Chapter 5: Cocaine (EU Drug Markets Report)

Key issues

The European cocaine market

With a retail market estimated to be worth at least EUR 5.7 billion per year (range EUR 4.5 to 7 billion), cocaine is Europe’s most commonly used stimulant, although a high prevalence of use is largely restricted to some western and southern Member States. While most cocaine consumption is recreational use of cocaine powder, small populations of marginalised crack cocaine users are present in a few countries. 

Stable demand but signs of increased availability

Indicators of demand suggest generally stable or even slightly declining use and seizure data show stability since the high point reached in the mid-2000s. However, recent data suggest that availability may be increasing; the retail price appears to be relatively stable or falling slightly overall and retail purity, though generally still below 50 %, has recovered to the levels seen 10 years ago. Interpreting these trends is difficult because there are significant gaps in our knowledge of how the cocaine supply chain operates. 

Understanding cocaine production

Coca bush cultivation is restricted to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and appears to be increasing after a period of decline. However, there is considerable uncertainty about how much cocaine is produced and where this occurs. It is difficult to reconcile, for example, the only available global estimate of cocaine production (about 700 tonnes annually) with that of seizures (687 tonnes in 2013). 

Precursor control

Most seizures of potassium permanganate occur in South America, where it is likely to be illicitly manufactured in the region from potassium manganate. Occasional seizures of potassium permanganate are reported in Europe, as well as larger stopped shipments. Therefore, efforts to prevent diversion from licit channels continue to be important. 

Trafficking routes

Both sea and air are used for trafficking cocaine to Europe, with Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela being key departure points. The Caribbean and West Africa (mainland and nearby islands) act as important transit areas and Central America appears to be becoming more important in this respect. In the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are considered to be the main hubs, although some displacement of trafficking activities to eastern Caribbean countries has been observed. Cocaine trafficked via routes established for other drugs is a growing concern, such as routes used to traffic cannabis in North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) and heroin in East Africa (Tanzania). 

Important trafficking methods

A variety of methods are used to smuggle cocaine into Europe, including air couriers, fast parcels and postal services, private yachts and jets. The use of maritime containers is of increasing concern, with seizures increasing since the mid-2000s. Major European ports, such as Rotterdam and Antwerp, are important landing points for such cocaine shipments, although other large western European ports are also targeted by organised crime. A diverse and continually evolving array of concealment methods is used and the importation of cocaine in forms that require chemical extraction in Europe continues to be a concern. 

Organised crime

The range of criminal organisations involved in cocaine trafficking is wider than ever before, although Colombian and Italian OCGs continue to dominate the supply to Europe. Within Europe, they cooperate with other groups such as Dutch, British and Spanish OCGs, which are important brokers, while the Netherlands and Spain are key distribution hubs. West African, especially Nigerian, groups are particularly active in transporting cocaine from Africa to Europe often using air couriers. In this diverse arena, other trafficking organisations, such as groups from the Balkan region, are reportedly emerging as an additional significant threat.