Michael O’Sullivan, Director of the Maritime Analysis Operation Centre (MAOC) based in Lisbon, says Rotterdam and Antwerp ports are being flooded with tonnes of cocaine by Colombian cartels who have established bases in the Netherlands and who are bribing and terrorising port workers to get their drugs into Europe.
And he says an army of young users who do not connect their weekend coke binges with murders and exploitation are turning lowly street gangs into millionaires by lining the pockets of the organised crime networks vying to cash in on the gold rush.
O’Sullivan, a former Assistant Commissioner of An Garda Siochana, has spent four years co-ordinating Europe’s effort to police the seas where ‘motherloads’ of cocaine cross the Atlantic from South America and are shipped from North Africa.
While the last official estimate values Europe’s cocaine industry at €9 billion it has likely now reached €14 billion with MAOC’s seven countries seizing an enormous €2 billion last year.
“What is going to happen? Well it is going to keep growing while Europe has the money to buy the drugs. The South Americans are not going to stop growing it and selling it and getting it in by whatever means is necessary.
“It will eventually reach a plateau and there will be a glut of it. The price will fall but the purity will rise. It is currently averaging around 80 per cent purity. But in simple terms, it will keep growing until there is a decline in the sales of coke.
“What is happening is that more and more young people have more disposable income and they don’t have a problem with it and they don’t see why they shouldn’t buy it. Back in the 1980s we could tackle it with health education but cocaine buyers are young and intelligent and while we can do more on the education side, the fact is that they are seeing a lot of ‘cool’ stuff about cocaine.
“They don’t relate it to people getting shot in Dublin. Those people are getting shot by the people supplying cocaine but the buyers don’t see that nor the exploitation involved and they are contributing to that by purchasing it. They are making criminal empires.
It is challenging to change that because these are people who are well informed. They are aware of the greenhouse effect and engaged with that but there is not enough negative news about cocaine and maybe the media and the health boards could look at that.”
Earlier this month a half tonne of cocaine was seized in Rotterdam headed for the Irish market and has since been shipped to Ireland where it is being examined and destroyed.
The drugs were hidden in charcoal, which, according to O’Sullivan, was previously discovered to have been used by the Sinaloa cartel, once headed by the notorious El Chapo Guzman, when a similar shipment was found in Peru. A further tonne of cocaine disguised as charcoal was seized in Spain just weeks ago.
Investigators in South America have discovered entire factories purpose built to hide cocaine in ordinary goods like pineapples or tins of fruit. It has been impregnated into clothing, coloured with dyes to change its distinctive look and now coated black in charcoal.
“The port of Rotterdam sees nine containers land every minute. It is a city of containers. If you are in law enforcement and you open a container full of coal dust and charcoal and everything looks black and dark you might be reluctant to go hammering around in it unless there is clear intelligence about it.
"The cartels know that and they make these plans around situations like that. They make the cocaine look like an everyday consignment of whatever the good of choice is and they put a lot of thought and energy into their concealment methods.
"Over the past few years Rotterdam has been taking the biggest seizures, maybe 50 or 60 tonnes in a year, so we have now seen the shippers move slightly more to Antwerp and there are greater seizures there at the moment for a range of reasons.
“The Colombians have established a base in Rotterdam and Amsterdam where they have been bribing and terrorising people who operate the computers and bring the containers in. They have threatened key workers. The cartels like to cover off both ends of the shipping and they don’t like to leave it to chance whether or not they get into Europe.”
O’Sullivan, who once arrested ‘Dapper Don’ Christy Kinahan and who spent years policing organised crime in Ireland before taking up his post in Lisbon, says the only time he saw drug sales fall was when people hadn’t the money to buy them.
“Everyone is taking cocaine. We are not talking about guys in the back streets or on the breadline. It is a market which is growing because of ordinary people who have disposable income and who want cocaine.
"The only time I ever saw drugs sales fall was during the recession when the traffickers hadn’t the cash to order them and the punters hadn’t the money to buy them. The bottom line is disposable income.
"Taking cocaine is part of going out on a Friday night. It’s taken by well educated and intelligent people who wouldn’t use heroin and probably wouldn’t smoke cannabis.
“They are the people who are supporting the cartels and the death and the destruction that go with them. When you look at how crime has evolved as the profits increase, it is clear that criminals, who a couple of years back were stealing cars, are now selling kilos of cocaine. That increases their wealth and their power.
"Small criminal gangs who weren’t even on the radar a few years ago are now running around trying to shoot one another. They can’t handle the power or the money and hence we have the feuds and violence that go with that. They are young criminals who are just coked off their heads and it is a recipe for disaster.”
In an interview for this week’s Crime World podcast, O’Sullivan says the Colombian suppliers have not been affected by issues that are on the political agenda on this side of the Atlantic. “They don’t even know about Brexit.
"All they know is that they want to get their coke into Europe and they don’t care about anything else. Covid is irrelevant. Brexit is irrelevant. If the EU dissolved in the morning they wouldn’t care. All they worry about is getting a vessel to port.”