The Illicit Trade Of Cocaine Has Become Bloodier, More Fragmented And More Competitive: Report

September 9, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

The latest report in the Cocaine Insights series, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Europol takes a hard look at the trade in the illegal drug around the world, highlighting some of the challenges that are emerging. To sum it up in a single line, the report lists three main characteristic features of the cocaine trade today in Europe: it’s more violent, diverse and competitive.

New dynamics in the cocaine market represent a clear threat to European and global security. “Cocaine trafficking is one of the key security concerns we are facing in the EU right now. Nearly 40% of the criminal groups active in Europe are involved in drugs trafficking, and the cocaine trade generates multi-billion-euro in criminal profits. Understanding better the challenges we face will help us to counter more effectively the violent threat that cocaine trafficking networks represent to our communities.” said Julia Viedma, Head of Department of the Operational and Analysis Centre at Europol.

The supply chain to Europe has increased its efficiency and ultimately the accessibility of cocaine to European consumers. The fragmentation of the criminal landscape in source countries has created new opportunities for European criminal networks to receive a direct supply of cocaine, cutting out the intermediaries. For instance, there has been a fragmentation of the criminal landscape in Colombia, the prime source for cocaine.

“While cocaine oligopolies tended in the past to supply a limited number of trusted established wholesale traffickers, the removal of centralized control over much of the cocaine supply chain and the opening of the cocaine supply market in Colombia may now be providing an opportunity for smaller international trafficking organizations to gain access to supplies and wholesale quantities of cocaine,” the report said.

This has meant that new alliances have been forged between criminal groups and also increased opportunities for criminal networks in Europe to source cocaine. This has been borne out by the increased purity of drugs seized in Europe. Convergence of the United States and European markets and expansion of the cocaine market can be seen in the level of cocaine purity that has reached the same level in both geographies and is on the increase.

The report also notes a shift in the epicenter of the European cocaine network, with the focus now shifting to the north. “The increased use of containerized shipments relying on the high-volume ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg has consolidated the role of the Netherlands as a staging point and led to continental Europe’s North Sea coast overtaking the Iberian peninsula as the primary point of entry for cocaine reaching Europe,” the report observed.

Customs seizure data indicate that cocaine continued to be seized in large quantities in 2020, notably at seaports. In addition to the established major ports, secondary smaller seaports are increasingly used as entry points to traffic cocaine to the EU. Data available from 2021 shows that there were as many as 4.4 million cocaine users in the Western and Central Europe.

A byproduct of the increased drug trade has been an “an increase in the occurrence of assassinations, shootings, bombings, arsons, kidnappings, torture and intimidation.” The report noted that the nature of violence has also changed as a result.

The report found that there were several factors that influenced how alliances were made between suppliers of cocaine from South America and distributors in Europe. “Historical, cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties, such as those between Portugal and the rest of the lusophone world, or Spain and Spanish-speaking countries in South America, may also facilitate links of a criminal nature,” the report posited.

Spanish speaking countries in the Americas accounted for 74-91% of seizure cases in Spain in the period between 2007 and 2011. The report suggested that alliances were not forged overnight and the time taken for trust to be gained between parties could be aided by family ties or a history of working together.

It was also noted that different modes of transport were being used to get the drugs into Europe. In France in 2017 and the United Kingdom in 2018, large shipments were seized from private charter airplanes landing in smaller airfields. In 2019, Spanish authorities recovered 3 tons of cocaine from a semi-submersible vessel which had been scuttled off the Galician coast. In February 2021, Spanish police found a similar vessel under construction in the Malaga region, which was presumably intended for cocaine trafficking. 

Seizures in Europe had increase to 200 tons in 2018 as compared to a little over a 100 tons in 2005. In 2020, Antwerp had the highest seizures, 66 tons, with Rotterdam coming in second at 33 tons. For Antwerp this implied a massive spike, with fewer than 10 tons being seized there in 2013.

A facility that could produce 150-200 tons of cocaine a day, from precursor materials, was dismantled in Nijveen, 20 km northeast of Amsterdam, the report added.

While the report threw up these insights, it noted that there was still much to be learned and highlighted three questions where a “knowledge gap” still existed:

  • What is the scope of the presence and the activities of South American criminal networks based in Europe and which exact function do they play in maintaining the flow of cocaine from production to destination regions?
  • How has the role of West African and North African countries evolved as transit and, potentially, as destination countries for cocaine produced in South America and trafficked to destination markets in Europe and elsewhere?
  • Who are the main local interlocutors for European criminal networks maintaining a presence in South America in order to procure wholesale quantities of cocaine and facilitate its trafficking to Europe?