Cocaine processing has taken root on European soil, Mexican and Dutch synthetic drug traffickers have partnered up, and a new chemical technique is encouraging the establishment of super-labs in Europe’s methamphetamine trade.
These are among the most striking conclusions of a new report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addition (EMCDDA) and the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) analyzing recent shifts in the European cocaine and methamphetamine markets.
The analysis highlights the explosion of the European cocaine retail sector, which it values at an estimated $11 billion in 2020. Europe seized 214.6 metric tons of the drug in 2020, marking a fourth consecutive year of record seizures. Preliminary data from 2021 and 2022 suggest the trend is continuing and even growing.
Meanwhile, Mexican methamphetamine is revolutionizing the continent’s growing synthetic drug trade, displacing inferior product in both physical and darknet markets, converting MDMA chemists into meth makers, and turning Europe into a giant transit zone for cargoes headed from Latin America to the Asia-Pacific region.
Below, InSight Crime discusses five major takeaways from the EMCDDA’s latest report.
European Cocaine Production Booming
Europe is producing cocaine at a much higher degree of sophistication than previously realized, the report argues.
Until recently, cocaine processing laboratories in Europe were limited to “secondary extraction facilities,” where cocaine is recovered from materials in which it has been concealed for transport. Since the mid-2010s, however, raids on laboratories in Spain and the Netherlands, and seizures of coca base – the raw material for cocaine production – show that Europe is assuming a growing role in the cocaine production chain.
While the EMCDDA has warned of this development since 2017, the new report details seizure trends of cocaine precursor chemicals in Europe that suggest the process has advanced alarmingly. Furthermore, analysis of the laboratories dismantled in the Netherlands indicate that Europe is producing cocaine at a level of efficiency and purity that may outstrip Latin America.
Factors the report lists in support of this hypothesis include the chemicals found at these laboratories, many of which are produced in European countries like Germany, Poland and Spain, and are likely to be of higher quality than those found in Latin America. The types of chemicals found also suggest that the laboratories are carrying out the relatively novel re-oxidation process to standardize cocaine batches and increase efficiency of production.
Still more concerning, according to the report, is the evidence of active collaboration and knowledge exchange between Latin American and European criminal networks to optimize these processes. This is shown not only by arrests of Colombian chemists at European laboratories, but also by the laboratories themselves, which are built on the Colombian model, but to higher specifications.
Peruvian Cocaine Gains Ground in Europe
Coca grown in Colombia has long dominated the cocaine market in both the US and Europe. But the report details chemical analysis of European cocaine samples that suggests this is now changing.
Just over half of all European samples analyzed by the Cocaine Signature Program (CSP) run by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were of Colombian origin, representing a sharp drop from the 68 percent reported in the EMCDDA’s previous 2019 study. Over the same period, samples of Peruvian origin leapt from 19 percent to 32 percent, and samples of Bolivian origin stayed constant at five percent.
This shift may be partly due to production trends, as estimated coca cultivation decreased seven percent in Colombia during 2020, while increasing by 13 percent in Peru and 15 percent in Bolivia. It may also reflect the expansion of criminal networks moving Peruvian cocaine through Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. Over the last five years, Brazilian crime groups such as the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) have partnered with Italian mafias to turn Brazilian ports such as Santos into hubs for the transatlantic cocaine trade, while enormous cocaine seizures in Germany and Belgium have been traced to the river ports of Paraguay.
Furthermore, the CSP finds a strong correlation between cocaine of Peruvian and Bolivian origin and cocaine produced using the “clean ethyl acetate processing” method, resulting in a chemical cocaine signature that is practically exclusive to European cocaine samples. The report hypothesizes that criminal networks are trafficking large amounts of intermediary products such as coca paste from Peru and Bolivia across the Atlantic, to process on European soil.
However, European countries have reported no large seizures of coca paste in recent years, suggesting a large intelligence gap around this trafficking strategy.
Ever More Cocaine Arrival and Departure Points
The vast majority of cocaine still arrives in Europe in maritime shipping containers. As law enforcement cracks down on known trafficking hotspots, the trade is spreading to ever more regions.
The report lists the main dispatch countries for cocaine to Europe in 2020 as Brazil (71 metric tons), Ecuador (67.5 tons), Colombia (32 tons) and Costa Rica (20.4 tons). While the first three have long been recognized as transatlantic dispatch countries, Cost Rica was a new addition. In 2020, InSight Crime highlighted how the emergence of Costa Rican cocaine brokers was helping to drive a surge of cocaine exports to Europe from the port of Limón.
While the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain remain Europe’s primary cocaine hubs, transshipment points are also multiplying. In particular, the report notes a spate of cocaine seizures in North African countries such as Morocco, Libya and Algeria. This suggests that longstanding cocaine routes through West Africa may now have spread northwards, possibly capitalizing on preexisting hashish trafficking networks. The report also notes increased seizures in Western Balkan countries such as Albania and Montenegro. Both are home to powerful drug trafficking clans that have been steadily expanding their influence in Latin America.
Mexico’s Master Chefs of Methamphetamine
A decade ago, Europe’s methamphetamine trade was small and localized, with both production and consumption mostly confined to Czechia and its immediate neighbors. These artisanal drug kitchens rarely manufactured more than 50 grams and the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine-based process was hard to scale up.
A decade later, that has all changed, courtesy of Mexico’s pioneering meth chemists. First contracted by local crime groups in the late 2010s, these professionals – experts in the large scale production of methamphetamine for the US market – arrived in Belgium and the Netherlands, the continent’s largest producers of synthetic drugs like amphetamine and MDMA.
In 2019, Mexicans or other Latin Americans were arrested in connection with three meth laboratories in the Netherlands, with Mexican collaboration suspected in two other cases. The following year, that number would double, with nine cases reported in which Latin American cooks were involved, mostly Mexicans but also including some Colombian and Dominican nationals.
A trans-Atlantic collaboration soon developed. Dutch criminal networks would provide the laboratory, the equipment, the chemical precursors, and the waste disposal – the Mexicans would supply the cooks, either receiving payment per kilogram of product or via a portion of the drug load.
The chemists brought with them a new production method whose ability to “recycle” waste product, previously lost by Czech meth cooks, meant an infinitely greater purity and yield. Since 2019, this has allowed for the concentration of Dutch meth production into a small number of industrial scale “super-labs”.
To understand the importance of this change, one simply needs to look at global seizures of a precursor chemical called “BMK” (benzyl-methyl-ketone) – the primary ingredient in one of the two main meth-making processes. In 2020, Mexico made the world’s largest seizures of BMK; the world’s second largest seizures were in the Netherlands.
The Mexican Meth Road to Europe
Besides assisting in ramping up domestic output, Mexican drug trafficking networks have also turned Europe into both a growing consumer market and important transit hub.
While still small, Europe's meth consumer market is higher than ever, with the quantity of methamphetamine reported seized in the European Union between 2010 and 2020 increasing by 477 percent. This has included several multi-ton interdictions of drugs coming from Mexico, mostly hidden among legitimate goods traveling by shipping container.
In 2020, meth from Mexico prompted two record seizures: 1.6 tons in Slovakia and about 750 kilograms in Spain. Then in 2021, Bulgaria interdicted 450 liters of Mexican liquid meth, the world's second largest seizure, while Spanish authorities dismantled a drug trafficking ring active in Spain and the Netherlands, which had smuggled 2.5 tons of crystal meth linked to Mexico’s Beltrán Leyva Cartel. The investigation suggested an attempt to generate European demand for crystal meth, states the EMCDDA report.
Additionally, Mexican product has quickly come to dominate online meth markets, which are mostly provisioned by a small but steady drug flow arriving in Europe by postal package. Though references to Mexican methamphetamine only began to appear across darknet markets in late 2017, by 2018 around half of all methamphetamine listings that year were linked to Mexican production.
However in global terms Europe remains a limited market for methamphetamine, Mexican or otherwise. That means profits are still relatively low, with the EMCDDA statistics showing that in 2019 the average Dutch retail price for a gram of meth was $58.
By contrast, that same year a Reuters investigation found the equivalent price per gram was $70 in Thailand, 298$ in Australia and $588 in Japan. As a result, the EMCDDA reports that the majority of European meth output may be intended for more lucrative markets in East Asia and Oceania. Certain European countries, such as Spain, are thereby also playing a growing role as transit points, pinballing European and Mexican methamphetamine loads across the globe.