Cocaine invades Europe as the drug market continues to evolve

A cocaine lab near Madrid. (National Police)

BARCELONA, Spain — Three weeks ago, in farmland in central Spain, police spotted something strange: a surveillance drone hovering over a forest. Pushing on, they discovered something never seen before in Spain: an open-air drug lab set up under a tarp where Colombian chemists were extracting cocaine that had been infused into concrete powder, a process that, according to police, smuggled 264 pounds of cocaine into the country each week.

Spanish police also seized 1,843 pounds of cocaine last month and shut down several labs and treatment centers just outside Barcelona, ​​and in July seized six remotely operated unmanned submarines fitted with hidden compartments built to transport cocaine to Spain from Africa. On Wednesday, Spanish national police announced they seized an additional 145 pounds of pure cocaine hidden in industrial rolling mills shipped from Peru. Last year, around 300 tonnes of cocaine were seized across Europe, but according to Europol deputy spokeswoman Claire Georges, the amount seized represents only “a very small part of what happens”. .

These recent explosions, largely made possible by advances in tapping the encrypted phones of criminals, underscore a reality that European drug authorities have warned against: more cocaine than ever is pouring into the continent, where chemists, traffickers and local South American mafias help bring it to market.

With increasingly clever ways of smuggling the drug and its coca base – including infusing cocaine into plastic shavings, charcoal or clothing – authorities and analysts believe they may only find 10-15%, or even 1%, of what happens. in Europe, a booming market for cocaine that now rivals that of the United States.

Seaport Drug Enforcement Officers

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

“The number of inbound shipments has gone up, the ban rate has gone up,” forensic expert Andrew Cunningham, who leads the Markets, Crime and Disaster Reduction unit, told Yahoo News. offer to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, Portugal. . “Cocaine use has increased and the quality of what is on the street has improved.” The only thing that’s not up to snuff, Cunningham said, is the price. On the street, cocaine still sells for around $65 a gram, even though the potency of the drug has increased. In Europe, it’s cut less – which adds to its strength – apparently because traffickers have so much product that they “want to get rid of it quickly”, Cunningham said.

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

In recent years, traffickers have increasingly sought to expand their customer base in Europe, where cocaine can fetch twice the wholesale price of that in the United States. And while Colombian cartels have historically only dealt with Italian mafias, which controlled its entry into Europe, new criminal actors are now involved in the production, smuggling and distribution of cocaine across the continent.

A police officer browses a display of seized cocaine packets

Seizure of cocaine packets at a police base in Cartagena, Colombia, previously bound for Rotterdam. (Felipe Caicedo/AP)

Since the break-up of the Colombian cartels in Medellín and Cali in the 1990s, “the trend of drug trafficking has moved away from monolithic, centrally controlled operations and towards ever more multinational and decentralized networks, involving numerous cells of traffic, which often have specialized roles”. said InSight Crime reporter James Bargent, co-author of “The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe,” a report published by the Global Initiative. He added that “these fluid networks are more flexible and agile, and less vulnerable to law enforcement, because each node knows little about the others and can often be easily replaced if one is taken down.”

Over the past 15 years, Albanian criminal groups have entered the scene and Colombian and Dominican traffickers have moved to Europe to oversee operations from Spain, long a major hub for the entry of cocaine. Today, however, most smuggled cocaine is believed to arrive via shipping containers at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands – the largest in Europe – and the neighboring port of Antwerp, Belgium.

“The Netherlands has always been a country linked to some drug trafficking, but that’s because it’s a country that’s a transportation hub,” criminologist Lieselot Bisschop, a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam. “There is a lot of infrastructure that facilitates trade overall. Illegal trade can overlap with legal trade.

Belgian customs officers search for drugs in a container at the port of Antwerp

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

With nearly 9 million containers passing through the Dutch port each year, adds Georges of Europol, “it is impossible to control everything, given the volume, and [smugglers] take advantage of the situation. »

In 2021, authorities seized more than 70 tonnes of cocaine with a street value of over $3.5 billion at this port alone – a new record. “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said a report on the Port of Rotterdam’s website. “It seems like these drug seizures aren’t really hampering criminal activity.”

As the amount of cocaine entering the region skyrocketed, the number of traffickers and distributors, narcocrimes, murders and public shootings also skyrocketed, shaking the traditionally tolerant Dutch society. Jan Struijs, president of the Dutch police union PolitieBond, recently said his country had turned into “a narco-state”.

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

Many of the ongoing bankruptcies across Europe were facilitated by the removal of telephone networks, “when we realized who was working with whom and where the labs were,” Georges said. Hundreds of suspected cocaine traffickers and distributors have been arrested, drug seizures have exploded and dozens of laboratories have been closed across Europe.

Bullets of cocaine

Cocaine bullets weighing more than 5 tonnes at a Portuguese navy base in Almada, south of Lisbon. (Armando Franca/AP)

Europol is also pursuing another group that has sometimes turned out to be an integral part of the smuggling network: dockworkers. According to Europol, port workers can be offered up to 10% of a shipment to look away.

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

Drug traffickers and law enforcement have long been engaged in something of an “arms race” when it comes to trafficking methods, InSight Crime’s Bargent said. “Whenever law enforcement develops new methods or improves their detection or interdiction capability, traffickers have two options: they seek new routes or they develop new techniques, resulting in the increasing sophistication of smuggling methods”.

Some traffickers chemically transform cocaine to look like pet food or infuse it into industrial materials like plastic, Bargent said. Other traffickers dressed up as nuns or sewed their cocaine loot into “fake buttocks”.

Bisschop worries that cocaine addicts don’t connect their party supplies with the effects of organized crime groups, whose presence is linked to increased violence, guns and human trafficking. “I was just speaking with a student who said she was surprised that her peers who use cocaine didn’t seem to know or care. I don’t know if everyone makes the connection.

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

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