FEAR AND LOADING ON THE COCAINE SUPER HIGHWAY: THE CHANGING ROUTES OF DRUG TRADE

By Sergio Casesmeiro

According to the European Monitoring Center For Drugs and Drug Addiction, cocaine has become Europe’s drug of choice. But how does an illegal product, manufactured in clandestine labs in South America, make its way into Europe?  According to a report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (The Transatlantic Cocaine Market Apr. 2011) during the 1990’s most of the cocaine moved by the Colombian drug cartels went to the United States through the Caribbean. But with time due to increasing American pressure in that region, the main routes changed, and most of the drugs started entering the United States through Mexico. Having to contend with Mexican criminal groups as their rivals, the Colombians looked for new markets and set their sights on Europe. 

But evidence shows that Colombian drug cartels had been establishing a European network even earlier than that. In 1982, Pablo Escobar, the biggest and most famous capo in the history of drug trafficking, had been invited by a known Spanish businessman to the inauguration of President Felipe González in Madrid. Around the same time cartel members met with Galician tobacco smugglers in prison and sold them the economic benefits of switching cigarettes for cocaine. In north eastern Spain, Galicia has an intricate coastal topography and a long smuggling tradition. Its privileged geographical location, combined with the strong cultural ties between both groups and sharing Spanish as a common language, made Galicia an ideal “hub” for Colombian traffickers. The modus operandi was simple; the Colombians transported the cocaine in mother ships from South America, and the Galician’s picked up the shipments in high speed boats. Their experience smuggling tobacco, combined with knowledge of the intricate coast and extensive family networks, made them very successful and difficult to catch.

The situation got so out of control that in 1990, Judge Baltasar Garzón directed “Operación Nécora” , which took its name from an expensive mollusk found in Galicia. The operation led to the arrest of 54 people and shook the nation. But despite police pressure, the region continued to be one of the major European centres for cocaine distribution; in 2005 alone Spain accounted for 60% of the cocaine seized in Europe. Galician society has paid a heavy price for its unwanted relationship with drugs, with many families destroyed by addiction. More than 30 years after the first kilos appeared off its rugged coasts, Colombian groups still operate in Galicia, and  new drug clans fight to control distribution. Despite Spain’s efforts to stop illegal activities in its territory, Jose Antonio Rodriguez head of the anti cocaine task force, recognises that it is a challenging fight, since the criminals seem to have unlimited resources.

By the  2000’s the drug cartels - tired of media attention and police pressure - decided to look for more virgin territores to establish their warehouses. Africa has become a new victim in the war on drugs. In the same way that Mexico has suffered a turf war in its northern territory for a substance they don't produce, which destined for a foreing market, Africa has now found itself smack in the middle of international drug trafficking. West Africa has become the new “El Dorado” for South American drug cartels. With its vast coasts, small police forces, weak institutions, and endemic poverty, its is easy for these groups to seduce authorities with juicy bribes. 

The effect of this situation in some West African nations is threatening to destabilise the region; In April 2012 there was a military coup in Guinea-Bissau, since which time there has been a significant rise in the quantity of cocaine entering the country. The situation has gotten so serious that the UN has launched the West Africa Commission on the Impact of Drugs on Governance, Security and Development (WACD) to analyse the impact of drugs in West Africa and fight agaisnt the rising destructive influence of drugs and drug traffickers in that part of the continent.

But cocaine, like a virus, has developed a resistance and its expanding like a plague. The European demand for cocaine is so big that one route is not enough to supply all the product. Mexican drug cartels seem to have displaced their Colombian conterparts, and with new management comes a new business plan. Spain has become too risky, and there is an increasing focus by global authorities in West Africa: enter Britain.

The United Kingdom is Europe’s top consumer of cocaine. Some would argue that calling a local dealer to get a gram is easier than getting in touch with your local council by the telephone. According to British intelligence officals, Liverpool’s port has become Europe’s new cocaine hub, which means fearsome Mexican cartels like the Zetas-a criminal organization composed of deserters from Mexico’s special forces, known for their brutal tactics - are doing business with local “Scouse” gangsters.  There is already ample evidence that the grip of drug cartels is starting to strangle Merseyside; just this year 400 kg of cocaine was discovered in a  frozen beef shipment from South America. You only have to do the math to see why these markets have become so appealing. In the U.S. a kilo of cocaine costs between $28,0000 and $38,000 US dollars, while in some European countries, its value is as much as $60,000.

All the regions in the way of cocaine’s destructive path suffer its consequences. Caribbean countries are not only experiencing an increase of violence and criminality, but it is also having a detrimental effect in their economic development. The World Bank states that the negative effects of drug trafficking can decrease regional GDP by 8%. With dark clouds looming over Liverpool, is Britain next?