The discovery of large batches of cocaine in shipments of bananas to the Rotterdam port shows that traffickers continue to move drugs to Europe through a common Latin American export: fruit.
The latest bust occurred on September 30, when customs officials discovered 1,500 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a shipment of bananas at the Rotterdam port in the Netherlands, according to a news release by Rotterdam prosecutors.
Drug smuggling activity at the Port of Rotterdam -- Europe’s largest port and a gateway to the continent -- has surged in recent years. In April, 1,600 kilograms of cocaine -- also concealed in banana cargo from Costa Rica -- was seized. The size of the drug shipments have also increased, according to a police expert who spoke with Dutch national newspaper Algemeen Dagblad.
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“Before we used to be impressed by 500-kilogram batches,” he said. “Now we seize 5,000-kilogram shipments, meaning that these quantities also enter the country.”
An estimated 60 percent of cocaine trafficked to Europe in 2018 came through the ports of Rotterdam and Belgian port city of Antwerp, according to the Dutch newspaper. Most cocaine arriving in Antwerp is brought to the Netherlands, where it is distributed farther into Europe. Fruit containers with cocaine also enter the Dutch port of Vlissingen, where 700 million kilograms of bananas a year arrive in a specialized terminal.
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The large amount of cocaine seized at the port of Rotterdam in the banana shipments underscores that fruit remains a favored cargo for concealing drugs. It is so for three reasons.
First, produce from Latin America, particularly fruit, is constantly moving through the busy Rotterdam port. Outside random inspections, only certain containers are flagged for search upon arrival at the port, leaving more than 99 percent unchecked, according to a report by Erasmus University Rotterdam researchers.
Second, fruit -- especially bananas -- spoils quickly, so shipments can’t be held by customs for long.
Third, importing a shipping container of bananas can cost as little as 15,000 euros (about $17,000) -- less than the wholesale value of a kilogram of cocaine in Europe, which sells for about 25,000 euros ($28,000).
The increasing use of produce cargo as a cover for cocaine, however, has brought crime groups to the Netherlands. For example, in June, criminals demanded 1.2 million euros (about $1.3 million) from “De Groot Fresh Group,” threatening that they would kill one of the fruit importer’s employees if their demand was not met.
Fruit importers have also been directly involved in criminal activity. For example, a Dutch man convicted of laundering drug money owned several fruit import companies suspected of being used for cocaine smuggling. In 2014, a fruit importer was murdered after he lost 300 kilograms of cocaine to authorities.
Unable to search all or even most produce cargo containers, Dutch authorities have set their sights on dismantling these illegal fruit import companies.
For example, joint operation Piggyback in May 2019 identified more than 30 suspect fruit importers. Companies that, for instance, only had a postal address or could be linked to questionable transactions, were flagged as suspicious.
Such operations go beyond mere seizures -- though authorities did capture 1,500 kilograms of cocaine during the Piggyback operation -- but also provide valuable intelligence on the underlying criminal structures moving cocaine to the Netherlands.