With higher profits and lower risks than the United States, Europe has emerged recently as arguably the most important cocaine market in the world.
InSight Crime and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), a Geneva-based organization, spent the past two years carrying out fieldwork in more than 10 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe to trace the evolution of the European cocaine trade, and the Latin American and European criminal networks that have shaped it.
The result is a 65-page joint investigative report titled "The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe."
SEE ALSO: The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe
Key findings from the report were discussed during an online seminar held March 2. Below are four main takeaways from the event.
Less Risk, More Reward
The shift in focus from the United States to Europe was a no-brainer for international drug traffickers, especially those in Colombia.
Traffickers face enormous risks in moving drugs to the United States, whose government has spent billions of dollars on seizing drug loads and extraditing traffickers, said InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott. As a result, Colombian traffickers have come to prefer lucrative European markets.
"A kilogram of cocaine is worth $28,000 wholesale in the United States. That same kilogram in Europe fetches around $40,000 with much less risk," said McDermott.
While Colombia continues to see record coca cultivation and cocaine production, Europe has become the primary destination for the drug. Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium are key entry points, seeing the majority of cocaine seizures, according to Laurent Laniel, drug market analyst for the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), who also spoke at the event.
“Western Europe is the place now [for cocaine]. It’s also gaining ground elsewhere, including in Turkey, which is a sizable market,” he said.
InSight Crime predicts that the cocaine market and overall drug consumption in Europe will continue to grow and expand in the years to come, reaching deeper into Eastern Europe.
Containers and Narco-Subs
In order to reach the lucrative European market, traffickers are restricted to two methods for moving cocaine across the Atlantic: sea or air transport. Concealing large shipments of cocaine in shipping containers is by far the preferred approach, resulting in an endless game of hide-and-seek among port authorities and traffickers.
A number of smuggling methods are employed. The simplest is to place the cocaine among produce like pineapples and bananas. The “rip-on, rip-of” technique is also used, whereby corrupt port workers tamper with a shipping container's customs seal to hide that drugs have been loaded onto it. Cocaine is also hidden in the floors and walls of containers, and small go-fast boats pass drugs onto corrupt crew members aboard larger vessels.
Traffickers are quick to switch their modus operandi and routes, even resorting to vessels typically manufactured along Colombia's Pacific coastline: drug submarines.
In November 2019, Spanish authorities seized a narco-sub that crossed the Atlantic loaded with three tons of cocaine.
McDermott said the technology and manufacturing know-how needed to construct the vessels are being exported, likely leading to other departure points in countries such as Brazil, Suriname, Venezuela and Guyana.
Multinational Trafficking Networks
Gone are the days of a single criminal group controlling every link of the drug trafficking chain from Latin America to Europe. Instead, the supply chain is fluid, with different multinational mafias working together on shipments.
“What we see in terms of trends is smaller specialist networks: you have port contamination networks, specialist logistic networks or street gangs that charge a certain percentage or fee per kilogram for their services,” said InSight Crime investigator James Bargent.
This also makes such networks more difficult to dismantle. Trafficking networks can form to move a series of shipments -- and then break apart just as easily. A network's members are often made up of various nationalities to facilitate different facets of the trafficking chain.
Piecing together this cocaine supply chain are brokers -- sometimes members of the ‘Ndrangheta in Italy -- that connect suppliers and dispatch networks. The brokers have strong ties to Latin American criminal groups, eventually establishing a presence of their own closer to the source of the drugs, according to Fatjona Mejdini, the Balkans field coordinator for GI-TOC. Albanian groups have become quick studies of their Italian counterparts, she said.
As the presence of European mafias across Latin America grows, these groups are almost certain to become more powerful.
Cocaine and COVID-19
Restrictions on the maritime movement of goods and air travel hindered the movement of cocaine to Europe during the height of the pandemic. But traffickers soon adapted.
The drop in container shipping during lockdowns caused cocaine to pile up in producer countries like Colombia. With the glut of cocaine, traffickers opted for the gambit of loading more drugs into fewer container ships traveling along established routes. This led to larger seizures than what might have been seen normally.
Cocaine trafficking using shipping containers was higher in 2020 than in 2019, according Laniel, of EMCDDA. "A lot of cocaine was sent to Europe during COVID-19 despite restriction measures,” he said.
While the pandemic has had very little impact on the wholesale market, Laniel added that it has caused some disruptions regarding distribution, with less social interaction leading to less drug consumption. But as restrictions loosen and life returns to normal, consumption is likely to return or even increase.