A shootout involving French police and suspected cocaine traffickers in the northern city port of Le Havre has dramatically underscored the seaport’s growing role within the cocaine pipeline to Europe.
Videos circulating widely on social media show the April 26 events, in which French plainclothes police descended on the traffickers who were hurriedly unloading packages of cocaine from a container truck outside Le Havre port. The smugglers, who were shot at by police, escaped the scene but left behind 280 kilograms of cocaine.
A 29-year-old French national was later taken into custody.
Such interdictions have skyrocketed in Le Havre this year. By early February, authorities had already seized some 2.2 tons of cocaine – more than in all of 2019. This year’s haul included a four-day streak between January 29 and February 1, when nearly a ton of cocaine was interdicted in three shipments arriving from Brazil and the French Caribbean.
Le Havre authorities set a record in 2021 when they interdicted over 10 tons of cocaine, roughly 45 percent of the 23 tons seized in France last year. But the record looks likely to be shattered this year given that by late March, 18 tons of cocaine had already been captured nationwide.
In fact, Le Havre’s trafficking surge is so strong that the port city is now earning comparisons with the nearby European cocaine centers of Antwerp and Rotterdam. One French police officer experienced in international operations told France Inter that “there are teams of traffickers who [now] work more in Le Havre than in Antwerp or Rotterdam.”
The accompanying rise in violence is certainly reminiscent. In 2021, three drug-related attempted homicides and two kidnappings were reported in Le Havre, adding to the 25 other kidnappings recorded since 2016.
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Le Havre’s growing cocaine imports remain dwarfed by the 80 tons seized in Antwerp or 70 tons seized in Rotterdam last year. But it is now firmly established as a major entry point for Europe-bound cocaine in its own right, on par with the ports of Valencia in Spain and Gioia Tauro in Italy, which both seized around 10 tons of cocaine last year.
The reasons behind the port’s growth appear clear. After the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium, France is classified as Europe’s fourth-largest cocaine market, judged by both seizure volumes and wastewater analyses. Le Havre is the country’s largest container port.
A 2022 investigation by France Inter cited French police in saying that Le Havre’s drug trade is mostly concentrated in the hands of a few powerful traffickers.
“These are the same people who managed the big cannabis traffic a few years ago, and who have expanded their logistical range. But they are no longer the only ones to try at all costs to get the drug out, far from it,” a provincial law enforcement official told the media outlet.
This pattern of large-scale marijuana traffickers diversifying into cocaine smuggling has become common in France since at least 2018, with authorities acknowledging several known networks have begun establishing international cocaine importation routes, according to a recent UNODC report on the global cocaine trade.
Meanwhile, an investigation published last year by InSight Crime and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) found that, in recent years, much of that cocaine has been produced in Colombia. Testing conducted by EUROPOL between 2015 and 2018 detected that 98 percent of French cocaine sampled came from the Andean country.
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