Cocaine – Trafficking and supply (EU Drug Markets Report)

Trafficking and supply

Wholesale supply activities

Much of our knowledge about trafficking routes results from law enforcement activity and intelligence. Information on quantities of drugs seized and information on the origin and destination of shipments can give an indication of the main routes and modes of transport. However, such information is also affected by many factors, including law enforcement strategies, resources and priorities, as well as changes to routes and practices in response to interdiction efforts or new opportunities. Hence, care is needed in interpreting these data. While the information below highlights the main known trafficking routes, these are not set in stone and the picture is constantly changing in response to new markets, technological developments and law enforcement activity. 

Overview of recent changes to routes into Europe

Departure points

Cocaine is shipped from Latin America to Europe in vessels departing from Brazil and other countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela. The increasing use of Brazil as a departure point reflects the growing importance of Bolivia and Peru as the source of cocaine shipped to Europe. Venezuela has become more important in recent years as trafficking organisations move Colombian cocaine overland across a porous border and take advantage of the busy maritime traffic between the coast and the islands of the Caribbean. However, cocaine is also trafficked from Venezuela to Europe by air, either directly or via the Caribbean and Africa. In addition, although UNODC data suggest that Colombia has declined in importance as a direct departure point for cocaine heading to Europe over recent years, large seizures continue to be made on the Caribbean coast, including a 7-tonne shipment destined for the Netherlands seized in Cartagena in April 2014. This and the recent upturn in production suggest that Colombia is likely to remain an important departure point for maritime shipments of cocaine. Cocaine is also shipped through the southern cone of Latin America, particularly Argentina (Eventon and Bewley-Taylor, 2016). 

Transit areas

There are two main areas through which cocaine shipments transit en route to Europe. The first is the Caribbean, where the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are considered the main hubs, although operations elsewhere appear to have pushed some trafficking through the eastern Caribbean. Central America and the Caribbean was the only region in which cocaine seizures rose in 2013, almost doubling to 162 tonnes, from 78 tonnes in 2012; much of this increase is attributable to a ninefold increase in the amount seized in the Dominican Republic (86 tonnes) (UNODC, 2015a). This apparent increase in the use of the Caribbean route may be a reflection of recent crackdowns in Mexico and Central America (Eventon and Bewley-Taylor, 2016). From the Caribbean, the cocaine is generally shipped by sea via the Azores or by air, either on direct flights or a variety of different transfer points.

The other major transit area can be subdivided into the West African mainland and neighbouring islands, Cape Verde, Madeira and the Canary Islands. The Bight of Benin, which runs from Ghana to Nigeria, while no doubt a trafficking route and storage location, may have decreased in importance in recent years following a marked rise in seizures between 2004 and 2007. In 2013, seizures were reported by Nigeria (290 kg), Ghana (901 kg) and Ivory Coast (27 kg) (UNODC, 2015a). From West Africa, the cocaine is transported onward to Europe by air, sea or land routes. Transport through North Africa taking advantage of pre-existing cannabis routes was recognised as a concern when the West African route was growing in importance (UNODC, 2007). Seizures of cocaine in Morocco have reduced following the decrease in the use of the West African route. However, some occasional large seizures are still made, e.g. 226 kg was found aboard a lorry in September 2014 (AFP, 2014), and it appears that routes through the region are changeable in response to law enforcement activity or other changes to conditions on the ground (there was a spike in seizures in Algeria in 2012, for example) (AMERIPOL, 2013).

An increase in seizures in East Africa between 2010 and 2012, particularly in Tanzania, might signal the emergence of a new cocaine trafficking route in a region heavily affected by the heroin trade (see Chapter 4). In addition, the enlargement of the Panama Canal may lead to an increase in cocaine trafficking via this route. Modifications in European waters and harbours, enabling them to receive larger ships, may also lead to shifts in trafficking routes. 

Figure 5.3

Main trafficking flows of cocaine to Europe

Cocaine trafficking map

Note: The flows represented are a synthesis of a number of information sources and should be considered indicative rather than accurate descriptions of the main trafficking flows. 

Source: Europol and EMCDDA.

Modes of transport

As indicated above, cocaine traffickers make use of a wide range of trafficking methods that are used flexibly and evolve over time in response to enforcement efforts. Maritime transport allows the transportation of large quantities at one time, and over two-thirds of EU seizures in the period 2011–13 involved this form of transportation (Europol, 2014b). The nature of international commercial maritime traffic means that a vast number of routes can and will be used. In addition, smaller, private boats are able to bring in large quantities of cocaine in single shipments, entering Europe at many points; in September 2014, for example, a private yacht carrying a tonne of cocaine, which had been picked up in Venezuela, was intercepted off the coast of Ireland (Roche, 2015).

An important development has been an increase in the use of containers on commercial vessels to ship cocaine, making detection more difficult. Since 2006, maritime seizures that involve containers have increased sixfold, with a particularly steep increase since 2010. At the same time, the number of seizures from vessels, which was much higher than from containers at the start of the period, decreased from 2006 to 2010 and has since stabilised at about one-third of the level seen at the start of this period. Container seizures made up three-quarters of maritime seizures in 2012 and 2013, compared with one-tenth in 2006 (Europol, 2014b). The largest seaports in Europe are in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (the eighth busiest shipping port in the world) and Antwerp, Belgium, and they are key points for this type of trafficking. After around 10 000 kg of cocaine was seized in Rotterdam over the course of 2013, Dutch police estimated that 25–50 % of the cocaine reaching Europe now enters via the port, which handles around 11 million containers a year, only 50 000 of which are scanned (DutchNews, 2014, quoted in Eventon and Bewley-Taylor, 2016). However, Spain also reports a large number of container seizures coming through Algeciras and Valencia, as does Germany, especially in the port of Hamburg.

The methods used for container trafficking also evolve. For example, there has been a shift from concealment within the container or cargo to the rip-on/rip-off method (see box on page 102), which accounts for an increasing proportion of seizures (32 % in 2010, rising to 57 % in 2011 and 70 % in 2012) (Europol, 2014b). Corrupt officials and port employees facilitate this form of trafficking, and there are concerns that the OCGs involved in cocaine trafficking may be making systematic efforts to corrupt workers in all major ports to facilitate shifting of routes as necessary. Staff involved in the aviation industry can also be vulnerable in this regard. An example of this was the case of a crew member of the Nigerian airline Arik Air who was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London on the suspicion of possession of cocaine in August 2015. The arrest came 2 years after two crew members of the same airline were arrested, also in London, for the same offence.

Cocaine is also trafficked by air, which involves individual couriers and air freight aboard commercial flights as well as the use of private aeroplanes, including jets. Aside from direct flights from Latin America, recognised stop-off points are in the Caribbean, Cape Verde, the Canary Islands and West Africa. However, compared with maritime shipments, the quantity transported by air appears to be smaller, with seizures at airports making up about one-eighth of the total amount of cocaine seized in Europe between 2011 and 2013 (Europol, 2014b). However, although the size of each shipment is comparatively small, the number of seizures of cocaine transported in this way is high, and this mode of transport does have the effect of spreading the risk for traffickers. Couriers transport cocaine on commercial flights, either internally (swallowed or stuffed), in their baggage, or, less frequently, on their body. The average amounts of cocaine transported in this way in 2012–13 were 4.3 kg in luggage, 0.7 kg in the body or 1.72 kg on the body (Europol, 2014c).

Some concealment methods, such as the use of cocaine incorporated into breast implants, involve surgical procedures on cocaine couriers and pose significant risks to the lives of couriers.

The ingestion by smugglers of numerous packages of cocaine is well documented and poses serious health risks, including death if a package ruptures whilst the courier is in transit. Cocaine smuggled in this way, up until recently, was always in powder form; however, there has been a switch by the smugglers to use cocaine in liquid form, presumably in an attempt to avoid scanning equipment now in use at several airports.

Numerous other concealment methods have been identified. Concealing the drugs within shipments of perishable goods is a common tactic as there are procedures to allow these to pass through ports more quickly. An example of this is shown in Figure 5.4. 

Case study 11: Cocaine trafficking to Europe

In 2014, Hungarian police investigated an OCG previously involved in synthetic drug production in the Netherlands and large-scale polydrug trafficking within the EU and beyond. It was discovered that the group was regularly sending 20-kg shipments of cocaine in containers coming from Panama to Europe. The cocaine was hidden among vehicle parts in false-bottomed crates in partially loaded crates known as ‘less than container loads’. Cooperation between Hungary and Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia resulted in the three key members of the OCG being arrested after receiving 23 parcels each containing approximately 25 kg of cocaine. 

Rip-on/rip-off method of cocaine smuggling

The so-called ‘rip-on/rip-off’ method involves loading the consignment in the port of departure and recovering it in the port of arrival. The use of one or more corrupt employees at both ends is therefore a key element.

A suitable container must be identified in South America with a legitimate cargo destined for Europe. The drugs are usually loaded in the dock area, so the ‘rip-on’ team must be able to get the drugs into the container terminal and to locate the container, which must be in an accessible position. In most cases the security seal needs to be replaced with a duplicate to avoid obvious signs of tampering.

At the port of arrival, the drugs need to be retrieved, which can be achieved in a variety of ways. The drugs can be removed from the container by corrupt port workers or by external teams who gain access to the terminal. After the ‘rip-off’ is complete, the container is either left open or resealed with another false/ duplicate seal. The success of the rip-off depends on knowing the location of the container within what is often a very large container terminal with tens of thousands of containers. However, just knowing the container number is usually not enough. It must also be accessible, which again usually requires a corrupt port or company worker to manipulate the position of the container.

In December 2014, a joint customs–police team in Berlin examined a container transporting coffee. The container had left Santos, Brazil, and had arrived at Bremerhaven port, from where it would have been delivered to a coffee roaster in Berlin. Immediately after the container was opened, a sports bag and an unused container security seal were found. Inside the sports bag, 30 individual packages were found each containing 1 kg of cocaine marked with a ‘horseshoe’ logo. 

Figure 5.4: 

Cocaine concealed in a shipment of perishable goods 

Smuggled cocaine

A seizure of about 300 kilos of cocaine concealed in a shipment of fresh ba- nanas from Colombia discovered in a shop in Berlin, Germany, May 2015

Photo © epa/Soeren Stache 

Importation to and distribution within Europe

Cocaine is the second most seized drug in Europe, after cannabis. In 2014, about 78 000 seizures of cocaine were reported in the EU, amounting to 61.6 tonnes of the drug. The situation has been relatively stable since 2010, although both the number of seizures and the volume seized are at levels considerably lower than the peak values reached in the mid- to late 2000s (Figure 5.6). Spain and Portugal in the south, and ports in the Netherlands and Belgium in the north, are the most important entry points for South American cocaine reaching the European market. The countries that seized the most cocaine over the period 2011–14 were Spain (accounting for about 50 % of all seizures) and Belgium, followed by France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Portugal (data are not available for the Netherlands).

In the past few years, as highlighted in the last EU drugs market report (EMCDDA–Europol, 2013), seizure data have suggested some use of south-eastern Europe as an entry point, spurring talk of an emerging Balkan route, and even a ‘Balkan cartel’ for cocaine, overlapping the established heroin route. Some seizures in Baltic countries have also led to discussion of another possible passage for cocaine. However, the data suggest, first, that, to date, use of these ‘routes’ appears to be sporadic and, secondly, that they remain of minor importance compared with established primary routes. The total amount seized in the 10 countries located on the eastern border of Europe (21) remained at 2 % of all seizures throughout the period 2011–14. Nevertheless, this may indicate a spread of the cocaine market eastward, where traditionally other stimulants have predominated, and in particular for a growing market in the Russian Federation (UNODC, 2015a). It is important that there is continued monitoring of this so that any escalation of the problem is detected quickly.

Based on data provided from 14 countries (22), a Europol report found that the European countries reporting the greatest number of interceptions of air couriers in 2013 were the Netherlands and Spain, followed by France and Portugal, and then the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Belgium. However, it needs to be borne in mind that the number of interceptions is to some extent a reflection of the resources directed towards such interceptions. While in 2012 and 2013 the cocaine couriers that were intercepted were of over 100 different nationalities, in general, nationals of the intercepting country were predominant among the couriers identified. As a result, European nationals make up the majority of intercepted couriers (Europol, 2014c).

A recently observed discrepancy between the availability 82 of cocaine and estimated cocaine use rates has led to 81 speculations that Europe may be growing in prominence as a transit stop en route, it has been assumed, to markets in Russia, China, India, the Middle East and perhaps also the Oceania region. The Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom have been identified, based on seizures in Australia, as primary transit points in Europe 2006 (UNODC, 2014b). Time and relevant data will add better understanding and suggest whether or not in fact the speculations are accurate.

Although crack cocaine is predominantly produced in Europe close to consumer markets, it is worth considering the data on seizures of crack, significant numbers of which are reported only by the United Kingdom, where, since 2009, the number has stabilised at about 5 000 per year after declining from a peak of 7 578 in 2007. Much smaller numbers of seizures are reported by Germany and Spain (268 and 359, respectively, in 2014). When amounts of crack cocaine seized are considered, the United Kingdom (England and Wales) again stands out, with 33 kg seized in 2014 (down from 48 kg in 2013) (Hargreaves and Smith, 2015), with France and Italy in second and third places, reporting, respectively, amounts of 19 kg and 2 kg seized (all other countries that provided data reported seizing less than 1 kg). 

Figure 5.5

Branding on imported blocks of cocaine 

Cocaine branding

A label and an embossed logo found on cocaine bricks belonging to different wholesale shipments seized in Portugal in recent years Photos © MAOC (N), courtesy of UNCTE-Polícia Judiciária, Portugal 

Figure 5.6

Seizures of cocaine reported in Europe, 2006–14 

Note: Some data for 2014 is not available and the most recent data has been used instead.

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

The changing face of cocaine production and supply

In the past, the production and trafficking of cocaine to the EU was largely organised by non-EU criminals, but this picture has been changing for several years, as discussed in the 2013 EU drug markets report (EMCDDA– Europol, 2013). With respect to the actors involved in cocaine trafficking from South America to Europe, there appears to be a trend towards the further fragmentation, horizontalisation and expansion of the cocaine production and trafficking networks; some of the larger Colombian and Mexican trafficking outfits are effectively employing a ‘franchise model’, whereby they sell their ‘brand names’ and ‘operating licences’ to smaller criminal groups and even individuals that are not part of their organisations. Mexican traffickers seem to have made inroads into the Andean cocaine supply markets, expanding their local networks with the aim of cutting out intermediaries. While they are also striving to expand their activities in Europe, particularly in Spain, some European OCGs appear to be building a more permanent presence in South America, possibly aiming to enhance their strategic position in what is an ever more crowded and competitive illicit market (Schultze-Kraft, 2016).

OCGs involved in the trafficking of cocaine are often highly innovative and are using increasingly sophisticated smuggling techniques and countermeasures to avoid the detection of cocaine shipments. In order to ensure the successful delivery of cocaine shipments, OCGs attempt to gain control over the entire chain of transportation from departure to arrival at the final destination in the EU. OCGs are thought to engage in the systematic recruitment of corrupt workers at all major (air)ports in the EU in order to enhance their flexibility and ability to shift between (air)ports when required. Certain ports are particularly vulnerable to this method because of a lack of personnel screening, poor working conditions or weak terminal security. Businesses operating in maritime transportation and related sectors are also targeted for infiltration by OCGs.

OCGs are adept at exploiting available technologies, such as encrypted communication devices, satellite mobile phones, dark net services for online communication, cloud services or GPS beacons, to track containers and to recover cocaine consignments thrown overboard for later recovery. In some cases, OCGs have been found to use frequency inhibitors.

Some distinct criminal networks continue to play key roles in the importation of cocaine into the EU. 

Latin American and Caribbean organised crime groups

These are mainly composed of nationals of Colombia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and traffic cocaine to the EU in large quantities.

The influence of Colombian groups in the supply of cocaine has decreased as law enforcement authorities have made a concerted effort to dismantle the major cartels. Mexican groups have taken advantage of this and have increased their activities throughout South America (23). However, there are no indications of increased activity of Mexican cartels in the EU. Despite a relative decline in influence, Colombian groups continue to play a key role in the supply of cocaine to the European market. They have settled in the EU to organise and facilitate their operations, and cooperate with many European groups, including Italian and Spanish criminal organisations. 

West African organised crime groups

Mostly composed of Nigerian nationals, West African OCGs continue to feature prominently as organisers of cocaine trafficking using air couriers. Nigerian groups, in particular, have consolidated their involvement in the cocaine trade and are now on par with Latin American groups in their ability to source, finance and transport bulk quantities of cocaine from Latin America to Africa, Europe and elsewhere. Part of the profits of the drug trade is laundered by building houses and hotels in Nigeria. Nigerians also have a significant presence in many EU countries, including Austria, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. 

EU organised crime groups

EU OCGs have benefited from the more open cocaine market that has resulted from the fragmentation of Colombian organised crime and increased involvement
of other Latin American groups with access to cocaine sources. Some Dutch, British, Italian and Spanish OCGs are important brokers for cocaine trafficking to the EU
and work directly with suppliers based in South America. British OCGs supply the large United Kingdom market with cocaine sourced from the Netherlands and Spain where they meet brokers capable of facilitating bulk importation. British OCGs maintain an important presence in Spain to facilitate their involvement in the secondary wholesale distribution of cocaine to the United Kingdom and other western European countries. Direct importations from Central America into Ireland and the United Kingdom indicate connections between Irish and British OCGs and drug cartels in South and Central America. 

The retail market for cocaine

As mentioned above, cocaine powder is generally used recreationally, and most people use it relatively infrequently. On the other hand, most crack cocaine users are problematic users who may use crack alongside other drugs such as heroin. The retail markets for these drugs are therefore likely to be rather different. Crack cocaine use is less prevalent than cocaine powder use so more information is available about the retail market for powder.

Cocaine use in a recreational setting will often involve sharing of supplies, so not everyone who uses cocaine will buy it. In fact, an online survey of drug users in six European countries (the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, and England and Wales) found that about three-quarters of respondents bought cocaine at least occasionally (about half of these said they sometimes bought it and sometimes shared or were given it). Respondents were also asked about where they bought cocaine, and the most common responses were at the seller’s home, at someone else’s home and on the street or in a park. In Italy and Sweden only, some respondents said they bought cocaine at school, college or university (Frijn and van Laar, 2013). Only in Sweden did anyone mention obtaining cocaine via the internet, and then it was only 2 % of respondents. The Global Drug Survey (Winstock, 2015), another online survey that also specifically targets drug users, found that the small sample of respondents from Sweden were the most likely to report having bought drugs online using the dark net. It also found that cocaine was mentioned as one of the substances being purchased through dark net markets (see Section 1.2). Nevertheless, it seems that most users still buy their cocaine from dealers.

As with other substances, retail markets evolve in response to technological developments and law enforcement. This is illustrated by developments in France, where, as a reaction to enhanced law enforcement in some areas where structured drug retailing organisations were operating ‘points of sale’, retail cocaine and crack sales now increasingly tend to take place ‘by appointment’ in different and constantly changing locations agreed by mobile phone (Cadet-Taïrou et al., 2015).

Trends for cocaine-related offences show an increase from 2006 to 2008/9 but have since decreased. Supply offences increased at the start of the period and then decreased only slowly until 2014; use or possession offences also increased until 2009, after which they declined more rapidly. About 30 % of cocaine drug law offences are supply related.

The reported retail price of cocaine varies considerably between countries in Europe, ranging from EUR 46 to EUR 91 per gram with an interquartile range of EUR 52–72 in 2014 (or most recent year available). Purity is similarly variable but is generally 64 % or less (Table 5.1). Not all countries are able to provide price and purity data every year so when considering trends the data presented come from a smaller group of countries who consistently provide data. These data show that the average purity of cocaine powder has been increasing from a low of 34 % in 2009, although now appears to have stabilised at about 40 % (see Figure 5.7) (EMCDDA, 2015a). It has been suggested that the low point in purity in 2009, which occurred at the same time as a dip in the purity of ecstasy in many countries, may have fuelled the increased interest in new psychoactive substances (NPS). In the United Kingdom, it is reported to have led to the development of a two-tier market in cocaine, with higher-quality cocaine being available at a premium, something that seems to have continued (ACMD, 2015a). In France, a second market has also been observed, with lower quantities sold at more affordable prices (France: Reitox, 2014). While the decrease in purity might be seen as indicative of a reduction in availability, the reported price has remained relatively stable. This, together with the decline in reported cocaine use in several countries, suggests that people may have turned away from using the drug. It remains to be seen whether or not the recent upturn in purity alongside the increased cultivation being reported in Colombia leads to a resurgence in use. In a telephone survey of young people aged 15–24 across Europe carried out in 2014, 25 % of those interviewed said that it would be fairly or very easy to obtain cocaine within 24 hours, a slight increase from 22 % in the 2011 survey and a similar proportion to that for new psychoactive substances and ecstasy (TNS Political & Social, 2014). 

Figure 5.7

Trends in cocaine purity and retail price in the EU, 2010–14 

Note: Trends are based only on data from those EU countries that have submitted data consistently since 2010. Prices have not been adjusted for inflation. Typical values shown are the interquartile range (IQR) of the country average values, with high and low values showing the range. 
Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points.

Short title: 
Trafficking and supply

(21) Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Slovakia and Turkey.

(22) Belgium, Bulgaria, Colombia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.