Europe’s increasing demand for cocaine has propelled changes in the global drug production network, with cocaine now being producing in Europe by local criminals with the help of their Latin American counterparts.
Findings in two reports published in May 2022 by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and the European Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) have shown that cooperation between European and Latin American gangs - Mexico and Colombia specifically - is resulting in high-quality cocaine being produced, consumed and transited in Europe. Meanwhile, Europe is also seeing increasing rates of methamphetamine consumption as it becomes a point of arrival for the synthetic drug's precursor chemicals.
InSight Crime spoke with Laurent Laniel, principal scientific analyst at EMCDDA, to discuss the drug trafficking and consumption landscape in Europe and the impact of the arrival that Latin America’s highly-experienced traffickers could have on the continent. Andrew Cunningham, EMCDDA's head of drug markets, crime and supply reduction, also contributed to this interview.
European Cocaine Production
InSight Crime (IC): The report confirms that criminal networks are now producing cocaine in Europe. What proportion of cocaine consumed in Europe is produced in European laboratories?
Laurent Laniel (LL): The short answer is that we do not know. We know that 58 illicit cocaine-processing facilities were reported in Europe between 2018 and 2020. And we know that ten of those were estimated by the Dutch police to produce 100 to 200 kilos a day each, which amounts to 5.6 tons per month. If you multiply by ten, then that’s 56 tons in total. But we do not know how long these labs were operating, so it is very difficult to come up with a comparable quantity.
IS: What are the advantages of processing cocaine in Europe rather than Latin America?
LL: Firstly, the chemicals available in Europe to produce cocaine come straight from industrial producers, which must meet EU regulations, so they're very high quality. In contrast, a large portion of chemicals used in Colombia are made in illicit labs.
Secondly, some of the equipment seized in Europe has been manufactured in a professional manner: well soldered, every part manufactured using high-precision machines and so on. This is again in contrast to Colombia, where equipment is a bit makeshift. For instance, production tools are sometimes made from oil barrels.
Thirdly, some of the labs were based on the Colombian model of so-called “modelo tanque” (tank model) labs. They had distinct areas to store chemicals, to recycle solvents, to produce base, to produce hydrochloride, to dry it and package it; all well organized.
Colombian nationals have been arrested in labs in the Netherlands and Spain, so Colombian cocaine production know-how has already been allied with European know-how around high-quality equipment and high-grade chemicals. The alliance of these two knowledge sets should result in very a high-quality product.
Europe is potentially producing higher quality cocaine than Colombia, but we do not have samples to test and to compare.
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IC: How is the shift to European cocaine production likely to affect the balance of power between Latin American and European criminal networks?
LL: At present there is a mutually beneficial relationship between Latin American and European drug producers, but I doubt that Europe will ever surpass Colombia in cocaine production.
However, we are mindful that the arrival to the European cocaine market of actors like Mexican groups may result in violence depending on how they deal with the current European “landlords.” But for now, we do not see violence attributable directly to Latin Americans in Europe.
IC: Why is there an intelligence gap around the trafficking of cocaine base and coca paste into Europe?
LL: Cocaine base that is used in Europe is imported into carrier materials, chemically hidden, concealed within the structure of materials such as plastics, charcoal and cocoa pulp. This makes the cocaine harder to detect by law enforcement. I think there are also large shipments of cocaine base as such imported into Europe, and we do not seem to be seizing any. So that is a gap.
To remedy this, the EMCDDA and Europol have recommended more consistent testing of seizures. Cocaine bricks should be forensically tested to determine whether they contain hydrochloride or base. In many countries, this test is not performed because, from a legal point of view, the only thing that needs to be known is whether or not it is cocaine.
At a meeting in Colombia, knowledgeable people told me no labs where cocaine is chemically concealed in carrier materials have ever been found in Colombia, Peru or Bolivia. And yet here in Europe, we find plastics containing cocaine. So somewhere, somebody is concealing this cocaine in plastic but we don’t know where. This is another intelligence gap.
Coca paste is a different matter. It’s bulkier, less refined and contains more impurities. It is not practical to be imported in the same way as cocaine base because the chemistry would be complicated and it would be more difficult to conceal in carrier materials.
InSight Crime published an article in 2014 saying there had been seizures of several hundreds of kilos of coca paste in Colombia that were going to be exported to Europe. So it has already been tried.
IC: The report argues that Europe is now a cocaine consumer market and a transit point to reach Asia and Oceania. What proportion of cocaine moving through Europe is destined for onward transit?
LL: The amount of cocaine used at the retail level in Europe was estimated by the EMCDDA to be about 160 tons in 2020. This represents about 10 percent of estimated global production in 2019 (1,784 tons).
We do not have precise data on cocaine seizures in countries such as China, Indonesia or India, and law enforcement in these countries are not used to seizing cocaine. China, for instance, is for historical reasons much more effective at seizing methamphetamine or heroin than it is at seizing cocaine. As a result, there are few or no elements from which to gauge the proportion that transits Europe, but some cocaine does transit Europe.
Additionally, some cocaine trafficking may be organized by Europeans and not transit Europe, but go directly from South America, or via Africa, for example. A few months ago, some Balkan traffickers were said to be organizing shipments from Brazil to Asia. So, the question of Europe’s involvement in the global cocaine trade is more than just how much transits through European territory. It’s also a question of the role Europeans play in the spread of cocaine markets outside of Europe.
Latin American Envoys to Europe
IC: Who are the typical Latin American chemists captured in European cocaine and methamphetamine laboratories?
LL: There are two schools of thought on that. Some of the Mexican nationals caught manufacturing methamphetamine in the Netherlands two or three years ago were released after being tried and found to have been tricked into accepting a trip to the Netherlands, where they were forced to work in a meth lab. We were skeptical of this finding because it would be very difficult for somebody in Mexico with this type of know-how to be allowed go to work in a foreign country to manufacture hundreds of kilos of meth.
According to Dutch law enforcement, lab production requires a lot of cooperation between the two sides. The Dutch ensure that the lab is set up with all the equipment and chemicals needed, under the guidance of the Mexicans, and arrange for waste disposal, while the Mexicans supply the ‘cooks’ who have the specialist knowledge needed to produce the high-quality crystal meth.
IC: How could the increasing role of Mexican organized crime in Europe affect the criminal panorama of the continent, and which countries are at risk?
LL: The theoretical situation of Mexican groups establishing themselves in Europe represents a type of threat that could go very badly, potentially leading to a large increase in violence and corruption. We will see if these fears are well-founded or not.
Spain is a natural candidate because of the common language. There are precedents of Mexican gangs using Spain to traffic cocaine and large quantities of meth. The Netherlands is probably also at risk, as a key business hub for drugs, and because it is a cocaine-producing country.
IC: How much evidence is there for “swaps” of Mexican methamphetamine for European synthetics?
LL: Some MDMA produced in the Netherlands and Belgium is exported to Latin America. As far as I understand, the market for MDMA throughout Latin America is fueled by production in Europe. So there certainly exists a potential for exchange. There is intelligence indicating that traffickers exchange cocaine for MDMA. While it’s hard to determine the scale, these swaps do already happen.
Methamphetamine in Europe
IC: Methamphetamine consumption has historically been low in Europe, but now may be rising. What factors are driving this shift?
LL: We believe that most of the Netherlands and Belgium-made methamphetamine is not primarily meant for the European market. Some is trafficked to the Czech Republic. But most is destined to be exported to the lucrative markets of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other Asian markets. In Japan, methamphetamine prices are very high and the profits are huge.
But as in the case of cocaine base and coca paste present in Europe, there’s a risk that a substance available in a territory will be diverted for local consumption. The slow increase in methamphetamine consumption could mean this is happening in Europe.
Europe's methamphetamine market still remains very small compared to cocaine and cannabis, with the exception of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and some parts of Germany and Austria. Now, quantities of crystal methamphetamine are available in Europe.
The data from wastewater monitoring, which covers a set of European countries shows that methamphetamine use may be more common than surveys of users would suggest.
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IC: How active are Mexican suppliers of Mexican methamphetamine in the downstream of Europe’s illegal drug trafficking industry?
LL: Not much of the Mexican-produced methamphetamine seized in Europe is meant for European consumption. As far as I know, Mexicans are not involved in distribution or street sales in Europe: they are more likely to be big time players. The European market has been historically supplied from other sources such as the Czech Republic.
However, gangs are often paid in-kind for their services. Criminal gangs from Europe with access to street distribution may suddenly find themselves with large amounts of crystal meth as payment for a service that they rendered to Mexican groups.
But now what? Do these people have connections in Asia where they would make a lot more money? Would they try to develop a strategy to sell it to users, developing a user base? These are the threats that hang in the background.
The European Drug Trade
IC: Are the same traffickers involved in producing and trafficking cocaine and methamphetamine in Europe, or do they involve different networks?
LL: It’s hard to say. I can think of one case where some Mexicans were caught smuggling very large quantities - hundreds of kilograms - of both meth and cocaine.
The large actors in Latin America – the Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) – would be able to supply both drugs. But they may not be able to find counterparts equally able to deal in both drugs.
There is likely a lot of overlap on the production between the two drugs, at least in the Netherlands. But there can't be that many groups able to handle these tasks.
IC: The report highlights easy availability of precursor chemicals as a significant problem in Europe. How much is known about the supply chain by which these precursors reach illicit laboratories?
LL: Quite a lot is known from investigations and routine monitoring but it is somewhat under-reported. As far as MDMA, amphetamine and methamphetamine production is concerned in Europe, the precursors needed are produced locally from pre-precursors.
Most of the pre-precursors are manufactured in China and India and then imported into Europe. It seems that Polish and Bulgarian criminal networks are involved in the supply of these and other chemicals. Poland acts as a storage link, where Dutch and Belgian criminals come to obtain those chemicals. These are then trafficked by road via Germany.
Cocaine chemicals could come from China and India, but they could also come from the legitimate chemicals industry in Europe. In the Netherlands, companies have been established to produce licit products, but which also serve as fronts for diversion towards illicit production. Some criminals are apparently adept at diverting chemicals. They appear to be able to evade the European legislation designed to prevent the diversion of chemicals. It is not that easy to buy a scheduled chemical and transport it to an illicit lab. Corruption may be involved.