With shipping ports around the world seizing more cocaine than ever, traffickers have come up with an innovative method to access the drug: infiltrate the ports by hiding inside empty shipping containers.
At the port of Rotterdam, the primary entry point for cocaine into Europe, authorities arrested over 400 so-called “drug extractors” – young men hired to remove cocaine from specific containers. The extractors are brought into the port inside “hotel containers,” which are declared as empty on the shipping manifests but in fact contain basic amenities. This was up from 280 extraction incidents reported in 2020.
According to a BBC investigation, these young men are not usually hardened criminals. Rather, they are often recruited from deprived areas around Rotterdam and paid around 2,000 euros per kilo of cocaine collected. Until recently, the legal risks were small, with a fine of less than 100 euros unless they were caught in possession of drugs. Some of them even carried cash to pay the fine on the spot, Dutch police told the BBC.
But the number of extractors being found prompted a change. In a two-week period in September, 110 individuals were caught, several multiple times. A new law, that came into force on January 1, 2022, means any person found at the port without reason can face up to a year in jail.
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Authorities are also seeking to crack down on corruption inside the port that allows these extractors to access the site. “In general, they are brought to or admitted to the terminal by port staff – drivers, employees, subcontractors, security guards,” Olav Brink, a spokesman for the Netherlands’ public prosecution service, told local press.
One extractor told the BBC that “you just say to a worker, 'lend me your pass until tomorrow, and you can earn 500 euros.’ It's hard to do our job without someone on the inside, like a customs officer. He could have a container that should be inspected, but he takes it off the inspection list for you."
Andre Kramer, the CEO of a company operating at the port, told the British news agency his staff had been threatened to cooperate with the drug extractors and some had even quit as a result.
The problem is not Rotterdam’s alone. Last October, 13 people were arrested at Belgium’s Antwerp port, removing cocaine from a container. In September, 22 extractors were arrested at the city's shipping port. Prosecutors are asking for five-year prison sentences and hefty fines, according to a judicial statement quoted by the Belgian media.
The port of Rotterdam seized record amounts of cocaine in 2021, confiscating over 70 tons of the drug compared to 40 tons in 2020, for an estimated street value of 5 billion euros ($5.66 billion).
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The rapid escalation in the use of these extractors speaks to two realities: more cocaine needs to be picked up than ever before, and authorities are doing a better job at tracking it.
“We first noticed them about two years ago. “There was one or maybe two of them, and it happened once or twice a year,” Kramer told the BBC.
“But in the past six months, the groups of collectors have got bigger – 10 or 12 people gathered together, and it happens three or four times a week,” he added.
For Bob van den Berghe, regional coordinator of the UN’s Container Control Program (CCP), this rise is connected to the sheer tonnage of cocaine coming across the Atlantic.
“Rip-on/rip-off is still the most used modus operandi to smuggle cocaine. It is a method whereby a legitimate shipment, usually in a container, is exploited to smuggle contraband…to the country of destination,” he told InSight Crime.
“The drugs then need to be extracted from the containers…and here we see, very often, the involvement of corrupt dockers and the smuggling in of extractors into the terminals. Extractors are hidden in export containers and will at night…recover the drugs in contaminated containers,” he said.
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Police are also investigating which organizations might be behind these extractions. On January 4, seven men were arrested at a shipping company in Rotterdam in connection to containers coming from Costa Rica loaded with cocaine, according to a police press release. The company itself was found to be blameless but the suspects are being held for questioning.
This is likely to be a thankless task. In a recent investigation, InSight Crime discovered connections between numerous Latin American gangs and drug shipments bound for Europe, including Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Panamanian groups Baghdad and Calor Calor.
And the Netherlands and Belgium, as major entry points, play host to a range of European criminal groups, including Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta, the Albanian mob, the Dutch-Moroccan Mocro Mafia and Ireland’s Kinahan cartel.