The flow of cocaine to Europe may have suffered along with most licit businesses due to the Covid-19 crisis, but few believe the damage to the drug trade will be permanent. The pandemic has accelerated certain aspects of the evolution of cocaine smuggling that will shape its future.
*This article is part of an eight-part investigation that traces the evolution of the European cocaine trade and the Latin American and European criminal networks that have shaped it. The series is the product of field work and investigations over two years in more than 10 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. Read the complete investigation here or download the full PDF.
The production of cocaine – What is not likely to change in the short term is the growth in the supply of cocaine to Europe, as the cultivation of coca appears set to remain steady, or indeed increase, in the three producer nations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. In Colombia, the government of President Iván Duque is not only struggling with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis, but also an increase in violence linked to the civil conflict, now in its sixth decade, combined with social unrest. The United States, desperate to stem the explosive growth of cocaine production, is pushing Colombia to restart the aerial spraying of coca crops with glyphosate chemicals.
There is resistance to this from many sectors of Colombian society due to damage the chemicals cause to the environment and to public health. Peru and Bolivia are in the grip of their own political crises and the fight against drugs has fallen far down the list of government priorities, even as coca cultivation rises.
Political chaos throughout much of Latin America – Problems in the region are not restricted to the coca-growing nations of the Andes, there is chaos throughout much of Latin America. Even before the pandemic, Latin America and the Caribbean were facing the challenges of sharply contracting economies, unsustainable debt and deepening inequality, prompting social turmoil. All of this has lowered state resilience to organized crime and drug trafficking and allowed powerful drug trafficking organizations to penetrate key state institutions and enabling the free flow of cocaine shipments on their way to Europe.
This is particularly true in two nations crucial to the flow of cocaine to Europe: Brazil and Venezuela. Brazil has been identified as the main bridge for cocaine going to Europe. Bordering each of the cocaine producing nations, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, Brazil is deep in crisis, now registering well over six million infected by the coronavirus as of November 2020. President Jair Bolsonaro’s government is under investigation for corruption, and the record levels of deforestation of the Amazon under his stewardship has soured relations with several European nations. All of this, combined with the growing power of the Brazilian prison gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), with its deepening involvement in the international drug trade and control of key ports, means that there is little resistance to the flow of cocaine through Brazil.
Venezuela is the principal transit nation for Colombian cocaine moving into the Caribbean and then onto Europe, as well as some illegal air traffic to West Africa. Despite international sanctions and constant US pressure, President Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power appears undiminished. This failed state is not only facilitating the cocaine trade, but has also become a regional crime hub led by senior figures in the Chavista regime. Here there is zero resistance to the flow of cocaine to Europe.
Continuing expansion of the European drug market – According to EU analysis, the availability of cocaine to consumers in Europe is likely at an all-time high, and consumption rates continue to climb. While the countries with the highest consumption rates continue to be western and southern European nations, the EU’s 2019 Drugs Markets Report also reported evidence of expanding retail markets in northern and eastern Europe.
The Covid-19 restrictions have likely hit cocaine consumption, with the reduction in social interaction, the closing of large-scale party venues etc. It remains to be seen if these conditions hit the cocaine trade in any permanent fashion, or if the current situation provides nothing more than a temporary disruption to drug consumption across Europe.
Increasingly sophisticated game of hide and seek in container traffic – Container shipping remains the principal way to move large cocaine shipments into Europe. While European law enforcement is very aware of the threat and dedicating increasing resources to the tracking and searching of suspect containers, the criminals continue to change their modus operandi in order to camouflage their shipments.
The diversification of cocaine routes into Europe is continuing, with traffickers using different ports to insert their cocaine into containers. Nations like Chile and Uruguay, with little history of drug trafficking, are becoming more popular for drug traffickers. An increase in “rip on, rip off” methods of moving drugs, using unwitting companies and legal products to hide cocaine without the knowledge of owners, will continue apace, neutralizing European efforts to profile suspect companies and points of departure.
One senior European law enforcement official, who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the matter, spoke of a recent phenomenon of “cloning” containers.
“We have intelligence reports of, say, a blue container with a certain registration number being placed onto a ship in Guayaquil, Ecuador, loaded up with cocaine. Then a green container with the same number is unloaded in Europe, with the same cargo, but no sign of the drugs. We never found that blue container nor the cocaine,” said the official.
It is not just departure points from Latin America that are being changed but reception points in Europe and Africa as well. With interdiction improving in the mega-ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, traffickers are looking at secondary ports throughout Europe. The interconnectedness of Europe, particularly the “borderless” European Union, is a major advantage to traffickers and a disadvantage to interdiction efforts. As resilience to cocaine trafficking is stiffened in one nation, traffickers quickly and adroitly shift to another, meaning that the overall flow to Europe is maintained. As such, greater cooperation is the only way forward, not just within the European Union, but with other nations, especially those in the Balkans, which remain outside the EU but have strong mafias involved in the cocaine trade.
Development of different smuggling methods – As cocaine seizures in containers increase, traffickers are starting to shift the methods for transporting drugs across the Atlantic.
“Once we hit 20 percent seizures, then we are reaching a tipping point where traffickers start switching methods. Most of the experts I have spoken to think we have reached the tipping point. There are indications that criminals are now looking for different entry points and different methods. So, we may be about to see a change in the system of how cocaine is smuggled into Europe,” said the senior European policeman. “Now we are seeing different ways to stash drugs on ships. We have seen torpedoes being used, [which are] stuck to the hull, and the discovery of the semi-submersible in Spain was wake up call,” he added, referring to the 2019 seizure of a narco-submarine (officially described as a self-propelled semi-submersible – SPSS) carrying three tons of cocaine off the coast of Galicia.
There is clear evidence that more drug subs or semi submersibles are being produced in Colombia. Colombian Admiral Hernando Mattos reported that in the first eight months of 2020, 27 drug subs had been seized, 14 in Colombian waters and another 13 in international waters, along with more than 31 tons of cocaine that they were carrying.
Not only are the drug subs in their various forms very hard to detect, they are not affected by the Covid-19 restrictions. Therefore, as cocaine piles up in South America, the subs are some of the few vessels that can cross the Atlantic without attracting attention.
Looking ahead, the use of sailing vessels and pleasure craft to move drugs will likely increase as soon as the coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Overall, however, containers will remain important for the foreseeable future.
Upstream presence of European mafias – The European criminal structures still able to put together multi-ton loads of cocaine are those with well-established routes and presence in Latin America, able to negotiate with sellers, transporters and corruption cells to keep the flow of drugs moving.
The Italian mafia and organized crime from the former Yugoslavian countries have led the way in developing these networks. But for Kevin Mills a recently retired 31-year veteran of Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), Albanian criminals are now well placed, and their importance in the cocaine trade to Europe is likely to grow.
“The Albanians have had quite a meteoric rise in the cocaine trade, operating in many parts of Europe, the UK and the Netherlands particularly. If anyone is going to have an advantage in the container trade, it is going to be the Albanians. They have a footprint in Latin America and at many exit points. They still conduct the face to face meetings by having people up here in the region.”
It is likely that the pandemic is pushing European drug-trafficking organizations to increase their upstream presence. This will in turn promote the evolution of a new generation of brokers within Latin American and the Caribbean to feed the various European trafficking groups.
Strengthening of European drug trafficking organizations – The growing profits from cocaine are providing a steady and lucrative stream of income for European drug-trafficking organizations. And it is not just the European consumer market that is strengthening criminal structures, but also money that can be made from cocaine in transit to other parts of the world. In the Netherlands, for example, InSight Crime field research found that Dutch criminal groups charge up to €3 000 (US$3 500) per kilo to extract cocaine shipments from the port of Rotterdam. Given that seizures at Rotterdam reached 30 tons in 2019, suggesting an overall annual flow of around 100 tons of cocaine through the port, Dutch organized crime could be earning up to €300 million (US$355 million) on cocaine going through Rotterdam alone. Almost all of that cocaine was bound for other countries.
There is certainly a lot of cocaine passing through Europe on its way to other parts of the world, and Colombian underworld sources have told InSight Crime that Chinese and Australian markets are being aggressively developed, with the latter being especially lucrative with a kilo of cocaine worth well over $100,000.
European drug-trafficking organizations are also strengthened by the common practice of traffickers handling a wide portfolio of illegal narcotics, and therefore engaging in drug exchanges, for example by swapping heroin for cocaine. This allows the European trafficking groups to maximize profits and quickly adjust to changes in consumer markets.
More downstream presence of Latin American DTOs – It is not just the European criminals who are seeking to maximize profits by participating in as much of the supply and retail chains as possible. Latin American criminals, especially the Colombians, have been selling cocaine in Europe for some four decades.
The Colombians have permanent presence in Spain with up to a dozen “oficinas de cobro,” criminal structures that provide services to different Latin America criminal groups, like debt collection, protection of shipments and even money transfer services to repatriate the proceeds of drug deals. Now, there are yet more opportunities for Latin American organized crime. The rise of home deliveries and online sales, boosted by the coronavirus crisis, has spread into the drug trade, meaning the traditional criminal control of ‘turf’ to facilitate retail sales has become less important, at least for now. This means that Latin American structures based in Europe have also been able to engage in more direct sales in Europe, using not only the dark web, but also more common encrypted-communication applications such as WhatsApp.
It is also worth noting here that the division between Latin American and European organized crime is itself becoming an ever more artificial construct. Most of the cocaine networks operating into Europe have many different nationalities working together, making the division of which particular nationality controls which link in the chain harder and harder to define. Also, different criminal structures, both European and Latin American, ‘pool’ shipments, meaning that they all share in the profits and spread the losses in the case of interdiction. The days of focusing exclusively on a single drug-trafficking organization or national mafia in the hope of dismantling the cocaine trade are long gone.
Use of encryption technology – Due to the fact that European buyers and Latin American sellers have not been able to meet as easily face to face due to the coronavirus restrictions, the use of encryption technology has taken on a new significance to close cocaine deals.
The importance and popularity of encrypted communications for criminals was revealed in July 2020, when European law enforcement broke the EncroChat system. Dutch police alone seized ten tons of cocaine during the resulting ‘Operation Venetic.” British police revealed that an estimated 10,000 criminals in the UK alone paid £1,500 (around $2000) for a six-month contract for the EncroChat handsets.
As mentioned above encryption technology is also used to retail drugs in Europe, although this is still a small percentage of the market.
Increase in drug related violence – Europol has warned of growing violence in Europe linked to cocaine trade conflicts, as more actors seeks a slice of an ever-growing pie. While murder rates are still relatively low, drug-related violence is becoming more common and ostentatious, such as in the cases of the Dutch Taghi organization, or the Montenegrin clans Škaljari and Kavač. There have been reports of Italian organized crime figures being murdered in Germany, and Balkan criminal assassinations in the Netherlands, as cocaine networks settle scores.
However, it is generally accepted that the use of extreme violence is counterproductive in the long term, attracting the attention of law enforcement and forcing politicians to take action. In Latin America, proponents of extreme violence, like the Zetas in Mexico, have been the target of extended national and international offensives that allowed lower profile groups, like the Sinaloa Cartel, to operate with greater freedom. However, in Europe, some of the rising drug trafficking networks, like Albanian organized crime groups, have made use of violence to position themselves. It does seem however that many Balkan mafia networks, with their reputations established, are now scaling back violence and concentrating on promoting business, according to British NCA sources.
The most sophisticated criminal groups, both Latin American and European, are instead increasingly turning to the application of corruption.
“Corruption is creeping up slowly in Western societies in a way we have not seen before. Ten years ago, if you found a corrupt port official or Customs agent, this was huge news. Now it is becoming more common,” said the senior European policeman.
The rise of the “invisibles” – Many of the more sophisticated drug traffickers have realized that their best protection lies not in a private army and extensive security, but rather in keeping a very low profile. These traffickers, whom we call the invisibles, make Herculean efforts to remain off the radar of authorities, using brokers, and ensuring they have no digital or social media footprint, as well as maintaining a solid legal façade for their business.
“There are indications of very smart traffickers, moving huge quantities of cocaine, without attracting much attention,” said the senior European policeman. “European police do not have the complete overview of the business and we tend to focus on those that use violence. In Spain there are Brits, Dutch, and other mobsters with no criminal records moving a lot of dope. Law enforcement is falling behind.”
InSight Crime profiled a Colombian “invisible,” living in Spain, who for years moved cocaine into Europe, and who at the time of writing has no arrest warrants pending on either side of the Atlantic. Guillermo Acevedo, alias “Memo Fantasma” (Will the Ghost) is now under investigation by both Colombian and Spanish authorities, as a result of our investigation.
Europe as a money laundering center – Europe is a major money laundering center and among the worst offenders are some of the more “respectable” countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. These countries have shown little appetite for serious reform, while eastern European nations have much lower appetite for tackling the influx of drug money into the economy and into the political arenas.
Brexit could further exacerbate this, with the NCA saying laundering opportunities will increase as resilience lowers along with cooperation with the European Union.
The panorama for cocaine trafficking to Europe is a dark one for authorities. While European and Latin government struggle to contain Covid-19 and the economic carnage the coronavirus is leaving in its wake, organized crime sees new opportunities. Although, the Covid-19 crisis has also presented challenges to transnational organized crime, the evidence suggests it is adapting quickly. If European cocaine consumption recovers quickly and new markets in eastern Europe are further developed, Europe could rival the United States in terms of its cocaine problem. Indeed, if huge cocaine consignments controlled by European mafias transit the European Union on their way to other markets in Asia, the challenges could even surpass those faced by the United States.
*Investigation for this article was conducted by James Bargent, Maria Fernanda Ramírez, Douwe den Held and Owen Boed.
 According to the 2019 EU Drugs Report, six countries, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, reported prevalence of cocaine use among young adults of more than 2.5 % in the previous year.
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