Repeated seizures along the United Kingdom’s southern coast have shown how the area is gaining relevance as a secondary route for drug flows from Latin America.
On April 5, UK authorities announced the interdiction of 3.7 metric tons of cocaine in mid-March, which had arrived at the English port of Southampton hidden in a shipping container of bananas from Colombia. It was the country’s largest cocaine seizure since 2015.
In January, a nearly identical operation in Southampton found roughly 100 kilograms of cocaine, also in a shipment of bananas from Colombia. A year earlier, in January 2021, 900 kilograms of cocaine were found in another container of Colombian bananas, transiting Southampton for the Belgian port of Antwerp.
Similar seizures also occurred during 2021 in nearby Portsmouth and off the coast of Plymouth, with over 2 metric tons of cocaine intercepted in each case. These were dispatched from Colombia and the Caribbean, respectively. The latter action resulted in the arrests of five Nicaraguan nationals on a Jamaican-flagged luxury yacht.
Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) recently released statistics highlighting how cocaine seizures nationwide shot up in volume by 161 percent between early 2020 and early 2021. And the increase is likely not just down to better enforcement, according to Roy McComb, ex-deputy director of the NCA and currently an international consultant on organized crime.
“There is definitely an improvement in the law enforcement response… between the Americas and the UK, and, I would suggest, good cooperation between UK and Europe,” he told InSight Crime. “[However] I consider there is now a greater flow of cocaine that is in part being seen in greater seizures.”
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The UK is believed to be Europe’s biggest cocaine market. This makes ports such as Southampton - Britain’s second busiest port for container trade - attractive targets for international traffickers, although they remain secondary to the continental hubs of Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg.
“There is a growth of UK-based [cocaine traffickers] directly engaging wholesalers in Latin America,” said Roy McComb. "Some of the larger seizures have been made at sea because of the opportunities [for law enforcement] that the direct engagement and direct shipping option created.”
However, McComb emphasized that the huge UK cocaine market is still mostly supplied with cocaine that has already arrived on the continent, primarily via western Europe.
“It is hard to put a percentage figure on the amount of direct UK shipments, but I would speculate it is in the low single digit percentages,” he said.
More commonly, the cocaine-filled containers do not travel directly from Latin America to the UK, but rather transit first through at least one other country. In the case of the southern UK ports, these indirect routes may also involve ports in Africa or the Middle East, said Anna Sergi, professor of criminology at the University of Essex.
“They are important in as much as there are direct connections from certain key areas of the world, including some European ports, of course, and some special routes from Africa or from Dubai,” she told InSight Crime.
Finally, corruption is a key vulnerability, since like all English ports, the southern seaports are privately owned, meaning less transparency and oversight.
“[It’s] a concern because there is no data, there is no easy access for border force, for law enforcement and the NCA,” said Sergi. “You don't actually know the scope of the threat.”