Methamphetamine and criminal networks in Europe — flexible, adaptable and resilient
This resource is part of EU Drug Market: Methamphetamine — In-depth analysis by the EMCDDA and Europol.
Last update: 6 May 2022
Criminal networks active in methamphetamine production and trafficking in the EU rapidly adapt to regulatory changes aimed at curbing the methamphetamine trade. This includes circumventing legislative controls and adapting to the availability of precursors or pre-precursors, making it difficult for law enforcement to intervene in and disrupt methamphetamine production.
The high degree of adaptability of these criminal networks is reflected by the fluid and business-oriented nature of relationships established between actors engaged in various stages of the methamphetamine trade. The trade is fragmented and reliant on services of brokers facilitating connections between logistics suppliers, methamphetamine producers, transporters or distributors. Specialisation and outsourcing of tasks to brokers allows criminals more flexibility to engage in more business ventures.
Large-scale production of methamphetamine in the EU is furthered by a web of international connections providing access to logistical and transport infrastructure. European methamphetamine producers are increasingly outsourcing services such as the procurement of precursors and equipment, the disposing of waste generated during production, the transportation and distribution of methamphetamine across the globe, and the collection and laundering of drugs money. On occasion, the networks used by methamphetamine producers deliver end-to-end services or cover more than one step in the drug trafficking cycle.
Logistics: a parallel business supporting methamphetamine production
Drug precursors and related chemicals used in large-scale production of methamphetamine in western Europe are largely brought into the EU from China. While some long-standing networks in methamphetamine production are reported to largely manage their own precursor supply, other criminal networks appear to have taken on the role of independent logistics suppliers for synthetic drug producers in the EU. Some criminal groups have become specialised in providing methamphetamine producers all over the EU with precursors, related chemicals and equipment necessary for the production of the drug. Bulgarian and Polish networks operating across the EU are examples of this business fragmentation, as they service several different networks dealing specifically with methamphetamine production. Occasionally, such parallel networks deliver the full package (chemicals, equipment and expertise) needed to set up and operate methamphetamine production facilities.
Medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine used for methamphetamine production in central Europe often appear to be sourced in large quantities from outside the EU, with Turkey, the United Kingdom and the Western Balkan region indicated as transit or source locations. On a smaller scale, these medicines are also sourced from within the EU. In some cases, precursors are partially processed in transit countries and then moved further for the final stages of methamphetamine production, which take place in Czechia, Poland or Slovakia.
Criminal networks active in drugs trafficking often deal with several drugs, particularly at the middle-market and retail level, and use the same techniques to move illicit substances, including legal business structures, corrupt officials or port workers.
Methamphetamine shipments seized in the EU arrive through a number of different methods of transportation, such as via couriers by plane, in passenger cars or trucks, by train or ferry, or by parcel and post services, the latter often connected to methamphetamine sold online. Larger quantities of methamphetamine have been moved into the EU in maritime shipping containers (see Box Operation PONTON) or air cargo.
Use of postal systems and parcel services
Postal systems and parcel delivery services are exploited by criminals engaged in the international trafficking of methamphetamine. Owing to the extremely high volume of post and parcel shipments dispatched on a daily basis, small consignments are not likely to be detected. Contactless payments for illicit drugs have been increasing, with the COVID-19 pandemic likely further accelerating the volumes of illicit commodities distributed via post and parcel services (Europol, 2021). In 2020, methamphetamine was one of the drugs most often seized in postal consignments (Pompidou Group, Council of Europe and WCO, 2021).
The use of postal systems and parcel services for the distribution of methamphetamine is reported in several EU Member States that were either destination or transit countries for the packages containing drugs. Similar to other types of drugs, methamphetamine remains available to consumers on the darknet; purchases made there are generally facilitated by mail courier and shipping services, with the drug packages often sent to anonymous office boxes for self-service collection (UNODC, 2021).
Comprehensive information regarding the different concealment methods used for the wholesale trafficking of methamphetamine into the EU is not available. However, case-level information suggests that criminals display a high degree of creativity when hiding drugs. The large-scale smuggling of methamphetamine from Mexico to the EU (most likely in transit to non-EU markets) is believed to be largely based on concealment in legitimate goods transported in maritime shipping containers (see Box Operation PONTON). Several cases have demonstrated the lengths to which criminal networks will go to smuggle large quantities of methamphetamine. For example, in 2020, Spanish law enforcement agencies, recovered 752 kilograms of methamphetamine from two large blocks of marble imported from Mexico (see video by Novelda digital). The drug had been placed in plastic pipes inserted in cylindrical cavities made in the 25-tonne marble blocks, 28 of which were imported, 26 without drug concealments (Guardia Civil, 2020). Establishing legal business structures is a key factor for enabling the concealment of drugs in such legitimate loads.
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