International Coalition Intensifying Counter-Narcotic Efforts in Mediterranean

Law enforcement stopping suspected drug traffickers in the Mediterranean

An international operation is targeting people trafficking drugs in the Mediterranean region (Source: Wikimedia).

The EU’s law enforcement agency, Europol, has publicised details of an ongoing strategic initiative countering drug trafficking in the Mediterranean: Operation Rose of the Winds.

At a press conference in Sicily on December 1, authorities detailed the results of the international collaborative operation – involving police organisations from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, and Morocco – in tackling the flow of drugs through newly-discovered trafficking routes.

As part of the operation, which was conceived in April 2014, Europol claims to have intercepted 30 smuggling boats, made over 200 arrests, and seized 400,000 kilograms of hashish and 500 kilograms of cocaine.

The operation also resulted in one recent high-profile arrest. Ben Zian Berhili, dubbed ‘The King of Hashish’, was arrested in Casablanca in early October. Berhili is alleged to have coordinated the trafficking of around 400 tonnes of hashish in the past year, which authorities claim has a value of €4billion.

Other similar multinational operations in the region, such as Operation Frontex and Operation Libeccio, have made significant drug seizures in the past year.

Authorities claim that these operations are successful due to high-profile arrests and high-quantity drug seizures, but a question mark lingers over the efficacy of the approach, as drug trafficking shows no signs of stopping.

As authorities intensify counter-narcotic efforts in the Mediterranean region, it may simply result in a change of cultivation locations or trafficking routes. This concept has been identified as the “balloon effect”, whereby law enforcement pressure on drug crime in one area pushes it into another (“squeezing a balloon in one place makes it expand in another”).  Drug trafficking is so lucrative that there will always be another group or individual to fill the void left by someone like Berhili.

Additionally, the challenge for counter-narcotic law enforcement in the Mediterranean is only worsening, as the ongoing political and humanitarian crises in North Africa and the Middle East have allowed trafficking groups to flourish. The New York Times reports that Moroccan hashish is increasingly being smuggled through Libya and Egypt – which have becoming gradually more unstable in recent years – and then on to Europe.

In spite of the apparent enormity of the challenge of policing this Mediterranean drug network, authorities seem to have a sense of optimism around such operations.

A spokesperson from the Italian tax police, La Guardia di Finanza, told StrettoWeb.com that Operation Rose of the Winds “represents a model for the future of fighting one of the most dangerous illegal global phenomenon for the international community”.

International precedent has demonstrated, however, that tougher counter-narcotic effort is highly unlikely to reduce drug trafficking – let alone end it entirely.

The Mediterranean region will never be free of drugs, but policies that regulate the trade could be vital for undermining trafficking groups.