Portugal has seized records amount of cocaine from South America in recent months, underscoring how the country is regaining its place as a significant drug entry point and transit hub.
From January to mid-August 2022, Portugal has intercepted over 14 tons of cocaine, with a street value of around 700 million euros, according to an interview by newspaper Diario de Noticias with Artur Vaz, head of Portugal's National Unit for the Fight Against Drug Trafficking (Unidade Nacional de Combate ao Tráfico de Estupefacientes).
Most recently, on August 8, Portuguese police seized over 1.1 metric tons of cocaine near the Azores from a sailing boat that had crossed the Atlantic.
Weeks earlier, Portuguese police helped dismantle a transnational drug trafficking ring involving Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia and dozens of alleged gangsters from Montenegro, Croatia, and Serbia, according to EUROPOL. And in June, the country seized over eight tons of cocaine from three ships coming from Colombia and stopping off at the port of Setúbal, south of Lisbon.
The result is that 2022 looks set to be a record-setting year for Portuguese cocaine seizures. To better understand how Portugal reached this point, InSight Crime sat down with Sylvie Isabelle Figueiredo, a leading researcher into organized crime and drug trafficking in Portugal at NOVA University in Lisbon.
InSight Crime (IC): Could you please start by telling us about your current research?
Sylvie Figueiredo (SF): My Ph.D. is investigating transnational organized crime in Portugal, specifically in the cocaine market. To date, no academic research has focused on the actions of transnational criminal groups in Portugal. But the better we understand this reality, the more effective we can be at countering such groups.
IC: How important is Portugal as a transit hub in the European cocaine pipeline?
SF: Portugal has always been a point of reference in the transatlantic cocaine trade. The country lies along some of the traditional transit routes: the northern route, the central route, and the West African coast route.
The first two pass alongside the two Portuguese archipelagos in the Atlantic Ocean, where many vessels make a stop – the Azores and Madeira. The third route runs along the West African Coast and includes countries with which Portugal has historical affinities, such as Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.
Looking at the quantities seized, we can identify periods of high seizures and periods in which they decrease significantly. I think this is due to several factors. Firstly, the activity of specific criminal groups, such as Galician clans in Spain. Secondly, the constant diversification of routes: in recent years, drug trafficking routes have tended to get closer to consumer markets. And thirdly, the law enforcement strategies adopted by Portuguese authorities.
Since 2018, Portugal seems to have taken on a more central role in the cocaine pipeline to Europe. This can be seen from the larger quantities that have been seized and from the involvement of important international criminal groups in drug trafficking through the country.
From 2018 to 2020, Portugal was either in fifth or sixth place in Europe in terms of cocaine seizures. And 12.5 tons of cocaine were already seized from January to June 2022. That is an increase of over 20 percent from the total amount seized in 2021.
IC: What the main countries from which cocaine arrives in Portugal?
SF: Brazil has been the leading country of origin for cocaine seized in Portugal for at least a decade. That’s both in terms of the number of seizures and the quantities seized. However, Colombia may overtake Brazil this year due to the more than eight tons of cocaine seized in Setúbal in June 2022.
These places of provenance have remained relatively stable in recent years. What has changed in the last decade is the large decline in seizures of cocaine from West Africa, particularly Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.
IC: What about personnel? Which Latin American nationalities are most active within the Portuguese cocaine trade?
SF: In the last decade, the role of Brazilians in cocaine trafficking in Portugal has grown substantially. Since 2018, they have represented the second nationality with the highest number of detainees for cocaine trafficking, right after Portuguese citizens.
In addition, some important Brazilian traffickers have maintained links to Portugal, such as Sérgio Roberto de Carvalho, a former major of the Brazilian military police who was recently arrested in June 2022. He lived in Lisbon for two years and was the head of a global trafficking network. Rúben Oliveira, a major Portuguese trafficker, is suspected of having been part of his network.
In addition, Spanish citizens have often been detected, as well as Dutch, Albanians, Colombians, and Venezuelans in smaller numbers. Generally, these individuals do not have major personal connections to Portugal, they have logistical support bases in the country and use it only to traffic drugs.
Portuguese traffickers mostly confine themselves to providing for domestic supply through the direct purchase of cocaine in Latin America, Africa, or other European countries such as Spain. They are rarely part of large-scale cocaine operations. When they are, they typically act as low or mid-level operators rather than leaders.
IC: Brazilian gangs, such as the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), are active in sending cocaine to Europe. Do they have any visible links to Portugal?
SF: The possibility of the PCC being present in Portugal has been discussed since 2009. In recent months, specific media reports have alleged that certain individuals are part of the gang, but their connection to the PCC has not been proven.
One such case, from April 2020, involved the seizure of two tons of cocaine and the arrest of three Brazilians. At least one of them, Dilermando Lisboa Mello, was working with the PCC.
Another case concerned Nelma Kodama, a Brazilian black-market currency trader, who was arrested last April. She was allegedly working for Marcelo Mendonça de Lemos, a high-ranking PCC member, and helped send almost 600 kilograms of cocaine to Lisbon via private plane in early 2021.
As for the CV, one of its drug traffickers was arrested in Portugal's tourist hub of the Algarve in August 2021, but there is no evidence he was in the country for drug trafficking purposes.
IC: Let’s talk transportation. Container shipping continues to be cocaine’s favored transport modality from Latin America to Europe. Is that also the case in Portugal?
SF: Roughly 80 percent of the cocaine seized here comes by sea. In recent years, the use of fishing boats has declined. As for the relative use of containers over yachts, there are annual variations, so I don't think we can label one as being more frequent than the other.
Hiding cocaine in containers of fruit is advantageous as it allows for a regular supply. It can also be facilitated by corrupt infrastructure employees who work with the traffickers.
That said, around 3.5 tons of cocaine circulating on sailboats have also been seized this year. And in 2021, Portugal seized around 5.2 tons of cocaine, its largest single seizure for 15 years, from a yacht.
IC: What about yachts leaving cocaine floating in the ocean for onward pick-up. Does that still happen?
SF: Direct entry into ports is much more common, likely due to increased patrolling. However, Portuguese and Spanish authorities recently carried out a police action against shipyards that were producing speedboats to collect hashish and cocaine around the Iberian Peninsula.
IC: What are the main points of entry for cocaine in Portugal?
SF: In recent years, the commercial ports of Setúbal, Sines, Lisbon, and Leixões in Porto have accounted for more than half of the cocaine seized in the country.
That said, COVID-19 restrictions increased the pressure on commercial ports compared to ports for pleasure yachts, which are more common in the south of Portugal (Portimão, Faro, Lagos) and the two Portuguese archipelagos (Madeira and Azores).
In recent years, we’ve also seen an increase in aerial trafficking, mostly from Brazil, using both private and commercial planes. In the first six months of this year, authorities have frequently seized smaller quantities of drugs, between 20 and 50 kilograms, sent by air cargo.
IC: And approximately how much of that cocaine is destined for the domestic market compared to onward transit?
SF: Only a tiny fraction of the cocaine seized in Portugal is destined for the domestic market. National cocaine consumption is small and of little interest to international groups, especially compared to other European markets in which both the volumes consumed and prices paid are substantially higher.
In fact, data from Europol's European Drug Report 2022 places Portugal in the bottom four countries for prevalence of cocaine use.
IC: Any closing thoughts?
SF: Portuguese authorities have tried hard to crack down on cocaine and have performed well. But we must not forget that cocaine is organized crime’s top commodity, and Europe is the territory where it generates the greatest profits. Authorities can improve on information sharing and cooperation. In most cases, organized crime is transnational, which means fighting it must also be transnational. It is not easy to get consistent, high-level information, so it is becoming ever more crucial to invest in organizations’ analytical capabilities.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.