Authorities in the Netherlands are discovering more cocaine processing facilities, but the dismantling of the largest one to date, staffed by Colombian workers, marks a new chapter for the country.
In mid-August, a raid in the northern town of Nijeveen found a large-scale facility that contained 100 kilograms of cocaine base and tens of thousands of liters of chemicals, according to a police press release. Seventeen people were arrested, including 14 Colombian nationals.
In nearby Apeldoorn, raids on several warehouses found about 120 tons of charcoal, among which coca paste is believed to have been hidden through a process known as 'chemical smuggling,' to later be processed into cocaine.
The practice of hiding coca paste in charcoal has been detected in Colombia in the past, suggesting that the drugs in the Nijeveen laboratory originated there.
The facility had a production capacity of 150 to 200 kilograms of cocaine per day with a street value of between 4.5 and 6 million euros, and it had dormitories and recreational spaces allowing production to take place around the clock.
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This finding comes amid a steady rise in seizures of cocaine and discoveries of labs across the country. The port of Rotterdam has seized several tons of cocaine in repeated seizures over the past few months. Meanwhile, cocaine processing facilities have been discovered after explosions or fires. One facility was even found by workers removing a fallen tree who smelled chemicals coming from a farming shed.
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The presence of over a dozen Colombian nationals in a small Dutch village implies that the country’s drug traffickers are not only shipping tons of cocaine to Europe but are also involved in other stages of the drug production chain there, including processing unrefined or altered cocaine.
As large ports such as Antwerp or Rotterdam have launched major new crackdowns on cocaine that have helped drive up seizures, drug traffickers have sought out new ways of smuggling drugs.
One particularly intricate form of smuggling known as chemical camouflage has brought Colombian experts onto European shores. In Colombia, cocaine hydrochloride is incorporated into carrier materials like textiles, shampoo or charcoal through a range of chemical processes. These range from the fairly simple, such as soaking clothes in a mixture of cocaine and water, to more complex where the cocaine is injected into products such as plastic and charcoal, according to Europol.
The carrier goods are shipped to front import companies in the Netherlands or other European countries, where the cocaine hydrochloride is extracted. Colombian journalist Nelson Matta told InSight Crime that this process is difficult, with Colombian traffickers brought into European drug laboratories to oversee the process and train their European counterparts.
Cocaine processing has also been detected in Spain. In February 2020, authorities arrested 39 people, including a number of Colombians, for allegedly running a network of five facilities in the eastern town of Alicante, El Pais reported.
In October 2019, a cocaine laboratory was dismantled near Toledo, Spain, with nine people arrested, including five Colombian nationals, according to a police statement. This facility, in which coca paste was extracted from charcoal blocks, supposedly had links to the 21st Front of the ex-FARC Mafia in Colombia. These groups are made up of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Spain and the Netherlands are two of the main entry points for Colombian cocaine into Europe, often through the port of Rotterdam or in the northern Spanish region of Galicia. Last November, a “narco-submarine” believed to have embarked from Colombia was captured in Galicia.
Authorities in Europe appear to be zeroing on these connections. In February, the Netherlands’ most notorious drug trafficker, Said Razzouki, was captured in Colombia. In April, an important network of Spanish drug traffickers was dismantled in Galicia after authorities began investigating the intended recipient of the sub.