations are now paying extra attention to any foreign vessel seeking to dock.
“The movement of heavy cargo, tugs, fishing vessels, again because of the issue of crossing maritime borders, has taken a huge hit,” explained Mills.
5. The huge drop in air traffic, including commercial flights, charter flights and private planes.
Few nations are giving the same sort of permissions for private planes to land, meaning that charter flights cannot operate as before and the overall reduction in flying means that illegal flights have less traffic in which to hide.
6. Drop in sales outlets in Europe with fewer parties, most social venues being closed and people with money to spend, thanks to the crisis and its economic impact
However, Mills believes this is a temporary state of affairs and the traffickers are already adapting to changing conditions. In the long-term, the flow of cocaine will re-establish itself at pre-coronavirus levels, and even likely increase.
*Investigation for this article was conducted by James Bargent, Maria Fernanda Ramírez, Douwe den Held and Owen Boed.