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new report Europe has become the 'most attractive cocaine market in the world'

US has been replaced as No.1 spot for cartels and drug traffickers


A Colombian soldier guards 13.2 tons of cocaine.

A Colombian soldier guards 13.2 tons of cocaine.

A Colombian soldier guards 13.2 tons of cocaine.

Europe has become the most attractive cocaine market in the world.

But drug traffickers, including the Kinahan cartel, have been hit on six fronts by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report on organised crime.

The Cocaine Pipeline report, jointly produced by InSight Crime and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, found that while the pandemic has hampered drug trafficker networks it is likely to be just a temporary blip.

Irish organised crime groups like the Kinahan cartel have significantly profited from the trade in recent years, forming alliances with other European and international crime networks and enjoying what the report says is a "cocaine steroid effect".

"Cocaine is a criminal steroid. Those that gain access to its riches enjoy accelerated growth and power, usually leaving a trail of violence and corruption in their wake. And today, there are more opportunities than ever for criminal groups to access cocaine in both Latin America and Europe," the report said.

The report outlines the real life version of the hit crime drama ZeroZeroZero, starring Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, which shows the global connections in the cocaine trade.

Cocaine production in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru doubled in the five years to 2018 and while the rate of growth has slowed recently there is no sign of demand for drug as having peaked - and Europe is beginning to rival the US mainland as the main destination for cocaine for a variety of reasons, the report found.

"For the time being, Europe's market size, prices, risk levels, and its shipping infrastructure - moving millions of tons of goods to every corner of the earth - make it arguably the most attractive cocaine market in the world.

"When Colombia's cartels made their first tentative deals with Galician smugglers and the Italian mafia to move cocaine into Europe in the 1980s, it would have been unthinkable that one day they might shy away from the United States in favour of the old continent. But today, it is a business no-brainer."

However, the traffickers, like most businesses, have been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kevin Mills, who recently retired from the British National Crime Agency after a 31-year career, told the report authors that Covid is impacting on the cocaine trade in six main ways.

Kevin, who currently works as a security and investigations consultant in Comobia's capital, Bogotá, said there has been a reduction in container traffic from Latin America to Europe.

"In the first months of the pandemic, there was a drop in the volume of containers coming into Europe. A rise in seizures on the continent in the first half of 2020 might have been the result of traffickers trying to move the same amount of cocaine in a shrinking flow of containers, thus running a greater risk of discovery."

He added that restrictions on personal travel in and out of Latin America over the last five months are also having an impact.

"There is no ability for criminals and planners to fly out [to Colombia] as there is no incoming travel, which makes planning and closing deals more complicated, and there is no outgoing travel that permits a small, but a frequent supply of mules, or cocaine that is hidden in air cargo or suitcases."

The massive drop in sailing craft crossing the Atlantic and moving through the Caribbean is another issue for traffickers.

"The yachting threat has been really resurgent in the last two to three years from the eastern Caribbean. That is completely dead in the water at the moment, because vessels cannot move between countries."

The overall reduction in maritime traffic has also meant vessels spotted off the South American coast attract a lot more attention, as do foreign vessels seeking to dock.

"The movement of heavy cargo, tugs, fishing vessels, again because of the issue of crossing maritime borders, has taken a huge hit."

The massive drop in air traffic is also causing problems.

"Few nations are giving the same sort of permissions for private planes to land, meaning that charter flights cannot operate as before and the overall reduction in flying means that illegal flights have less traffic in which to hide."

With various lockdowns and restrictions in place around Europe, there has also been a drop in places to sell cocaine to users with social venues closed and fewer parties taking place, while people also have less money to spend. Mills said this was only a temporary state of affairs and traffickers are already adapting.

Law enforcement officers told the report authors about a recent phenomenon of cloning shipping containers.

One, speaking on condition on anonymity, said: "We have intelligence reports of say a blue container with a certain registration number being placed on to 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," he said.

The popular "rip-on, rip-off" method of moving drugs is also increasing, according to the report.

The method involves stashing cocaine in with legitimate shipments being transported by unwitting companies without the knowledge of the owners.

The traffickers are also using methods like transporting cocaine in their own submarines to avoid detection or using torpedoes to drag along cocaine shipments which can be dumped if authorities come to search the vessel.

The report said European groups such as Tito and Dino, Grupa Amerika, the 'Ndrangheta and the Galicians have grown enormously wealthy and powerful from cocaine.

But unlike the Mexican cartels in the United States, none of them have the capacity to shut other European actors out of the market.

"Irish, British, French, Dutch, Turkish, and Belgian actors also play a key role in the supply chain both up and downstream, and InSight Crime has also received reports of the growing presence of organised crime groups from Russia and other former Soviet states in Latin America.

"Furthermore, in today's ever more fluid underworld, none of these groups have the capacity to run cocaine routes from production to retail single-handedly. Instead, they constantly form networks and alliances with different actors from all across the globe."

In 2019, US Drug Enforcement Agency documents revealed the Kinahan organisation had formed a supercartel with the Balkan mob known as the Tito and Dino cartel, the Dutch Moroccan Mafia, allegedly led by Ridouan Taghi, and other organised crime gangs with links to the Italian mafia and South America.

Taghi is currently awaiting trail on gangland offences in the Netherlands which could see him locked up for life.

The report said the alliances like those the Kinahans have formed have become more prevalent.

"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.

"The networks pool shipments and share the profits or spread the losses when shipments are intercepted.

"The days of focusing exclusively on a single drug-trafficking organisation or national mafia in the hope of dismantling the cocaine trade are long gone."

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