South America’s cocaine boom is feeding the growing consumption of the drug in Europe, the latest wastewater analysis of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction (EMCDDA) shows.
The EMCDDA measured residues of cocaine, as well as numerous other drugs, from wastewater treatment plants in 104 European cities for one week in 2022.
Wastewater analysis “allows scientists to estimate the volume of drugs consumed by a community by measuring the levels of illicit drugs and their metabolites excreted in urine,” according to the EMCDDA.
The number of cities included in the analysis has increased steadily since it was first carried out in 2011, though some that scored highly in previous years did not participate this time. St. Gallen Hofen, a Swiss town that scored second in cocaine consumption last year was not part of the 2022 dataset. London, which scored highest for cocaine consumption between 2014 and 2016, hasn’t participated since the United Kingdom left the European Union in 2020.
Overall, the wastewater findings confirm that Europe is consuming increasing amounts of cocaine as South America produces more of the drug than ever before.
Here, InSight Crime examines the most interesting findings from the report.
Global Cocaine Bonanza on Show
Over half of the 66 cities that took part in both 2021 and 2022 studies saw an increase in cocaine residues, the report found, with cocaine use remaining highest in western and southern European cities.
This increase took place in parallel to historic levels of coca production in South American countries, boosting the availability of cocaine across the globe.
Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, which produce almost all of the world’s cocaine, seem likely to sustain high production levels. Meanwhile, new production centers may be developing, as organized crime groups in other countries, in particular Venezuela, Honduras, and Guatemala, experiment with cultivating the coca plants used to make the drug.
Europe is one of the key destinations for cocaine, with the routes and modus operandi used to smuggle the narcotic ever-evolving. In the face of the inventiveness of traffickers, huge seizures in both Latin America and Europe appear to have done little to hamper the supply of the drug to the market. A narco-submarine recently found in Galicia, Spain, is the latest example of traffickers using different methods than the more traditional forms including container ships and planes.
Antwerp Lonely at the Top
Belgium’s biggest port city, Antwerp, saw a 50% increase in the amount of cocaine detected in its wastewater between 2021 and 2022. The city, one of the main entrance points for cocaine coming into Europe, has registered the highest levels of cocaine residues each year since 2019. With a cocaine concentration of 2,381 milligrams per 1,000 head of population per day, the city’s cocaine residue was almost double that of its nearest competitor.
Port authorities have significantly stepped up security in recent years, and Antwerp now boasts more seizures than any other European port. Most of the cocaine that does make it past customs is then moved to the Netherlands for further distribution in Europe.
According to the UNODC Global Report on Cocaine 2023, Albanian organized crime groups feature prominently in cocaine distribution from Antwerp and have also “expanded their role in the procurement of cocaine and the development of contacts in South America.”
While Antwerp remains Europe’s foremost port for receiving cocaine, organized crime groups are expanding their routes. For example, cocaine seizures in the French port of Le Havre skyrocketed in 2022. Le Havre is now the most important point of entry in France for cocaine, said French Customs in March when presenting their annual results for 2022, days after a record 1.9-ton seizure.
Tarragona, Spain, Surprises With Second Spot in Cocaine Use
The town of Tarragona in northeastern Spain participated for the first time in the wastewater study and scored second-highest among all participating cities. It remains unclear why.
The prevalence of the use of a specific drug is influenced by a mixture of drug availability, consumer preferences, and cost of the drug, but also where and when data collection is carried out, João Matias, EMCDDA scientific analyst drug use told InSight Crime by email.
However, Tarragona has seen its share of cocaine trafficking incidents. In March 2021, a Europol investigation involving eight nations cracked a Balkan trafficking organization that moved tons of cocaine from Latin America to Spain. Police carried out dramatic raids in Tarragona, along with Barcelona, Gerona, and Valencia, and arrested at least 61 suspects. In April that year, another, smaller operation was broken up, while the same month another Europol bust disbanded a trafficking gang that had moved 23.5 tons of cocaine into Spain from Colombia, and had warehouses in the town, according to Spain’s National Police.
In general, Spain sees high levels of drug consumption and plays an important role in the transnational cocaine trade. Tarragona is located on Spain’s Mediterranean coast between Valencia and Barcelona, both important entry points for cocaine into Europe.
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