Europe and the global cocaine trade
This resource is part of EU Drug Market: Cocaine — In-depth analysis by the EMCDDA and Europol.
Last update: 6 May 2022
Much of our knowledge about cocaine trafficking routes results from law enforcement activity and intelligence. Information on types and quantities of drugs seized and information on the origin and destination of shipments give indications of the main routes and modes of transport. However, such information is affected by factors such as law enforcement strategies, resources and priorities, as well as temporary changes to routes and practices in response to interdiction efforts or new opportunities. Hence, caution is needed in interpreting these data.
The 1 436 tonnes of cocaine seized worldwide in 2019 was the highest ever to be reported. Quantities of cocaine seized globally increased by more than 50 % between 2015 and 2019, and cocaine was the second-most seized drug globally after cannabis in 2019 (UNODC, 2021b). As in previous years, the vast majority of the global total was seized in the Americas, followed by western and central Europe. Although small in comparison with the Americas and Europe, quantities seized in emerging cocaine markets in Africa and Asia also reached record highs in 2019 (UNODC, 2021a) (see Figure Global quantity of cocaine seized).
|Western and central Europe||14.8|
|Eastern and South-Eastern Europe||0.4|
Trafficking cocaine to Europe
The intensification and diversification of cocaine trafficking activities targeting the EU have continued since the last EU Drug Markets Report (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019). Record levels of cocaine production have been matched by record quantities seized, especially from containers handled in the numerous ports along the transatlantic cocaine routes.
Container trafficking fosters proliferation of points of departure
Most of the cocaine seized in the EU is transported by sea, primarily in maritime shipping containers. Cocaine is shipped to the EU directly from the countries of production but also from neighbouring countries of departure in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. Based on quantities of cocaine seized in European ports and in ports elsewhere destined for Europe (see Box Detailed analysis of cocaine seized in or destined for EU), Brazil (about 71 tonnes), Ecuador (67.5 tonnes) and Colombia (about 32 tonnes) were the main departure points in 2020, as they have been for some years, followed by Costa Rica (20.4 tonnes). The latter is a relative newcomer in the top countries of origin for shipments destined for Europe, confirming that Central America now has a more significant role (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019). This is likely to reflect a diversification of trafficking routes within the Americas. In total, 25 countries in the Americas reported seizures of cocaine with Europe as the intended destination in 2020. In addition to the countries previously listed, also mentioned are Paraguay (13.3 tonnes) Guyana (13 tonnes), the Dominican Republic (7.2 tonnes), the United States (5.5 tonnes), Chile (5.1 tonnes), Venezuela (5 tonnes), Peru (4.8 tonnes) and Panama (4.4 tonnes). The extensive use of maritime containers to smuggle cocaine from countries of production in South America is making it increasingly difficult to differentiate between ‘departure’ and ‘transit’ areas in the Americas.
There have traditionally been two main areas through which maritime and air shipments of cocaine transit en route to Europe: the Caribbean, and the West African mainland and neighbouring islands of Cape Verde, Madeira and the Canaries. While these are likely to remain significant transit areas, there are indications that North Africa continues to grow in importance and that transhipment through the Western Balkans, while remaining more limited in scope, may also have increased.
From the Caribbean, cocaine is typically shipped on pleasure craft via the Azores, or by air, either on direct flights or via a variety of transit points. In 2019 cocaine seizures in the Caribbean region amounted to 14 tonnes, or about 1 % of the global total, but it is difficult to ascertain what proportion of this total was destined for Europe (UNODC, 2021a).
The quantities of cocaine seized in the West African mainland and neighbouring islands, together with those seized in Europe coming from the region appear to be small in comparison to the amounts seized at departure points in the Americas. Data reported at the international level indicate that cocaine seizures in West Africa totalled 11.1 tonnes in 2019 (UNODC, 2021a), although this almost entirely reflects a single seizure of 11 tonnes in Cape Verde from a ship travelling to Tangiers, Morocco, in January 2019. The cocaine in this case was probably destined for Europe (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019). Alternative sources indicate that more cocaine was seized in West Africa in 2019 than reported to the UNODC. This includes a finding that more than 16 tonnes of cocaine was seized in the region that year, reversing the dearth of seizures recorded since 2013 (Bird, 2021). In 2020, several seizures of relatively large quantities were reported to the UNODC (2021a) by Côte d’Ivoire (991 kilograms), Senegal (796 kilograms) and Benin (601 kilograms), while data on cocaine seized at ports indicate that about 1.8 tonnes intended for Europe was seized in two separate events, one from Sierra Leone seized in Antwerp (1.25 tonnes), and one seized in Cotonou, Benin (0.5 tonnes). Large seizures were also reported in 2021. This includes a shipment of 2.9 tonnes in a maritime container at Banjul port, Gambia, in January 2021, where 118 bags of cocaine were found concealed within a cargo of industrial salt (Bird, 2021). According to media reporting, Gambian drug authorities were searching for the owner of the consignment, a French national, in connection with the incident (News24, 2021; Reuters, 2021).
North Africa is strategically located at a crossroads between Europe, West Africa and the Middle East. Although considerably less cocaine was seized in North Africa (1.8 tonnes) in 2019 than in West Africa (UNODC, 2021a), cocaine smuggling through North Africa, often taking advantage of pre-existing cannabis routes between Morocco and Europe, was identified as an issue many years ago (UNODC, 2007). However, developments in the last four or five years suggest that the region, particularly its coasts on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, is a growing transit and storage hub for cocaine both arriving by sea directly from South America and coming via West Africa by land for onward transport to Europe or elsewhere, for instance the Middle East (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019; GI TOC, 2022).
The main cocaine hub of North Africa is probably Morocco. The country has traditionally seized the largest quantities of cocaine in the region, which continued in 2019 with seizures totalling 1.5 tonnes, more than 80 % of the reported North African total (UNODC, 2021a). There are indications that the 2021 Moroccan total could be even higher. For instance, in October 2021, more than 1.3 tonnes of cocaine was reported seized in the Tanger-Med port in northern Morocco. The drugs were concealed in a container on a ship that had departed from Brazil and was bound for Antwerp, Belgium, and Portbury, a middle-sized port in Bristol, United Kingdom (Kundu, 2021).
On a much smaller scale than Morocco, international cocaine trafficking activities in Algeria and Libya reported in the last edition of this report (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019; Micaleff, 2019) appear to have continued in the recent period. In 2019, Algeria reported seizing about 316 kilograms (UNODC, 2021a), while there are indications that Libyan seizures amounted to over 44 kilograms. In December 2020, there were two significant seizures from containers bound for Libya: one in Ecuador on a container bound for Libya and Syria (512 kilograms), and another in Malta from a container originating in Ecuador (612 kilograms) (Dixon, 2021). Algeria’s second-largest cocaine seizure ever occurred at sea in June 2021, when 490 kilograms of the drug was found floating by local fishermen 6 nautical miles (11 kilometres) off the port city of Oran (Franceinfo, 2021). This area is a known hub for the transhipment of drugs at sea, particularly cannabis resin from Morocco, on ships bound for Europe or Libya, while significant quantities of cocaine have been seized in the port of Oran recently (Ben Yahia and Farrah, 2019). It is likely that the cocaine was not intended for local consumption in Algeria, but was destined for Europe or the Middle East, perhaps via Libya (GI TOC, 2022a).
Although there have been some fairly large seizures of cocaine in the Western Balkan region in recent years (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019), the data continue to suggest that, overall, the region’s cocaine smuggling is more limited in scope than in western Europe, where the main entry points for cocaine are located. For instance, non-routine data reported by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) on drug seizures at a number of border posts between the EU and the Western Balkans in 2019 and 2020 indicate that comparatively small amounts of cocaine enter the EU from that region. Meanwhile, Frontex data confirm the large quantities of cocaine seized in Spain, a traditional entry point for cocaine into the EU (Frontex, 2021). Nevertheless, individual seizures in 2020 and 2021 could suggest that cocaine trafficking through ports in the Western Balkan region, particularly in Albania and Montenegro, may have increased. For example, 143 kilograms was seized in the port of Durres, Albania in April 2021 (Exit.al, 2021), while 1.4 tonnes was seized in August 2021 and 500 kilograms in January 2022 in the port of Bar, Montenegro (Kajosevic, 2022). Montenegrin authorities also suspect that more than 3 tonnes were smuggled through the port of Bar in the second half of 2021 (Kajosevic, 2022). Furthermore, Kosovo seized a shipment of 400 kilograms of cocaine in May 2021 after it had been smuggled through the Albanian port of Durres (Halili, 2021).
Record cocaine quantities seized in Europe
For the fourth consecutive year, record amounts of cocaine were seized in Europe in 2020. At 214.6 tonnes, this represents a 6 % increase from 2019 (see Figure Quantities of cocaine seized in Europe). Three countries, Belgium (70 tonnes), the Netherlands (49 tonnes) and Spain (37 tonnes), accounted for about 73 % of the estimated European total, but large quantities were also seized by Italy (13.4 tonnes), France (13.1 tonnes), Germany (11 tonnes) and Portugal (10 tonnes). Seizures in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany in 2020 were the highest on record (see Figure Quantities of cocaine seized in Europe). Meanwhile, new records were also established elsewhere in 2020, including Greece (1.8 tonnes) and east European countries not traditionally associated with cocaine trafficking or consumption, such as Bulgaria (1 tonne), Poland (3.9 tonnes) and Turkey (2 tonnes). This indicates that entry points of cocaine shipments are diversifying and that cocaine consumer markets are developing in eastern Europe including Turkey (see Cocaine retail markets: multiple indicators suggest continued growth and diversification).
Data available for a few key countries indicate that even larger quantities of cocaine were seized in the EU in 2021. For instance, data on cocaine seizures in Belgium indicate that almost 92 tonnes of cocaine was seized in 2021, almost all in the port of Antwerp. If seizures made elsewhere of shipments that were destined for Antwerp are taken into account, then close to 194 tonnes of cocaine was seized in connection with Antwerp in 2021 (Belgian Federal Police, personal communication). Similarly, the Netherlands (73 tonnes), Spain (more than 49 tonnes) and France (more than 19 tonnes) seized new record quantities of cocaine in 2021 (Douane, 2022; Openbaar Ministerie, 2022; CITCO, communication to the EMCDDA). The preliminary 2021 data available from a few countries indicates that more than 240 tonnes of cocaine were seized in the EU in 2021, exceeding the previous record European total (214.6 tonnes) in 2020.
Main transportation methods
Cocaine traffickers flexibly use a wide range of innovative trafficking methods, which evolve over time in response to enforcement efforts and other factors. Although cocaine also enters the EU by air, the main route used to smuggle the drug into Europe is still the maritime route from South America to western Europe, especially taking advantage of the licit containerised trade. Maritime transport allows the smuggling of large quantities, and the nature of international commercial maritime traffic means that a vast number of routes can be and are used. In addition, smaller, private sailing boats or even semi-submersible vessels are capable of bringing in large quantities of cocaine in single shipments, entering Europe at many points (see Box First two semi-submersible drug-smuggling vessels captured in Europe).
Criminal networks involved in cocaine trafficking now also more frequently employ methods of transport such as mother ships, pleasure craft, fishing vessels, cruise ships and the drop-off method. Sophisticated concealment methods such as placing the illicit load in metal cylinders attached to the ship’s hull are also encountered (see Figure Maritime trafficking: diversification of modus operandi).
Major European container ports have recorded many seizures of large cocaine shipments in recent years. In addition to targeting major ports, organised criminal networks are now increasingly shipping larger amounts of cocaine from South America to smaller ports in the EU or neighbouring countries, where security measures may be easier to circumvent.
Corruption of maritime and aviation port employees and security officials throughout Europe is, in most cases, a key condition for the successful use of these facilities for cocaine importation by criminal networks.
An analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on EU drug markets concluded that cocaine trafficking via maritime routes had probably continued at levels comparable to or possibly even higher than those of 2019 (EMCDDA and Europol, 2020).
Exploitation of global logistics: European and Latin American ports
Most of the cocaine available in Europe continues to be smuggled into the largest container ports of the EU located in Belgium (Antwerp), the Netherlands (Rotterdam) and Spain (Valencia and Algeciras). In addition to Hamburg (Germany), ports in France (Le Havre, Dunkerque, Marseille), Romania (Constanta), and Italy (Gioia Tauro), for instance, have also become significant cocaine entry points. The German authorities have attributed the recent increase in seizures in the port of Hamburg to the activities of Balkan and Albanian-speaking organised crime networks (BKA, 2021).
The use of these ports shows how criminal networks continue to exploit established commercial maritime routes between Latin America and Europe to smuggle cocaine into the EU. Taking advantage of the large volume of containerised trade in goods between the two regions, criminal networks are able to conceal large quantities of cocaine in individual shipments. As a result, the main European container ports have recorded increasing numbers of large-volume cocaine seizures in recent years. While these main container ports continue to be targeted, it is likely that law enforcement activities at these facilities have pushed some criminal networks to find alternative smuggling routes, resulting in a recent intensification of cocaine shipments to smaller ports in the EU or in neighbouring countries where security measures may be viewed as easier to evade.
The available data suggest that cocaine trafficking towards the EU continued during the COVID-19 pandemic without any apparent disruption. At least 282 tonnes of cocaine destined for Europe was seized in 2020. Some 108 tonnes was seized at departure ports located in Latin America, and approximately 171 tonnes was seized at EU ports. As in previous years, the largest quantity of cocaine in the EU was seized in Belgian ports (69 tonnes), followed by Dutch (45 tonnes) and Spanish ports (26 tonnes). In Latin America, the largest amount was seized at ports in Brazil (45 tonnes), Ecuador (24 tonnes) and Colombia (18 tonnes) (see Figure Top 10 countries for quantity of cocaine destined for Europe seized at ports in 2020).
Antwerp and Rotterdam accounted for almost 65 % of the cocaine seized in all EU ports in 2020 (69 tonnes and 42 tonnes, respectively). Further analysis confirms a trend identified in the previous edition of this report (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019), namely that criminal networks continue to attempt to circumvent controls by targeting smaller ‘secondary’ EU ports, such as Vigo (Spain), Livorno (Italy), Sines (Portugal) or Vlissingen (the Netherlands), where profiling and control measures might be viewed as easier to overcome. A total of 60 tonnes of cocaine was seized in such secondary EU ports in 2020 (see Figure Top 10 EU seizing ports for quantity of cocaine).
|Port||In container structure||On a vessel||Other||Rip-on/rip-off||Within legitimate goods||Unknown|
The available data indicates that in Latin America, the largest quantities of cocaine destined for Europe were seized in Guayaquil, Ecuador (23 tonnes), and Santos, Brazil (21 tonnes). If all seizures departing from these ports are taken into consideration, totalling about 61 tonnes shipped from Guayaquil and 31 tonnes from Santos, it becomes clear that these two ports are used intensively by cocaine trafficking criminal networks.
As observed in the EU, trafficking networks also use an increasingly wide range of secondary ports in Latin America, including Turbo and Buenaventura, Colombia, Villeta, Paraguay, and Vila do Condé, Brazil, presumably in an attempt to avoid detection (see Figure Top 10 Latin American seizing ports for quantity of cocaine destined for the EU).
|Port of seizure||In container structure||Other||Rip-on/rip-off||Within legitimate goods||Unknown|
|Santa Marta (Colombia)||0.14||0.95||5.83|
|Puerto Limon (Costa Rica)||4.03|
|Vila do Condé (Brazil)||0.32||3.22|
Analysis of concealment methods emphasises some key features that enable large quantities of cocaine to be smuggled to the EU. Criminal networks are creative and appear to be able to rapidly adapt to avoid detection, which explains why a range of modi operandi are implemented. However, the largest quantities of cocaine are smuggled using maritime containers and through two particular modi operandi: within legitimate goods and rip-on/rip-off. Most of the cocaine seized in containers destined for the EU in 2020 was smuggled within legitimate goods (132 tonnes), followed by the rip-on/rip-off method (108 tonnes). Similarly, these methods have resulted in the largest numbers of individual seizures (212 rip-on/rip-off and 166 within legitimate goods) (see Figure Quantity and number of cocaine shipments seized at ports in 2020). The large number of rip-on/rip-off seizures is of particular concern as corruption is a key requirement for cocaine smuggling using this method (see Section Negative consequences: corruption in EU ports).
|Modus operandi||Quantity seized||Number of seizures|
|Within legitimate goods||47||32|
|In container structure||4||18|
|On a vessel||2||2|
The data indicate that the port of Antwerp is probably the main entry point for cocaine smuggled into the EU. Europol intelligence suggests that most of the cocaine entering Antwerp is destined initially for the Netherlands, where further distribution is arranged.
Focusing exclusively on cocaine seized outside Europe and destined for Belgian ports in the 2018-2021 period, a variety of modi operandi can be observed in the 10 main shipping ports (see Figure Top 10 source ports for quantity of cocaine destined for Belgian ports).
|Port||In container structure||Rip-on/rip-off||Within legitimate goods||Unknown|
|Santa Marta (Colombia)||0.97||3.1||29.18||0.02|
|Moin (Costa Rica)||0.57||10.31||5.88||0.2|
A striking development has been the increase in the quantities shipped from Guayaquil, the largest container port in Ecuador, towards Antwerp using the rip-on/rip-off method, from 6 tonnes in 2018 to almost 56 tonnes in 2021. The reasons for this are unclear and require additional research and closer monitoring. That said, Ecuador, which shares land borders with both Colombia and Peru, two of the main cocaine-producing countries, seems to have transformed in the last decade or so from a transit country into a major trafficking hub. Furthermore, it is now also reportedly emerging as a cocaine-producing country (Pichel, 2021). Such transformation is thought to have fuelled recent violence between local gangs rumoured to be used by important cocaine trafficking networks from Colombia and Mexico. A recent surge in assassinations, which nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021, including violent prison gang riots in which hundreds of inmates died in 2021, are reportedly linked with cocaine trafficking in the country, particularly in the port of Guayaquil. Media sources report that cocaine seizures have increased dramatically in the country in recent years, from 82 tonnes in 2019, to 128 tonnes in 2020 and 210 tonnes in 2021 (Dalby, 2021; Pichel, 2021; Rosero, 2022) (see Figure Top 5 source ports for cocaine seized while smuggled using the rip-on/rip-off method intended for Belgian ports).
|Moin (Costa Rica)||2.5||2.7||0.3||4.8|
Negative consequences: corruption in EU ports
Corruption has been identified as a key threat in the EU in the latest EU SOCTA report (Europol, 2021a), with almost 60 % of criminal networks estimated to use corruption as a facilitator. Operations supported by Europol have exposed the role played by corruption in the functioning of drug markets in Europe, a factor that may have been underestimated in the past. Corruption is a crime enabler for all types of criminal activities and is a significant facilitator of drug trafficking activities. In this regard, corruption is used by traffickers to gain entry to ports, to access drugs hidden in containers, to set up or ensure control over businesses used as covers for smuggling activities, such as renting transport vehicles or storage premises, and also to facilitate money laundering, among others.
Indeed, various modi operandi used to smuggle cocaine through EU ports require corruption, and recent investigations in some EU ports have provided valuable insights on the methods used by criminal networks to retrieve cocaine shipments from containers in the EU. Of course, the threat of corruption is not restricted to EU ports, since it is also used in most other ports targeted by criminal groups globally.
Of particular concern is the large number of cocaine seizures involving the rip-on/rip-off method, which suggests that criminal networks have well infiltrated ports both in source countries in Latin America and destination countries in the EU (see Figure Maritime trafficking: diversification of modus operandi). Corruption is indispensable to smuggling using the rip-on/rip-off method, as criminal actors in departure ports must obtain the assistance of port actors to identify a container that will be shipped to a port of interest in the EU. This entails obtaining the container’s individual number, the number of the customs seal attached to it and the container’s location within the port facilities. Subsequently, criminal actors will need to introduce the drugs into the container and replace the seal that has been broken during this process with a counterfeited one. Usually, this operation takes place after customs have cleared the container. In the destination port, the criminal network will, again, need inside help and information as they usually require the targeted container to be placed in a specific location in order to facilitate access to it, for instance on the ground and with unimpeded access to the doors. Additionally, they must receive confirmation that the container has been placed in the desired location and, depending on the type of rip-off method used, extract the cocaine from the container and transport it outside the port area.
Other modi operandi may also require corruption as a facilitator. This is the case, for example, when concealing drugs in the container structure, frequently in the cooling compartment, which requires similar actions as the rip-on/rip-off method; or when using the drop-off method, which requires help from the vessel’s crew members to pick up the drugs in Latin America, or from a mother ship somewhere in the Atlantic, and throw them in the water close to a desired shore in Europe. Concealing cocaine within shipments of legitimate goods can also use corruption, for instance in order to be informed and take necessary action if the container has been selected for physical inspection, or to receive customs clearance without such inspection.
According to a law enforcement official from Seaport Police, a unit of the Dutch Police, interviewed in the press in 2021, 220 acts of corruption involving staff from shipping companies were identified in the port of Rotterdam in the previous two and a half years (Driessen and Meeus, 2021).
An investigation that led to the seizure of 11.5 tonnes of cocaine in the port of Antwerp in 2020 brought additional information on corruption in EU ports. An ex-governor, a harbour master, three police officers and a lawyer were among the 22 suspects arrested during this operation (Eeckhaut, 2020). Workers in other large EU ports such as Le Havre, France, or Alicante, Spain, have been targeted by criminal networks and engaged to facilitate cocaine importation. Recruitment into corrupt activities is usually carried out by offering large sums of cash or other valuable assets and services, but can also be achieved using violence and intimidation (Gil, 2021). Kidnappings and murders of port workers have been reported in various EU ports in recent years (Auvray, 2020; Europol, 2021e).
Trafficking cocaine by air: a multitude of methods
Cocaine smuggling by air primarily involves the use of commercial passenger flights, cargo aircraft and general aviation (private aircraft). Fairly large shipments of cocaine are smuggled directly from South America and the Caribbean to western Europe by private business aircraft, and use of this method is expected to increase in the future. Stricter border controls and more effective security checks may encourage criminal networks to use secondary international airports and small airfields (see Box Private jets: the Achilles heel in the fight against cocaine trafficking by air).
The COVID-19 crisis caused an unprecedented disruption to global air passenger transport, and as a result trafficking of cocaine by air passengers dramatically decreased in 2020 (EMCDDA and Europol, 2020). With some travel restrictions remaining in place and significantly reduced air passenger traffic, it is likely that the use of air couriers will remain limited compared to the pre-COVID-19 period.
In the pre-pandemic period, smaller quantities of cocaine were smuggled using commercial flights. Couriers flew from airports in South and Central America and the Caribbean to major European airports, either directly or after stopovers in countries such as Morocco, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates. In 2019, air couriers most frequently departed from Brazil, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and French Guiana (Council of Europe, 2020).
Distribution within and via the EU
Cocaine trafficking affects all EU Member States (Europol, 2021a). After arrival at the main EU distribution hubs, cocaine shipments are primarily trafficked by road in passenger vehicles and lorries to local markets. Intra-EU trafficking of cocaine also involves commercial flights, light aircraft and helicopters, railway, sea transport, and post and parcel services. Cocaine loads are often hidden in sophisticated concealed compartments in cars, trucks and other vehicles, sometimes with shipments of other drugs. These compartments are also used to transport cash back to the distribution hubs.
The EU appears to have become an increasingly important transhipment point for cocaine destined for markets in the rest of Europe, Africa (GI TOC, 2022a), the Middle East and Asia (Europol, 2021a). In addition, Europol intelligence indicates that some European criminal networks orchestrate cocaine shipments directly from South America to Asia without the drugs ever entering the EU.
In 2020, cocaine was the most frequently seized substance from air couriers intercepted at European airports and the third most frequently detected drug at European mail centres, after cannabis and other psychotropic substances (Council of Europe, 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated an expansion in the use of post and parcel services to fulfil orders placed online. Postal and parcel services are exploited for the distribution of drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, synthetic drugs (Council of Europe, 2020), new psychoactive substances, counterfeit currency, stolen and fraudulent documents, and many other illicit commodities. The distribution of illicit goods using post and parcel services is set to increase further in line with the expected growth of online retail activity.
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