Heroin trafficking and supply (EU Drug Markets Report)

Trafficking and supply

Since illicit heroin production takes place a long way from the main consumer markets, there is a long supply chain, which involves many different groups. Considerable effort is put into interrupting this supply, so the modes of transport and the routes taken may vary accordingly. While seizures by enforcement agencies are inevitably to some extent a reflection of their level of activity, they do also provide a useful indication of trafficking routes and methods. 

Heroin trafficking to Europe

Two major developments affecting the supply of heroin from source countries to Europe have occurred since the last EU drug markets report was drafted. Firstly, there has been an unprecedented increase in the size of individual shipments sent along the heroin routes to Europe, with consignments of 100 kg or more, and occasional amounts measured in tonnes, being seized with increasing frequency (see Figure 4.7). As a result, record-breaking heroin seizures have taken place since 2013 in many EU countries, including Belgium (864 kg), the Czech Republic (157 kg), Germany (330 kg) and the Netherlands (1.2 tonnes), along with a major operation resulting in the seizure of over 2 tonnes in Greece in June 2014. In fact, the 6.4 tonnes confiscated in the EU in 2014 solely from seizures of more than 100 kg is even greater than the total of just under 6 tonnes of heroin seized in the EU in 2013 (5.6 tonnes). While there are signs that the trend may be levelling off, large seizures have continued into 2015; five seizures of over 100 kg were reported in the EU and two on the borders, in the first quarter of 2015. Although these are notable successes, the size of bulk shipments means that relatively few non-intercepted consignments could have a significant impact on availability. It suggests the need for on-going review of the relative importance of different trafficking routes and a particular focus on maritime trafficking. 

Secondly, heroin routes seem to be diversifying. In the past, most of the heroin trafficked to Europe from Afghanistan came overland via what has become known as the Balkan route. However, although the Balkan route probably remains the main heroin trafficking route into the EU, there is evidence of an increase in the diversity of routes and modes of transport being used (Figure 4.8; EMCDDA, 2015b). 

A very large seizure of heroin

More than 2 tonnes of heroin seized near Athens, Greece, June 2015
Photos © Drug Enforcement Department, Drug and Contraband Enforcement Directorate, Hellenic Coast Guard Headquarters

The traditional Balkan route

A route linking Afghanistan to Iran then through Turkey represents the shortest distance and most direct land route to European consumer markets. This route has been used to traffic heroin into the EU since the 1980s, and possibly earlier. Turkey is crucial to the Balkan route, and Istanbul is a key location to arrange heroin transports to the EU. From Turkey, heroin may be shipped overland, by sea or by air. Three branches of the Balkan route depart from Turkey and lead into western Europe:

  • the southern branch runs through Greece, Albania and Italy, mostly by sea (ferries);
  • the central branch runs through Bulgaria, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, and into Italy or Austria, essentially by land;
  • the northern branch runs from Bulgaria and Romania to Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany, essentially by land. 


Trend in large seizures of heroin and their contribution to total seized in the EU, 2011–14

Sources: Europol, EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points. 

Heroin is also trafficked from Turkey to multiple destinations in Europe by air (UNODC, 2014b). In 2013, Turkey intercepted more than three times as much heroin as the entire EU; for comparison, in 2001, the quantity seized in Turkey was only one-third of that seized in the EU.

Heroin may reach Turkey via a number of routes. A branch of the Balkan route seems to have developed through Iraq and Syria in recent years. It should be noted that Iraq is also used as a transit or destination country for shipments of acetic anhydride (see above). Similarly, another branch of the Balkan route goes through Iran, and possibly Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, by land or through the Caspian Sea, to the countries of the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia).

Europol intelligence suggests that Turkish OCGs are the main importers and facilitators of distribution of heroin in key regions of Europe. They maintain control over various elements of the supply chain, including links to heroin suppliers and processors. They have an established presence and legitimate businesses facilitate their activities in key locations along the trafficking route,
in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the western Balkans, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Turkish OCGs rely on the support of other OCGs in their activities, such as Albanian-speaking, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian groups. They have also adapted to the heroin market’s new dynamics. Some Turkish criminals previously based in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Turkey have relocated to South Africa or travel there to broker the supply of heroin to the EU from Pakistan via southern Africa.

Albanian-speaking OCGs from different countries in the western Balkans play a secondary distribution role, linking Turkish heroin suppliers and OCGs in destination markets, and control an important share of the heroin market. Traffickers increasingly collaborate across ethnic lines, for example with shipping and other transportation arrangements and the sharing of assets. Generally, the organisational arrangements are such that it is the local OCGs that undertake the transport of the drugs and are thus at greatest risk of arrest. The main markets for heroin remain in the EU Member States, but the internal market in the western Balkans is expanding. It is also quite common for western Balkan OCGs to traffic multiple drugs.

The traditional method of transporting heroin via the Balkan route continues to be concealment in lorries, buses and, especially, cars. However, recently, sea containers have been used, especially through Turkish ports. This heroin traffic by maritime containers could help explain the increase in the number of very large heroin seizures in Turkey and elsewhere on the Balkan route. 


Heroin trafficking routes into Europe

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

Source: Europol and EMCDDA.

The Southern route

In recent years, large heroin consignments, of the order of hundreds of kilograms, shipped from ports on the coast of Iran and Pakistan on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf (the Makran Coast), have attracted international attention, and some of this heroin is destined for Europe. This Southern route to Europe entails several modes of transport and transhipment points that may be combined in different ways.

The heroin exported by boat from the Makran Coast seems to be of relatively high purity, according to data released by the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a US-led multinational naval task force that carries out random searches on vessels sailing between the Makran Coast, the Arabian Peninsula and the coast of East Africa (CMF, 2015).

The heroin shipped on the Southern route first reaches countries of the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Some may travel further north into the Red Sea as far as Egypt. A proportion of this heroin supplies local consumer markets in Africa and the Middle East, which appear to be growing (UNODC, 2014b). The heroin trade also seems to have destabilising effects in East Africa, with drug profits reportedly being used to fund armed groups in Kenya and possibly Somalia. However, significant and reportedly growing amounts are trafficked onward from East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to other destinations, including Europe. Thus, heroin shipments may be broken down into smaller batches and sent by air to Europe directly or via southern and West Africa. Alternatively, some consignments are trafficked to South Africa, especially by sea but also by land (rail), before onward shipment to Europe.

Criminal organisations from several European countries, such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Ireland, have used South Africa as a departure and transhipment point for drug consignments for some time. Recently, as already mentioned, Turkish traffickers have become active in South Africa. Other criminal organisations active here include West African, especially Nigerian, and East African OCGs, as well as criminal organisations from Pakistan. There are indications that West African (Nigerian) OCGs control much of the heroin trafficking activity through

East Africa and are the main receivers of the considerable cash profit derived. For example, Europol has noted that they trade with OCGs based in source countries, such as Pakistan, to obtain heroin and traffic it to Europe, relying primarily on couriers. They are also active in the intra-EU distribution of heroin and use the presence of Nigerian diaspora communities in many Member States to their advantage.

Pakistani OCGs, composed of Pakistani nationals as well as EU nationals of Pakistani origin, also appear to be playing an increasingly important role in facilitating heroin shipment to the EU. They have established businesses both in Pakistan and the EU, which they use as fronts for heroin operations. They have developed the capacity to traffic large quantities of high-purity drugs, using a wide variety of transportation methods, including containers, couriers and postal parcels, adapting to changes in demand and to law enforcement efforts.

Seizure data suggest that ports in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are the main targets for heroin shipped in containers from the Makran Coast. In the case of Belgium and the Netherlands, it is probable that the heroin is destined for distribution to other European countries, such as France and Germany. Large maritime heroin shipments may also be destined for southern Europe, as is illustrated by the 2.3 tonnes seized in Athens in June 2014 mentioned earlier.

Finally, the Southern route also involves smaller amounts of heroin shipped by air couriers and freight, as well as postal parcels, from Pakistan directly to Europe, especially the United Kingdom. 

Case study 10: Heroin trafficking by western Balkan OCGs

At the end of 2014, a long-running international investigation ended in several days of action during which almost 400 suspects were arrested and 100 kg of heroin was seized, along with quantities of cocaine, cannabis and cash. Notably, 4 tonnes of drug-cutting agents was also seized, indicating the significant scale of the network’s operation. The criminal gang involved, operating from bases in Austria, Germany and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, brought heroin into the EU along the Balkan route and distributed it across several European countries.

The investigation focused on a number of OCGs working in concert and operating out of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Their aims were to distribute high-quality heroin in Europe at very low prices and carry out large-scale drug trafficking, especially in Austria and Germany. Each member of the gangs worked in a specific area of operation, and the whole organisation was rigidly structured and hierarchical, with gang members lower down the hierarchy knowing very few other members of the group, and none of its principals. 

Source: Europol. 

The Northern route

The heroin trafficked on the Northern route is exported by land from Afghanistan’s northern borders and appears to be essentially destined for the consumer markets in Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which have been expanding over the last 10 years. Most consignments cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan and then are trafficked northwards through Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan before entering Russia. The fact that three of these four Central Asian countries and Russia rank among the top 26 countries seizing the largest quantities of heroin at world level confirms that significant quantities of the opiate are shipped along the Northern route (UNODC, 2014b). A proportion of heroin shipped on the Northern route may eventually enter the EU via the eastern borders of Poland and the Baltic countries. Some heroin seized in Ukraine and Belarus in the last few years was reported to originate from Central Asia and was intended for western European markets. In addition, large amounts have been intercepted on either side of the Ukraine–Poland border, for instance 150 kg was seized in Medyka, Poland, in April 2014. 

The Southern Caucasus route

As can be seen from the above, the so-called ‘trafficking routes’ are very flexible and fluid, as are the methods of transportation and concealment used. An example of this is the emergence of a new Southern Caucasus route. On this route, opiates produced in the Golden Crescent are trafficked from Iran to Ukraine or Moldova via Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. This route came to attention as a result of three remarkable seizures carried out in the countries of the Southern Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) in 2014. The most spectacular of these came in July 2014 in the port city of Batumi, Georgia, with the seizure of 2 500 litres of an unusual liquid mixture containing acetic anhydride, 589 kg of heroin, 12 kg of morphine and 2 kg of codeine from a lorry that had come from Iran via Azerbaijan. The drugs were reported to be destined for the Ukraine and Moldova.

This suggests that the Caucasus is now being used to smuggle large amounts of opiates from Iran to northern Europe. The ferries that cross the Black Sea from Georgia to Ukraine and Moldova are likely to be used to that end. From Ukraine or Moldova it is possible to reach both lucrative western European markets and the large Russian market by a variety of overland routes.

Turkish OCGs are known to cooperate with Iranian and Georgian OCGs and individual facilitators in organising and controlling heroin trafficking from source countries through this region to the retail markets for heroin in western Europe. Turkish OCGs are known to have an established presence in legal businesses in key locations along this trafficking route, such as transport companies. Areas of conflict in the Southern Caucasus region provide OCGs with opportunities for the trafficking of heroin to the EU with a reduced risk of detection. The purity of heroin intercepted along the Southern Caucasus route is reportedly high. 

In addition to security problems in many countries along these trafficking routes, the use of heroin within these countries can result in severe health and social problems, including HIV infections. In addition to the negative impacts on development in these regions it raises the issue of potential spill-over effects in neighbouring EU countries or as a result of migration to Europe.

Trafficking within the EU

Within the EU, trafficking is mainly organised by Turkish, Pakistani and Albanian-speaking OCGs with links to a wide range of local OCGs. Heroin is transported onward from the area of production by land, sea and air to the destination market. The major container ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp form an important hub, while Pakistani shipments to the United Kingdom and Spain (Barcelona) then flow to Portugal, France and Italy. The involvement of Turkish OCGs in the heroin trade in the Netherlands is illustrated by the extensive media coverage of a series of linked assassinations of members of Turkish heroin OCGs and Dutch-Turkish criminals in the Netherlands (Amsterdam) and in Istanbul in 2014 and 2015 (see Case study 5 in Chapter 1).

In the period immediately following 2010, there was a marked decline in the number of heroin seizures in Europe, after a period during which the number of seizures was fairly stable (see Figure 4.9). However, more recent data show this decline levelling off, with the number of seizures reported in the EU and Norway stabilising at a little over 33 000 between 2012 and 2014, compared with over 51 000 in 2009. However, in Turkey the number of seizures generally increased over the same period. In terms of the quantity seized in the EU and Norway, the figures fluctuate more; nevertheless, the total quantity seized in the region declined from over 8 tonnes in 2009 to 5.6 tonnes in 2013, but then in 2014 increased markedly to 8.9 tonnes. In Turkey, the quantity seized, although fluctuating year on year, has been fairly stable overall at around 13 tonnes per year since 2007. In 2014, there were just over 7 000 seizures in Turkey, yielding a total of just under 12.8 tonnes. 


Seizures of heroin 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. 

These overall seizure figures encompass small seizures, often of low-purity heroin taken from users or dealers arrested on the street by police, as well as large seizures of higher-purity heroin intercepted in transit or at borders by customs agencies and destined to be subdivided and moved down the supply chain. Looking at the average size of seizures may give some indication of the level of the market where most activity is taking place. The average seizure size in the EU countries (18) in 2014 was 0.24 kg. Countries that had an average seizure size of over 1 kg, suggesting a greater proportion of seizures relating to wholesale or middle market level, were Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Greece. On the other hand, those countries with an average seizure size of less than 50 g, suggesting that most seizures occur at the retail level, were mainly countries also reporting fewer seizures, such as the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic states, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Slovakia, but also Spain. As part of a programme of development of the seizure statistics reported to EMCDDA, some countries have started to break down seizures into three market levels based on the size of seizure, as well as providing more information about individual large seizures, which will enhance our understanding of law enforcement activity and trafficking routes.

As part of this development programme, the collection of information on seizures of other opioids has also been instituted. In 2014, 18 EU countries as well as Norway and Turkey reported seizures of at least one opioid other than heroin (Table 4.3). Other opioids included the pharmaceutical products methadone, buprenorphine, tramadol and codeine, as well as fentanyl and its analogues, and morphine. In addition, 13 countries reported seizures of opium and five reported seizing poppy straw or plants.

TABLE 4.3 Seizures of other opioids in the EU, Norway and Turkey, 2014 

Less information is currently available about the source of the increasing variety of opioids other than heroin that are increasingly being seen on the black market in Europe. As discussed in the section ‘Falsified, counterfeit, substandard and unauthorised medicines’ in Chapter 1, there are a number of ways in which these substances may appear on the black market. In Finland, buprenorphine dominates the opioid market, and evidence from seizures suggests that it
is increasingly smuggled from France via Sweden, although large seizures are still made on the traditional shipping route between Tallinn and Helsinki (Finland: Reitox, 2015). It is reported that, in France, buprenorphine reaches the black market in two main ways. In the first way, which is organised, significant quantities are obtained by falsifying prescriptions or by obtaining multiple prescriptions for individuals who are not opiate dependent. The second way is by individual users in receipt of opioid substitution treatment selling some of their prescription (France: Reitox, 2015); similar small- scale misuse of various types of opioid substitution therapy are reported by other countries but, when compared with the quantities prescribed, the amounts reaching the black market are quite low (Austria: Reitox, 2014). Nevertheless, in some countries there is a concern about the numbers of drug-related deaths in which opioid substitution medication, such as methadone, is mentioned. In Estonia, fentanyl is the most commonly used opioid and is reported to enter the country from Russia (Estonia: Reitox, 2015). Monitoring the illicit supply of opioid medication is an area that needs to be developed in the future. 

The retail market for heroin and other opioids

Information on how and where heroin users obtain their supplies is not widely available. Since heroin users are not well represented in general population surveys, these surveys are not able to provide much information on the heroin market, except that in general heroin is seen as less accessible than other drugs (TNS Political and Social, 2014). More information can be obtained from special studies of heroin users. However, the samples for such studies may not be representative of all users as they are often snowball or convenience samples, such as people attending needle exchanges or entering treatment.

Most heroin users buy their drugs, and there is less sharing or gifting than is the case with other substances. A recent study of drug users in three European countries, Italy, the Netherlands and England, found that the vast majority of respondents (97 %) usually paid for their heroin. About one in five said that they sometimes were given it while about 1 in 10 said that they sometimes got it on credit and a similar proportion reported that they got it fronted to sell (Trautmann and Frijns, 2013). In many countries it is common for heroin users to engage in street-level dealing to finance their drug use. Such users are very vulnerable to arrest and effectively act as a buffer between the higher- level dealers and traffickers and law enforcement.

There is considerable variation across Europe in how the heroin market operates. In some countries, street dealing of  heroin appears to be the most important type of retailing. In the above study, half of respondents said that they usually bought heroin on the street or in a park. However, in some countries more closed markets are in operation, with dealing taking place in premises and telephones being used to arrange pick-ups or deliveries. In England, over half the respondents in the recent study said they usually obtain their heroin through a delivery service (Trautmann and Frijns, 2013).

The retail price of heroin can be viewed as a marker of availability relative to demand and has been declining steadily over the last decade, in real terms (EMCDDA, 2015a). However, prices vary widely both within and between countries (Figure 4.10). The trend in purity presents a more complex picture, having been increasing but then showing a marked dip in 2010–11 when several EU countries reported heroin shortages (EMCDDA, 2015a). Since the low in 2012, purity has been increasing again and in 2014 was back to 2010 levels. Hence it appears that the market response to the heroin shortage was to reduce purity rather than price.

It has been suggested that the increased use of other opioids in some countries in previous years was partly in response to the reduced quality of the heroin on the market. This suggests users will revert to heroin now that purity has improved, a trend that is likely to continue given the recent record Afghan poppy crops. 


Trends in heroin 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. 

Source: EMCDDA/Reitox national focal points.  

Short title: 
Trafficking and supply