Drug markets and the link to wider criminal activity and terrorism (EU Drug Markets Report)

Drug markets and the link to wider criminal activity and terrorism

This section examines some of the links that exist between drug markets and other forms of criminal activity, including terrorism. There are numerous reasons why drug-related and non-drug-related crime may coexist. For example, those primarily engaged in other forms of criminal activity or terrorism may simply be attracted to the drug trade as a convenient source of funds. Alternatively, the large profits generated by drug trafficking organisations may encourage diversification into other illicit activities, while the networks and logistical infrastructure established for this purpose may also be utilised to traffic other commodities. In addition, areas where drugs are produced and/or through which they transit are often home to other illegal activity and may be attractive to OCGs more generally because of their fragile legal and political systems.


Terrorist activities need to be funded and drug trafficking provides substantial profits. These facts are the basis of a potential direct link between these two types of activity, and internationally there have been examples of terrorist groups directly engaging in the drug trade to finance their activities (Makarenko, 2012). Historically, this direct involvement is probably best documented in areas where drug production takes place, such as parts of Latin America, and such geographical links arise at least partly because both drug trafficking groups and terrorist organisations are attracted to countries where judicial and political systems are weak. However, there are obviously a variety of potential sources of finance for terrorist organisations, with direct contributions from supporters generally thought to be among the most important overall (Tupman, 2014). Moreover, terrorist organisations appear adept at seeking out new revenue sources, as illustrated by recent reports that Da’esh has generated significant income through illicit oil sales. Nevertheless, the proximity of conflict zones, where terrorist groups are active, to established routes for drug trafficking and drug production areas, close to EU borders, means that the monitoring of developments in this area must be regarded as both strategically and operationally important.

Conceptually, links between organised crime and terrorism can be thought of as being either links between entities or links between activities. Such links range from simply operational ones, with one type of group making use of the tactics or expertise of the other, through closer organisational ties, to links that could be described as evolutionary, when a terrorist group transforms over time into an OCG, or vice versa. So far, it appears that, in Europe, there are no systematic links between crime and terrorism, linkages being largely of the more limited operational type, with either temporary or more long-term alliances of convenience existing between OCGs and terrorist organisations.

Where they exist, the rationale for operational alliances is that they often provide access to specific expertise or support, linked to the need for terrorist groups to finance their operations. For example, it has been reported that in southern Colombia both the FARC guerrilla group and the paramilitary organisations fighting them imposed ‘taxes’ on all the actors involved in the cocaine chain including the cartels operating cocaine labs in the regions under their control (Jansson, 2006; Labrousse, 2004). Likewise, in Afghanistan, the Taliban reportedly taxed the actors of the heroin chain including the criminal organisations operating heroin laboratories (Felbab-Brown, 2010). In 2012, Irish Republican groups were reported to be laundering money on behalf of the ‘Ndrangheta OCG, which is heavily involved in drug trafficking to Europe, and it has been reported that the Basque separatist group ETA had links with Italian mafia organisations involving exchanges of drugs for arms. Of the 27 operational alliances between OCGs and terrorist organisations active in Europe identified between 2000 and 2010, 18 involved drug-related activities, mostly drug trafficking. In more than half of the cases reviewed, the networks had links to countries outside Europe, including in the Balkan region and the former Soviet Union (Makarenko, 2012).

An additional area of concern in Europe is the potential for radicalisation of second- or third-generation diaspora youth whose families originated in areas historically affected by Islamist or nationalist conflicts. Disaffected young people with a history of criminality, which may include involvement with the drug market, may use their criminal networks in support of terrorist activities. An example of this kind of relationship is the case of Mohamed Merah, who used his criminal contacts for financial and material support of the terror attacks in the south-west of France in March 2012.

A study of jihadi terrorist cells in western Europe found that the majority of the activities did not require significant funds, and there was a trend towards single-actor plots (Oftedahl, 2015). However, given the adaptability of such organisations, this may change once again. In this study drug trafficking was only rarely a source of finance. Nevertheless, the increasingly fragmented nature of terrorist activity in Europe gives rise to concerns that groups or individuals with a dual criminal/terrorist profile may be harder to detect, as their activities may not register as important with either those concerned with organised crime or those investigating terrorism. There is therefore a need for continued monitoring and analysis of potential linkages in this area, to determine where they occur and who are likely to be involved, in addition to greater communication between the different agencies involved in tackling these threats.

A further, but poorly documented, area of potential linkage is the use of illicit drugs by terrorists or insurgents while undertaking their terrorist activities or in battle, for example the use of illicit opiate-based painkillers to treat wounded combatants or of stimulants to keep fighters going through long engagements. It has been reported that captagon tablets, which generally contain amphetamine or other stimulants, are commonly used by fighters in Syria, for example, and media reports have linked the use of this drug to recent terrorist atrocities in the EU. Although it may be overly simplistic to assume such direct links, this remains an area that needs to be monitored.

Human trafficking and exploitation

The relationship between drug and human trafficking is multifaceted, but the hidden nature of both of these phenomena makes this area difficult to study. Although statistics on human trafficking are collected and efforts are being made to improve the information available, at present recorded data are likely to underestimate the true figures, and published statistics do not currently record whether or not human trafficking offences are associated with drug markets (Eurostat, 2015).

One way in which the activities can be linked is if both activities are conducted by the same OCGs. For example, Turkish and Balkan groups are reported to smuggle both drugs and migrants into and within Europe. One of the reasons why drug trafficking groups may also be attracted to human trafficking activities is that there is some overlap between the routes used and there are advantages to be gained by sharing established logistical infrastructure, which includes transportation and storage facilities. The risks associated with people trafficking are also low compared with drug trafficking as rates of prosecution are lower and penalties are generally less, making it a potentially more attractive business opportunity (Shelley, 2012). However, differences between these areas can also be observed. For example, human trafficking organisations tend to be smaller than some of the large criminal organisations engaged in drug trafficking.

Drugs may also play a part in the human trafficking process, facilitating and maintaining the exploitation of the victims. The United Kingdom National Crime Agency’s Strategic assessment of the nature and scale of human trafficking highlights that the grooming of women and children by older males, involving the use of drugs and alcohol, is an important method of recruitment for sexual exploitation (NCA, 2014). Substance misuse may also be a pre-existing risk factor for exploitation, with vulnerability arising from either personal or parental substance misuse (Beckett et al., 2013; Klatt et al., 2014). Victims may be given drugs to make them comply with sexual exploitation without resistance, but may also become drug dependent and continue to participate in order to maintain their access to drugs or to pay off drug debts. In addition, the use of stimulants to allow victims to work harder and for longer has been noted (Shelley, 2012; McCarthy, 2014).

The victims of human trafficking may also be made to play a more active role in the drug trade, and there is evidence of this from a number of European countries. For example, vulnerable individuals are lured from their home country by false promises of well-paid work, and after their arrival in the destination country may be coerced into working in the drugs or sex industry, often in order to repay debts accrued to the trafficking organisation or because of threats to family members at home (Anti-Slavery International, 2014; NCA, 2014).

In Europe the use of trafficked individuals, mainly Vietnamese, to act as ‘gardeners’ maintaining indoor cannabis plantations is well documented, and can involve both adults and children (see Case study 4). In the United Kingdom, for example, 29 of the 54 individuals identified as potential victims of human trafficking for cannabis cultivation in 2013 were children (NCA, 2014).

In addition to cannabis production, victims of human trafficking have been coerced into working in methamphetamine production sites, as drug couriers and as dealers in street drug markets. In addition to being exposed to the physical hazards of working in these environments, they risk prosecution and the coercive nature of their involvement with the offence may not always be taken into account (Hales and Gelsthorpe, 2012). Exploitation for the purpose of criminal activities such as drug trafficking within the domain of the criminal offence of trafficking in human beings is addressed in EU Directive 2011/36, on preventing and combating trafficking of human beings, which came into force in 2013, and may improve the way these cases are dealt with in the future.

Human trafficking and exploitation is not just a transregional or transnational phenomenon but also occurs within European countries; one recent estimate suggests that around one-third of trafficking cases are domestic (UNODC, 2014a). For example, recent reports from the United Kingdom have highlighted the issue of the exploitation of vulnerable young people who go missing from home and are recruited as runners for drug dealers or are ‘groomed’ for sexual exploitation using drugs and alcohol. Vulnerable and drug-dependent people may also be coerced into allowing their accommodation to be used for drug dealing or drug production (NCA, 2015a; Sturrock and Holmes, 2015).

Case study 4: Human trafficking for the drug trade

Trafficking for cannabis farming

A is from a small village in rural Vietnam. After a poor harvest his family were struggling for food. His parents took out a loan and he was then coerced into working abroad until the debt was repaid. A was transported from Vietnam to the Czech Republic, where he was locked in a warehouse with other Vietnamese boys and men. When he questioned the traffickers or asked to go home, he was subjected to beatings and verbal abuse. He was then smuggled by lorry to a house in Birmingham in the United Kingdom. The windows were boarded up and the house was used for cultivation of cannabis. A was taught how to look after the crop, made to sleep in the kitchen and told that if he left the premises his family would be hurt.

When A was discovered by the police who raided the house, he was disorientated and frightened, and unable to ask for help because he could not speak English. He was arrested and charged. At his interview A was assigned a Vietnamese interpreter who could not understand his regional accent. As he had no identity documents and no registered address, A was detained in custody. A was 16 years old when he arrived in the United Kingdom but it was assumed that he was over 18 and he was tried in an adult court. He was advised by his lawyer to plead guilty to charges of cultivating an illegal drug. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison to be followed by immediate deportation.

Trafficking for drug smuggling

B, a Nigerian woman, was trafficked to Denmark and forced to transport cocaine in a body belt on her person. She was caught by the authorities and arrested. She was visited in prison by someone from HopeNow, a Danish non-governmental organization (NGO), who identified her as a victim of human trafficking. A HopeNow representative testified at her trial, stating that she was indeed a victim of trafficking and that her exploiters had threatened to kill her child, who had since been moved elsewhere in Nigeria for safety. B’s claim to have been a trafficking victim was dismissed by the court because of lack of evidence and she was sentenced to 3 years in prison for drug smuggling.

Source: Anti-Slavery International (2014).

Trade in other illicit goods

Falsified, counterfeit, substandard and unauthorised medicines

Globally, the sale of falsified, counterfeit, substandard and unauthorised medicines is big business and a serious and growing public health problem. Over the past decade this market has seen high growth, fuelled by globalisation. As discussed below, the combination of modern transport networks, the internet, low labour costs, and the rapid growth of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, particularly in China and India, has facilitated the development of this large market. The potential for huge profits has also led to the involvement of OCGs, although the relationship between these groups and the drug market remains poorly understood. It has been suggested that some illicitly produced opium may now even be used to produce counterfeit medicines.

Alongside the risks to health posed by using such medicines, consumers also face the risk of being victims of fraud by buying from this market. This risk may be compounded by the poor security of many online shops, which could lead to consumers having their personal and financial information stolen or exposed. However, information on the extent of these problems is limited.

Another problem reported in the EU is the diversion of psychoactive medicines for misuse. Here more information is available, although most illicit drug monitoring systems were not designed to identify signals of such misuse so the data are patchy. Nevertheless, data are available from the EU Early Warning System and recent developments to EMCDDA annual data collections mean that some substances are now included. Therefore the information available is improving and, while still limited, raises concerns that misuse of psychoactive medicines may be a growing problem. Data from both individual studies and routine monitoring suggest that the main types of medicines misused in Europe are opioid analgesics, benzodiazepines and ‘Z-drugs’ (hypnotic drugs such as zolpidem and zopiclone). In particular, the diversion of methadone and buprenorphine from opioid substitution treatment is reported to be a significant problem in some countries, accounting for a non-trivial proportion of overall drug-related morbidity.


Illicit medicinal products

Fake diazepam tablet containing diclazepam seized in Inverclyde, Scotland, October 2013
Photo © Police Scotland

Medicines that are traded illicitly may reach the drug market in different ways: they may be diverted from licit use, as is the case when people who are prescribed opioids or benzodiazepines sell a proportion of their prescription; they may be stolen from the legitimate supply chain, including from manufacturers, wholesalers, pharmacies or prescribers; they may be obtained fraudulently through forged prescriptions; they may be purchased from online pharmacies that do not insist on a prescription; or they may be produced specifically for the illicit market. Different approaches are needed to tackle these diverse phenomena. For example, there is a need to focus on prescribing practices as the implementation of good practice in this area may reduce diversion by patients. In some settings, real-time prescription drug monitoring programmes have been found to be successful in reducing inappropriate prescribing (Clark et al., 2012).

Similarly, good practice in medical waste disposal can reduce the risk of the diversion of used fentanyl patches. Partnerships with industry, the development of regulatory controls, as well as custom and policing activity are all likely to be appropriate responses to the involvement of OCGs, which are more likely to divert larger quantities of medicines by infiltration of the supply chain or through the importation of falsified, counterfeit and unauthorised medicines from outside the EU.

The EMCDDA and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) routinely exchange information on the misuse of medicines through EU legislation: the Council Decision covering new psychoactive substances (5) and the medicinal products legislation related to pharmacovigilance (6). The EMCDDA also collects information on psychoactive medicines through its on-going drug monitoring activities. Nonetheless, the limitations of current monitoring systems mean that some potentially important developments in this area are difficult to observe; for example, the misuse of tramadol, gabapentin and pregabalin appears to be increasing, but this currently is difficult to detect in the routine data sources available (Griffiths et al., 2014).

Alcohol and tobacco

The revenues from the illicit trade in alcohol and tobacco products also have the potential to generate substantial profits for OCGs; however, to date there is little evidence concerning links between the markets. The profits from illicit tobacco sales within the EU, for example, have been estimated to be similar to those derived from the cocaine or heroin market (Savona and Riccardi, 2015). As in the case of the illicit medicines market, the trade in these products appears to be evolving, and is characterised by the presence on the market of smuggled genuine products (where tax is not paid in either source or destination country, or both) and illicitly manufactured products (including counterfeit products). As the penalties are less severe than those available for drug trafficking activities, this makes them high-profit, low-risk activities and would suggest that alcohol and tobacco smuggling are likely to be an attractive area for OCGs. The expertise and infrastructure are likely to be to some extent common for both drugs trafficking and tobacco and alcohol trafficking although the market outlets may differ.


Firearms are sometimes used by those involved in the drug market and, unsurprisingly, there are reports of drugs and firearms being smuggled together. For example, a lorry driver from the Netherlands was jailed in 2014 for attempting to smuggle drugs and firearms into the United Kingdom. Along with two guns and ammunition, more than 600 kg of cannabis resin/cannabis, 60 kg of amphetamine, 50 litres of amphetamine in liquid form, 6 kg of cocaine and 1 kg of MDMA were intercepted (NCA, 2015b). However, the best and most consistent documented link between the supply of arms and drugs concerns outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs). These groups are noted as having a long history of involvement in the supply of both drugs (see individual drug chapters in Part II) and weapons. There are also concerns about the growth in numbers of such gangs and about the potential impact on the EU of OMCGs based in neighbouring countries. OMCGs are particularly active in trafficking drugs, weapons and humans from the western Balkans to western and northern European countries. Efforts are currently being made to develop a strategic response to this problem and it remains a potentially fruitful area for cross-border intelligence sharing and coordinated operations (Council of the European Union, 2015a).

Short title: 
Link to wider criminal activity and terrorism

(5) Council Decision No 2005/387/JHA of 10 May 2005 on the information exchange, risk-assessment and control of new psychoactive substances, OJEU L127, 25.05.2005, p. 32.

(6) Regulation (EC) No 726/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down Community procedures for the authorisation and supervision of medicinal products for human and veterinary use and establishing a European Medicines Agency, OJEU L 136, 30/04/2004, p.1.