Three Mexican cartels are reportedly competing for control of the cocaine trade in Spain, although there are few signs they have successfully displaced the longstanding networks from Colombia as the main operators in this key strategic territory for drug trafficking in Europe.

Spanish police say the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas and the “cartel from Michoacan” — presumably the Michoacan based Knights Templar — have all established a presence in the country, according to an investigation by Mexican newspaper El Universal. Their aim is to take control of the European cocaine trade by forcing Colombian drug traffickers out of the country, then using Spain as a base for importing and distributing product.

For some years, the Mexicans have been sending emissaries to Spain to build contacts with local distributors, money launderers and lawyers, according to El Universal. There are also indications they have looked to establish a more permanent presence, with the Sinaloa Cartel sending leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s cousin, Jesus Gutierrez Guzman, to Spain to oversee the cartel’s operations. However, Gutierrez was arrested in 2012.

Police sources told El Universal the Mexicans favor sending small quantities of drugs to minimize losses in the case of interdiction. Cocaine is either moved in shipping containers through the ports of Barcelona, Algecira and Lisbon, in Portugal, or is carried by drug mules flying into the country. Passage of the mules is facilitated by corrupt contacts at Madrid airport, with baggage handlers, maintenance personnel, and even cleaning staff paid between 5,000 and 10,000 Euros to aid the movement of 8-10 kilo loads of cocaine, according to El Universal.

The mules flying in to Spain, however, often do not depart from Mexico, where airport security has improved dramatically in recent years, according to Spanish customs. Instead, they leave from countries with high levels of corruption in the airports, notably Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic. Many of the mules are of Latin American origin who also have Spanish passports, allowing them to move freely into the country with no need for a visa.

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There have been warning signs — some real, some ficticious — for some years that Mexican cartels are trying to expand their share of the European market through Spain.

As far back as 2009, then Spanish Customs’ Director Nicolas Bonilla told US officials that “Mexicans were replacing Colombians as cocaine traffickers to Spain,” acccording to a leaked US diplomatic cable.

European police force Europol has warned several times about the growing influence of Mexican organized crime, and even raised fears the groups could bring the violence associated with them to the continent.

Arguably as important as official discourse is legend. Mexican traffickers like Sandra Avila Beltran, a.k.a. “La Reina del Pacifico,” or “Queen of the Pacific,” a Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) operator reportedly established connections with the Spanish underworld in the early 2000s to move cocaine through the peninsula. Avila’s life was immortalized in both novel and telenovela formats. 

It is not surprising the Mexicans want to claim a share of the European market. While cocaine consumption in the United States has been falling, in Europe it is on the rise, and the drug’s retail price is often significantly higher. Trafficking drugs to Europe also apprears to run a lower risk of interdiction than in the United States — where substantially more cocaine has been seized in recent years (pdf) than in Europe (pdf) even though they are now markets of comparable size — and for traffickers that are caught, there is much lower risk of being extradited.

Spain is the ideal base for the Mexicans to gain access to this market. Not only is it a substantial market in its own right — Spain has one of the highest cocaine user rates in the world — it is also one of the main entry points for Latin American drugs destined for the continental market, and it offers an easier environment to do business due to the shared language.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of European Organized Crime

However, Spain has long been the territory of Colombian organized crime, and there are numerous indications that these groups are still more deeply embedded in the Spanish underworld than their Mexican counterparts.

In its last report, released in 2013, Europol stated that Colombian groups continued to dominate the cocaine trade, while the extent of the Mexican presence remained unclear.In addition, the arrests of Latin American organized crime operatives in Spain, indicate the Colombian operations in the country are still substantially more sophisticated than those of their Mexican counterparts.

While the Mexicans arrested vary from drug mules to high level brokers, they tend to be individuals or small groups overseeing trafficking operations. In contrast, arrests of Colombians show how they maintain deeply embedded cells with a military capacity, including “collection offices” (oficinas de cobro) — armed wings of trafficking organizations that collect drug debts by kidnapping and assassinating. 

However, the current state of flux and fragmentation of the Colombian underworld is having a knock on effect in Europe, according to Europol, and may create the conditions for the Mexicans to live up to years of hype and finally seize control of European cocaine trafficking.

Most of the Colombian operatives in Spain are connected to the now defunct Norte Del Valle Cartel (NDVC) and its descendent, the Rastrojos. Since the loss of their leadership in mid-2012, the Rastrojos have splintered into regional factions, leaving networks operating out of a foreign country especially isolated and vulnerable.

SEE ALSO: Rastrojos Profile

The Mexicans though, may face competition if they are to attempt to usurp these operations. The Rastrojos’ principal Colombian competitors, the Urabeños, have been capitalizing on the implosion of their rivals within Colombia, and there is evidence they are also looking to co-opt their international operations, including in Spain, where a high profile Urabeños leader was recently arrested.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a violent standoff between the Mexicans and the Urabeños in Spain or anywhere else in Europe seems remote. Far more likely is that drug trafficking through the Iberian Peninsula will be carried out through new networks involving multiple partners.

According to Europol, the fragmentation of Colombian organized crime has not only been capitalized on by Mexican groups, but also European organizations keen to increase their role in drug trafficking by building new contacts both in Europe and in Latin America. There have also been indications the remnants of the Rastrojos and NDVC structures have been seeking out new international backers, not only in Colombia but also in Mexico.

Unless Mexican groups are willing to stage a full scale foreign invasion to wrest control of the country away from the Colombians — which would be a highly costly and risky endeavor — then the future of drug trafficking in Spain is more likely to involve decentralized and fluid transnational networks, within which Mexicans, Colombians and Europeans all have a role to play.

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