An international drug trafficking network used an often-overlooked set of Spanish islands as a crucial thoroughfare along a key drug transit route for traffickers to capture the European market.
A total of 11 Spanish nationals and one Colombian national awaiting extradition to Spain were arrested to culminate the two year investigation, according to a January 23 Europol press release. Officials also seized more than $2 million in assets from the group.
Coordinated by the Colombian intermediary in Cali just southwest of the capital Bogotá, drug loads departed the South American nation and transited through the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa before reaching other members of the network in Spain, who were in charge of distribution, according to Europol.
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The shipments were disguised in caravans traveling from the Canary Islands to Spain, as well as in mobile homes. The network “owned vehicle dealerships, auto repair shops and managed long-term caravan parks” in order to conceal transport of the vehicles, while also using the businesses as a cover to launder money, according to authorities.
Among the millions in assets that Spanish police seized were a variety of vehicles and homes that were listed in the names of suspected frontmen, according to a January 23 press release from the agency.
This is not the only recent drug operation to center around the Canary Islands. In May of 2019, authorities jailed seven individuals caught on board a fishing vessel in waters near the islands who were transporting 1.5 metric tons of cocaine from Brazil to Spain, reported Spanish press agency EFE.
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The Canary Islands make a convenient transshipment point for Colombian cocaine to reach European shores, as drug gangs seek ever more ways to reach this lucrative market.
But this latest operation suggests that the Canary Islands does not only provide an ideal transshipment point, but also a base for laundering dirty money. The investigation that lead to the latest bust was initially started after authorities observed large cash transfers in Tenerife, the largest and most populated of Spain’s Canary Islands.
This may pose a serious problem for authorities moving forward as traffickers continue to exploit the continent’s growing consumer market for illicit drugs like cocaine. Authorities in the European Union have a “poor success rate in identifying and seizing illegal funds” and “confiscate as little as [one percent] of all criminal proceeds,” according to Europol’s EU Drug Markets Report for 2019.
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European agencies have also been racing to cope with the increase in cocaine entering the region, usually by ports. Multi-ton cocaine shipments departing from Colombia’s port cities "account for the biggest share of the cocaine entering the EU," according to Europol. Among other things, Europe offers traffickers a growing market with elevated street prices free from US interdiction.
When not concealed in shipping containers leaving ports in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador en route to large European ports, islands off the coast of Europe and West Africa, such as the Canary Islands or the Azores of Portugal in the Mid-Atlantic, provide convenient jumping-off points.