Cocaine is flooding into Europe as drug market continues to evolve

A cocaine lab near Madrid

A cocaine lab near Madrid. (Policia National)

BARCELONA, Spain – Three weeks ago, police discovered something odd in the farmlands of central Spain: a surveillance drone hovering over a forest. Pushing inside, they discovered something never seen before in Spain: an outdoor drug lab set up under a tarp where Colombian chemists were extracting cocaine poured into concrete powder. .

Last month, Spanish police also seized 1,843 pounds of cocaine and closed several labs and processing centers just outside Barcelona, ​​and seized six remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with hidden compartments built to transport cocaine from Africa in July. to transport Spain. On Wednesday, the Spanish National Police announced that they had seized an additional 145 pounds of pure cocaine hidden in industrial rolling machines shipped from Peru. About 300 tons of cocaine were seized across Europe last year, but according to Europol’s deputy spokesman Claire Georges, the amount seized is only “a tiny fraction of what’s coming in”.

These recent arrests, made possible in large part by advances in wiretapping criminals’ encrypted phones, underscore a reality Europe’s drug authorities have warned about: that more cocaine than ever is pouring into the continent, where South American chemists, traffickers and local mafia are helping. to market it.

With ever smarter ways to smuggle the drug and its coca base – including infusing cocaine into plastic chips, charcoal or clothing – authorities and analysts think they may find only 10-15% or just 1% of what comes into Europe, a booming cocaine market that now rivals that in the United States.

Drug police officers in the seaport

Police officers approach a container ship in the port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, which has become a center of drug smuggling. (John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

“The number of shipments coming in has increased, the number of bans has increased,” forensic expert Andrew Cunningham, chief of the markets, crime and supply reduction division at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, Portugal, told Yahoo News. . “Cocaine use has increased and the quality of what’s on the street has improved.” The only thing that isn’t up, Cunningham said, is the price. On the street, cocaine is still sold for about $65 per gram, although the drug’s potency has increased. In Europe, there is less pruning — making it stronger — apparently because traffickers have so much product “they want to get rid of it quickly,” Cunningham said.

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Authorities say there is now a surplus of the drug, with chemists turning some of it into highly addictive crack cocaine or mixing it with deadly fentanyl. Global cocaine production is breaking all records – reaching 1,800 tons in 2019, and the number has increased every year since then.

In recent years, traffickers have increasingly sought to expand their customer base in Europe, where cocaine can fetch double the wholesale price of that in the US. actors are now involved in the production, smuggling and distribution of cocaine across the continent.

A police officer walks through a display of seized packages of cocaine

Packets of cocaine seized at a police base in Cartagena, Colombia, earlier on their way to the port of Rotterdam. (Felipe Caicedo/AP)

Since the breakup of the Colombian Medellin and Cali cartels in the 1990s, “the trend in drug trafficking has moved away from monolithic, centrally controlled operations and towards increasingly multinational, decentralized networks, involving many different trafficking cells, often specialized roles,” said James Bargent, a journalist at InsightCrime who co-authored “The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe,” a report released by Global Initiative. He added that “these fluid networks are more flexible, agile and less vulnerable to law enforcement because each node knows little about the other and can often be easily replaced if one is removed.”

Over the past 15 years, Albanian crime groups have emerged and Colombian and Dominican people smugglers have moved to Europe to oversee operations from Spain, long a major hub for cocaine entry. However, it is now believed that most smuggled cocaine enters via shipping containers into the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands – the largest in Europe – and the nearby port of Antwerp, Belgium.

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“The Netherlands has always been a country associated with drug trafficking, but that’s because it’s a country that’s a transportation hub,” criminologist Lieselot Bisschop, professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, told Yahoo News. “There is a lot of infrastructure that facilitates trade in general. Illegal trade can piggyback on legal trade,” she added.

Belgian customs officers search for drugs in container in port of Antwerp

Belgian customs officers search for drugs in a container in the port of Antwerp. (Francois Walschaerts/AFP via Getty Images)

With almost 9 million containers passing through the Dutch port every year, Georges from Europol adds, “it is impossible to check everything, given the volume, and [smugglers] take advantage of the situation.”

In 2021, authorities seized more than 70 tons of cocaine with a street value of more than $3.5 billion in that port alone – a new record. “But this is just the tip of the iceberg”, says a message on the website of the Port of Rotterdam Authority. “It appears that these drug seizures don’t really hinder criminal activity.”

While the amount of cocaine entering the region has skyrocketed, so has the number of traffickers and distributors, narcotics, murders and public shootings, all of which have shaken traditionally tolerant Dutch society. Jan Struijs, chairman of the Dutch Police Association’s police union, said his country has recently turned into “a narco-state”.

But European intelligence services recently received a huge boost. In 2021, French, Belgian and Dutch authorities cracked into the encrypted networks of criminals, including the network most used by drug traffickers, Sky ECC, giving them access to more than 4 million messages. “We could see the conversations happening live between drug traffickers and other criminal groups,” Georges said. “This has completely changed law enforcement about the criminal underworld. A truly groundbreaking moment.”

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Many of the ongoing outages across Europe were facilitated by shutting down the telephone networks, “because we realized who is working with whom and the location of the labs,” Georges said. As a result, hundreds of alleged cocaine traffickers and distributors have been arrested, drug seizures have skyrocketed and dozens of labs across Europe have been closed.

Bales of cocaine

Bales of cocaine weighing more than 5 tons are displayed for the media at a Portuguese naval base in Almada, south of Lisbon. (Armando Franca/AP)

Europol is also lagging behind another group that has sometimes proven to be an integral part of the smuggling network: dock workers. According to Europol, dockers can be offered up to 10% of a load to look the other way.

Despite the progress made, the authorities recognize that it will be difficult to maintain the pressure. Criminal networks are rapidly adapting and changing delivery ports, with smaller European ports now being preferred.

Drug traffickers and law enforcement have long been engaged in a sort of “arms race” when it comes to human trafficking methods, InsightCrime’s Bargent said. “Every time law enforcement develops new methods or improves its capacity for detection or interdiction, traffickers have two options: they look for new routes or they develop new techniques, driving the increasing sophistication of smuggling methods.”

Some traffickers chemically transform cocaine to look like pet food or be administered in industrial materials such as plastic, Bargent said. Other smugglers have dressed up as nuns or sewed their cocaine catch into “fake buttocks”.

Bishop is concerned that cocaine users are not linking their party material to the effects of organized crime groups, whose presence has been linked to increased violence, firearms and human trafficking. “I just spoke to a student who said she was surprised that her cocaine-using peers don’t seem to know or care about it. I don’t know if everyone connects the dots.”

Georges believes that if current trends continue, cocaine users could change their activities and attitudes.

“Violence is on the rise in Europe,” Georges said. “And that’s mainly due to increased competition, especially in the drug trade.” She added that while she hopes drug offenses will be curtailed, “if the violence starts to reach the streets,” as in parts of the Netherlands, “there could be a change in public perception of this drug.”

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