Cocaine: increasingly attractive for a wider range of criminal networks
This resource is part of EU Drug Market: Cocaine — In-depth analysis by the EMCDDA and Europol.
Last update: 6 May 2022
A large variety of individuals, many of them designated as high-value targets, groups and networks shape the complex supply of cocaine to the EU. Criminal networks involved in cocaine trafficking are highly resilient, with some operating across several continents. For example, some locations in the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates, have emerged as a safe haven for top-level organisers of cocaine trafficking to the EU. Further, criminal networks originating from the EU or the EU’s neighbourhood have also become established in key locations in South America, or maintain direct contacts with suppliers. Trusted members of the criminal networks are sent to arrange and supervise these shipments.
Wholesalers are involved in the acquisition, storage and distribution of cocaine to regional and local markets. Local criminal networks then usually take care of mid-level or retail distribution or both. However, some Albanian-speaking criminal networks have made successful attempts to apply an end-to-end business model from producing or transit countries in South America to retail distribution within the EU and beyond (see Box Cocaine trafficking by criminal networks from Western Balkans). This includes financing, access to suppliers in the producing or transit countries, transportation, extraction, storage, distribution and money collection.
The substantial profits associated with the cocaine trade have attracted numerous EU-based criminal networks to become involved. Several of these operate in the main EU distribution hubs and also organise shipments from countries of origin and transit to the EU. The majority of the criminal networks reported to Europol have been active for more than 10 years, with some actors having played a key role for decades, such as Italian networks, while new players are on the lookout for a bigger share of the cocaine market, such as Albanian, Belgian, British, Dutch, French, Irish, Moroccan, Serbian, Spanish and Turkish networks (UNODC and Europol, 2021).
In Colombia, the fragmentation of the criminal landscape has multiplied the number of potential suppliers (UNODC and Europol, 2021). These Colombian criminal networks continue to control the production, remain involved in the supply of cocaine to the EU and have further shifted their operations outside Colombia to avoid profiling and increase profits. They cooperate with other South American and EU-based criminal networks and maintain a physical presence in key transit countries and in the EU.
Brazilian criminal networks have become partners of Colombian criminal networks and also purchase cocaine produced in Bolivia and Peru. In addition to their trafficking activities, they are service providers for globally operating criminal networks that use Brazilian ports to traffic cocaine.
Mexican criminal networks ship large cocaine consignments via South American ports to the EU. In addition to their involvement in methamphetamine production facilities located in Europe (see EU Drug Markets: Methamphetamine), Mexican suspects are also involved in the operation of cocaine extraction labs in the EU (see Box Mexican criminal networks become involved in EU cocaine market).
Nigerian criminal networks also have a presence in Latin America and use air couriers to maintain direct connections to the EU, where they are involved in distribution in numerous Member States.
Dutch and Belgian criminal networks collaborate with Latin American criminal networks in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Suriname to orchestrate large shipments of cocaine to the EU via Belgium and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, British and Irish criminal networks are very large wholesalers and store significant quantities of cocaine in EU distribution hubs, mainly to supply the United Kingdom.
Non-EU criminal networks originating from south-eastern Europe, particularly the Western Balkan networks, also organise cocaine smuggling operations from Latin America. Western Balkan networks have established themselves as key organisers of cocaine trafficking activities on the global market. In parallel, Albanian-speaking criminal networks appear to have expanded their activities in more EU countries since 2017 (Europol, 2021a). Some shipments arranged by networks from eastern Europe transiting the EU are intended for non-EU markets in eastern Europe, while a share is distributed in the Nordic countries (Europol, 2021a).
Cooperation: a key factor for boosting profits
Criminal cooperation relies on a business mentality that allows criminal networks to overcome financial burdens, expand trafficking activities, access expertise and reach new markets. Criminal networks often share and outsource information, services, resources, smuggling routes, experts, distribution and money laundering (Lalam, 2022). Cooperation even takes place occasionally between rival criminal networks.
Colombian criminal networks cooperate with other South American (e.g. Brazilian) and EU-based criminal networks and maintain a physical presence in key transit countries and in the EU. Similarly, as highlighted in the previous section, Dutch and Belgian criminal networks collaborate with Latin American criminals to organise large shipments of cocaine smuggled to the EU, while Albanian-speaking criminal groups cooperate closely with Italian networks (GI TOC, 2022b).
Encrypted communication makes the degree of global connectedness between criminal networks very apparent. Information gathered from such communication reveals a fragmented landscape comprising different networks of contacts interacting with one another on an ad hoc basis, to organise international drug trafficking at different levels. Further, criminal networks often have a large and changing client portfolio (see Box Inside criminal networks’ operations).
Facilitators: providers of essential criminal services
Facilitators provide a range of services for the cocaine supply chain. Cocaine traffickers use professionals from numerous areas such as lawyers, bank employees, accountants, money launderers, IT experts, chemists, mechanics, investigators and assassins. For example, clearers at ports provide a unique and essential criminal service in the cocaine market to various criminal networks. They retrieve the cocaine from containers as they have access and knowledge of the procedures and logistics at ports. They are corrupt officials or port workers (stevedores, consignees, and carriers) who may receive part of the cocaine package or a percentage of its value for their services (Europol, 2021a).
Some criminal networks provide transport and storage logistics to other criminal networks, including vessels, passenger vehicles and trucks. For instance, some provide vehicles with sophisticated built-in hidden compartments.
Parallel criminal financial networks assist cocaine traffickers not only in money-laundering activities, but also in placing large amounts of money in the countries of origin and in the distribution hubs, in order to acquire the cocaine shipments. A number of financial coordinators and money launderers are based in the Middle East, which is home to an established parallel financial system.
Brokers: central connectors enabling cocaine operations
Analysis of encrypted communications provides valuable insight into the dynamics of global cocaine trafficking operations and the criminal suspects involved in this business (see Box Inside criminal networks’ operations). This analysis has identified that a core role within networks active in cocaine trafficking is played by ‘drugs brokers’. These are service providers connecting criminals and organised criminal networks with different expertise, acting as intermediaries between the field operators, other brokers and high-level criminals. Typically, they work with a small group of close associates with whom they have a long-lasting relationship. The relationships outside this core group are more fluid and partnerships are rather temporary.
Brokers may be working for larger criminal organisations that have a long-standing tradition in crime, such as the Italian mafia. However, most brokers seem to work independently. Being involved in every phase of the drugs trafficking chain, they connect suppliers in South America to traffickers in the EU, and traffickers to buyers or individuals providing logistical support. Some of these brokers control several stages of the trafficking chain (e.g. transport of the cocaine to a South American harbour, transport overseas, or extraction of cargo from a container in a European port). Others concentrate only on one stage (e.g. organising the extraction teams in a European port). Brokers facilitating the wholesale trafficking of cocaine are mainly based in South America.
The broker will have to pay large sums for the services of associates, intermediate brokers, facilitators, drivers, port workers and corrupt port officials. Intercepted communications also show the significant investments EU clients have to make for an overseas drugs shipment, which high-level brokers and high-risk criminal networks operating in the EU are able to provide. Other brokers and criminal networks pool their resources to jointly invest in shipments.
Shipments from overseas are handed over to a distributor chain in the EU, consisting of wholesale distributors who split it into smaller packages and transport it to intermediary and retail distributors. Conversations between brokers and criminal networks involved in the distribution chain of cocaine in the EU confirm numerous physical money movements of cash amounting to millions of euro throughout the EU and globally.
Negative consequences: violence
Over the last decade, criminal groups involved in the cocaine trade have been associated with the rising number of incidents of violence linked to drug markets in the EU. Europol information suggests a change in the nature of violence linked to cocaine markets, with a growing number of criminal networks using violence in a more offensive way than in the past. In some Member States, competition between drug suppliers has intensified, resulting in an apparent increase in the number of violent clashes. In general, expanding cocaine markets appear to have led to an increase in the occurrence of homicides, shootings, bombings, arsons, kidnappings, torture and intimidation. Analysis of EncroChat communications also revealed that criminals were using the encrypted platform to plan violent acts as a result of betrayal or disputes over debts (see Box Inside criminal networks’ operations).
While much violence occurs within and between criminal networks, cocaine smuggling methods, particularly in seaports (see Section Exploitation of global logistics: European and Latin American ports), have led to an increase in violence directed at port workers and officials. However, in some Member States cocaine-related violence, including murder, now also targets non-criminal actors such as lawyers, government officials and journalists (see Box Cocaine-related violence).
A large number of incidents are related to Belgian and Dutch criminal organisations operating in two of the largest cocaine entry points in Europe, namely the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. Between 2017 and the end of August 2020, 66 events with hand-grenades or firearms were reported in Antwerp, likely related to the cocaine trade (Eeckhaut, 2020). While corrupt port workers initially appeared to be the main targets, the emphasis then appeared to shift towards intimidation between rival drug gangs. Thus, a conflict between some criminal networks of Moroccan origin, which are important players in the cocaine market, has apparently led to serious acts of violence in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Persons other than gang members have also been targeted. In September 2019, the lawyer of a member of one of the Moroccan criminal networks, was shot dead in front of his house (Tieleman and Voskuil, 2019). Several ‘murders by mistake’ have also occurred, that is, killings of people who looked like, or lived near, the intended target but who were not connected to the cocaine trade at all (Noordanus, 2020). Some of the perpetrators of these murders appear to be young, sometimes teenagers, including local people with no previous experience in the killer-for-hire business (Dahlkamp et al., 2021). Some Dutch law enforcement officers, members of the judiciary and journalists have been put under permanent police protection as it was determined that their work made them potential targets (Dahlkamp et al., 2021). In addition, the security arrangements for the Dutch prime minister were upgraded in September 2021 due to concerns that he may become a target of criminal networks (Van den Heuvel and van Wely, 2021). A Dutch national of Moroccan origin, reportedly leading a major cocaine network, has been connected to at least 10 murders (see Box Cocaine-related violence).
Violence connected to cocaine is also reported in other European port cities, such as Marseille and Le Havre, France. In the port of Le Havre, increasing cocaine seizures, sightings of criminal groups’ members in the terminals and reports of corruption of port workers go hand in hand with intimidation, kidnapping, torture, murder and attempted murder of port workers. A large proportion of these incidents is apparently related to the methods used by criminal networks to enforce the compliance of corrupt workers who may want out or who request more money for their assistance (Piel and Saintourens, 2022). In a particularly horrific incident, the mutilated body of a Le Havre dock worker was found in the car park of a nursery school near the port area in June 2020 (Pointel, 2020). While the violence in Le Havre seems to be restricted to those involved in port logistics, in Marseille it affects the city more comprehensively. Drive-by shootings, where rival youth gangs and criminals violently settle scores, have become an identified problem in several districts. The violence is attributed to the increasing influence of criminal networks involved in the cocaine trade, combined with economic and social problems (Ravindran, 2021). Score-settling among gangs has led to numerous deaths, with more than 20 contract killings reported in the Marseille area in 2021 alone (Bordenave, 2021).
Southern Spain is also recording significant numbers of deadly score-settling incidents between criminal networks involved in the cocaine and cannabis resin trades. In the Costa del Sol area, the Spanish authorities report a total of 33 homicides and murders and two attempted homicides between 2018 and 2021. Each incident had one victim recorded; most victims were EU nationals, Spanish (13) and other EU (12), including western European (8: Belgian, Danish, Irish, French, Swedish) and eastern European (4: Bulgarian, Croatian, Lithuanian, Slovakian). In addition, there were three victims from Western Balkan countries (Montenegro, Serbia), two from the United Kingdom; and three from Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco) (CITCO, 2022).
Violence and homicides in several EU Member States have also been connected to the notorious Kinahan clan from Dublin, Ireland. Conflict between the Kinahans and rival groups has led to the murder of at least 20 people in Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain. The trial of some Kinahan clan members revealed that specialised crime cells were established in order to kill rivals (Reynolds, 2020).
Criminal groups from the Western Balkans, including Albanian-speaking groups, also appear to be responsible for some deadly violence. For instance, the widely reported conflict between the Kavac and Skaljari clans from Kotor, Montenegro, spread to Serbia and led to dozens of murders (GI TOC, 2022b). Similarly, there are indications that acts of violence and murders linked to cocaine trafficking also occurred in Albania recently, but apparently not on the same scale (Oculus News, 2019; Politiko.al, 2022; Tiranapost.net, 2021). Violence associated with competition for cocaine markets and routes among Western Balkan criminal networks has also been reported in the EU, with homicides occurring in cities such as Vienna (Amerhauser, 2019), Málaga, Berlin, Amsterdam and Athens (GI TOC, 2022b). The criminal groups seem to use a wide arsenal ranging from pistols and automatic rifles to sniper rifles and remote-controlled bombs (OCCRP, 2020; Politiko.al, 2022). Violence connected to Western Balkan criminal networks has also been reported in South America, where some of them maintain a presence, but more often as victims than perpetrators. This has been the case, for example, in Ecuador, where many suspected members of Albanian-speaking groups fell victim to mafia-style killings, in particular in connection with the port of Guayaquil (Cela and Moran, 2019; Euronews.al, 2022; Ford, 2021). Others have been killed in Brazil (Record TV, 2021) and Colombia (Analisisurbano.org, 2018; Parkinson, 2020). Overall, Western Balkan criminal networks seem to use violence in a somewhat strategic and controlled way, primarily to maintain their credibility as a threat, which is reported as a key feature of their business model in the cocaine trade (GI TOC, 2022b; Kemp, 2020; Townsend, 2019).
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