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Illustration by Security Management

Europe Faces More Diversified, Violent Cocaine Trade

“The epicenter of the cocaine market in Europe has shifted northwards,” said Europol in its newly released Cocaine Insights Report. Partnering with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Europol found that the busy shipping ports of The Netherlands has consolidated the country’s role as the main point of entry for cocaine into Europe, supplanting Spain.

The stakeholders in the cocaine business in Europe are changing as well—criminal actors’ methods, routes, and networks continue to evolve and become more efficient, and traditional organized crime groups are being undercut by market diversification.

“An increase in the number and the diversity of actors involved, coupled with an increase in supply, may have led to the development of new and more direct routes to the main distribution hubs in Europe,” according to the report. “This in turn likely contributed to increasing the availability of cocaine in Europe, as confirmed for example by increases not only in seizures but also in purity levels.”

The criminal landscape in Colombia and across Central America has splintered into many cells, and new criminal groups have formed alliances with smaller cocaine producers and traffickers, cutting out middlemen and driving large-scale trafficking into Europe. The shift also caused the Italian organized crime group ‘Ndrangheta to lose its monopoly in the transatlantic cocaine trade, opening the door to many new players and introducing the concept of specialization into the market, so no one organization manages the cocaine supply chain from production to distribution to concealment, such as money laundering. The new, more efficient market also cut cocaine prices significantly.

Cocaine is the second most used drug in Western and Central Europe (cannabis is the most used drug), with an estimated 4.4 million users in 2020, according to the UNODC World Drug Report 2021.

As the tumultuous cocaine market booms in Europe, it has been accompanied by an increase in violence—assassinations, shootings, bombings, arsons, kidnappings, torture, and intimidation, Europol reported.  

“Cocaine trafficking is one of the key security concerns we are facing in the EU right now,” said Julia Viedma, head of the Department of the Operational and Analysis Centre at Europol, in a press release. “Nearly 40 percent 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.”

In terms of response, the Europol report says that “the diversification seen in the cocaine supply channels, criminal networks, and modalities involved in the illicit cocaine trade reinforces the argument for intervention at source, as this is the only stage in the supply chain which remains circumscribed and therefore most amenable to targeted intervention.”

The earlier law enforcement and governments can intervene in the cocaine production process and supply chain, the better, as more nebulous and diverse distribution methods and networks throughout Europe make the drug challenging to track once it has entered European ports.

The Europol and UNODC report further recommended that governments promote transatlantic information-sharing mechanisms to keep both sides of the supply chain up to date on trends and criminal actors. Port authorities can also risk-profile suspect shipments and recipient companies and target corruption at ports, ensuring whistleblower mechanisms and anonymous reporting channels are in place and functioning.

Money laundering rules and enforcement are also essential. According to the report, “governments must also make sure that drug trafficking does not pay, by targeting the financial arrangements which enable criminal organizations to reap the profits of their activities, in order to take away from the monetary gain which motivates trafficking activity and to prevent the infiltration of these arrangements into the legal economy. Financial investigations need to become the norm in the context of the fight against organized crime.”