Cocaine seizures at two of Europe’s biggest and busiest ports jumped by more than a quarter over the last year, underscoring the impact that the increase in global cocaine production -- primarily in Colombia -- is likely having outside of Latin America.
Authorities in the Netherlands at the Port of Rotterdam and in Belgium at the Port of Antwerp seized more than 73 metric tons of cocaine in 2018, a nearly 35 percent increase from the 54 metric tons seized in the two harbors the year before, according to Dutch Police, the Amsterdam-based Het Parool reported.
Cocaine seizures at these two ports have grown considerably in recent years. In 2013, for example, authorities in Belgium seized just a little more than four metric tons of cocaine at the Port of Antwerp, according to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.
The number of dismantled cocaine extraction labs also increased fourfold between 2016 and 2018, from just 5 to 21 last year, according to Het Parool.
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After the drugs reach the two ports in western Europe, both the Netherlands and Belgium act as transit countries for cocaine traveling to the United Kingdom, Scandinavia in northern Europe and other parts of the continent, as well as intercontinentally.
“The effect of this international [drug] trade is becoming more and more tangible in Europe and especially in the Netherlands,” according to Netherlands Police Chief Jannine Van den Berg.
Strong infrastructure and access to major river systems make these two ports ideal for traffickers. However, the Port of Rotterdam ends in a bottleneck. All traffic must go in and out the same way, making it easier for authorities to monitor while the Port of Antwerp in Belgium -- one of the most extensive ports in the world -- is more attractive for traffickers.
However, the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp are reportedly struggling to combat corruption -- something countries throughout Latin America have also confronted -- which is helping drug shipments flow through undetected, according to Police Chief Van den Berg.
The risks are high, but corrupt workers at Belgium’s Port of Antwerp can earn between 75,000 and 125,000 euros (between $85,000 and $142,000) per drug shipment they help move safely, according to De Volkskrant.
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The uptick in cocaine seizures over the last year at two of Europe’s most important ports provides further evidence that the increase in global cocaine production -- primarily in Colombia, the world’s top producer of the drug, but also in Bolivia and Peru -- is having global repercussions in transit and consumer nations.
Colombia’s boom in cocaine production has affected drug flow and exacerbated organized crime in several countries in the region. Transshipment countries for Colombian cocaine are developing more significant and transnational roles in the international drug trade. Authorities in Panama, for example, seized a record 84 metric tons of drugs in 2017 -- the majority of which was cocaine.
Colombian criminal groups also have more product on hand than ever before, and are looking to new lucrative markets in Europe and Asia. European police say the continent is “inundated” with cocaine amid record production in Colombia.
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“Europe is probably very attractive to [Colombian drug trafficking groups] because it is a growing market, the street prices are higher than in the United States, and they don’t need to deal with Mexican intermediaries,” Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think tank, told InSight Crime in an email.
Several criminal groups in Colombia, including the nearly decimated Urabeños and ex-FARC Mafia groups -- networks of former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas -- have been linked to past seizures of cocaine shipments heading to Europe.
However, their European criminal associates don’t appear to be actually processing coca paste into cocaine hydrochloride (HCl), which would mark a significant development in their modus operandi. Instead, an already processed product is likely being extracted and turned into powder at extraction centers or laboratories in Belgium or the Netherlands.
The processed cocaine comes in different forms hidden in liquids, cloths and other goods, which can be smuggled more easily than in the drug’s final form.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.