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The routes of cocaine

Cocaine enters Europe through numerous routes and means, but the growth in large-volume trafficking, using maritime shipping containers, stands out as a major challenge for law enforcement.


Cocaine is the most popular illicit stimulant drug in Europe: every year Europe consumes around 91 tonnes of cocaine. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) estimates the European cocaine illicit economy to be worth 5,7 billion euro. And according to the European Drug Europe Report 2019, published in June, cocaine has become even more widely available.

Both the number of seizures and quantities of cocaine seized were at record levels in 2018, resulting in cocaine being the most seized illicit drug in Europe after cannabis. Over 104 000 cocaine seizures were reported in the EU in 2017 (98 000 in 2016), amounting to 140.4 tonnes, around double the quantity seized in 2016 (70.9 tonnes). The retail price of cocaine has remained stable.

Around 2.6 million young adults (15–34 years) have used cocaine in the last year (2017 estimate). A recent study of drug residues in municipal wastewater revealed that, between 2017 and 2018, there were increases in cocaine metabolites in 22 of the 38 cities with data for this period, confirming the upward trend also reported in 2017. In 2018, the highest residues standardised per 1 000 people per day were recorded in cities in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, and the UK.


How is cocaine transported to Europe?


The majority of cocaine is shipped to Europe from South America – from the countries’ cocaine-producers – Colombia, Peru and Bolivia through the maritime ports of Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. There are two main transit regions for trafficking of cocaine to Europe: the Caribbean, where Dominican Republic and Jamaica play a role of major traffic hubs; and West Africa, including the surrounding coastal islands of Cape Verde, Madeira and the Canaries. From West Africa, cocaine is being transported to Europe by air, by sea and by the ground. While transporting cocaine through the countries of Northern Africa, the same channels established for hash trafficking are used.

Cocaine usually enters Europe via Spain and Portugal in the South and via ports of Belgium and the Netherlands in the North and gets further disseminated across the European drug market. Experts estimate that in 2014 countries such as Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, France and Italy consumed four fifths of all European cocaine. Seizures of large amounts of cocaine show another important region of entry for cocaine — South-Eastern Europe, where the so-called “Balkan cartel” ships cocaine into Europe along with heroin. In the Balkan region Albania is a prominent country in drug trafficking to Europe. The Independent called it “the Columbia of Europe” as Albanian gangs are considered one of the most successful traffickers of controlled substances, especially heroin, cocaine and cannabis.

Representatives of both US and European law-enforcement agencies claim Albania to be one of the key producers of cannabis and the key transit point of cocaine and heroin shipped to Europe. Based on the price of seized drugs, experts estimate revenue from drug trafficking from cannabis alone to exceed 4 billion dollars per year, which makes up half of Albania’s GDP. Major routes of drug trafficking lie across Tirana, the capital of Albania, as well as via major ports of Durres and Vlore. Here, cocaine usually enters in boxes, with bananas and palm oil, by ships from Latin American countries. In February 2018 Albanian authorities intercepted 613 kg of cocaine delivered in banana boxes.

In Northern Europe cocaine also enters through Russia, mostly the port of St. Petersburgh. Here it is being shipped from Latin America. In June 2019 Russian police seized 400 kg of cocaine in the port at the ship from Ecuador. The port of St. Petersburgh has been a transit point for drug smuggling from South America to Europe for many years, “Novye Izvestiya” reports.

People always change their trafficking methods and channels of distribution, Dr. Axel Klein, former Cocaine Route Program expert told Vice. "We are seeing a rise in shipments to the Balkan countries, for example to the Greek port of Piraeus, where smugglers are taking advantage of the disintegration of law enforcement; also in Turkey, Montenegro, and Albania”.

Such diversification is possible due to the weakening influence of the Colombian cartels. People looking to smuggle drugs into Europe can now simply buy drugs directly in Colombia and ship them across borders. Dr. Klein speaks about the recent phenomenon of mass production of cocaine in local laboratories in Europe itself. These laboratories are scattered across Spain, Portugal and Poland. Local chemists there extract cocaine from innocuous looking goods such as wooden pallets or bottles of alcohol that carry traces of the drug.

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