In Europe, the explosion in containerized maritime trade has led to a surge in cocaine trafficking. National authorities are struggling to stem the tide.
The increase of cocaine in Europe is not a new phenomenon. This has been a real issue since the 2000s. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in 2011, as much cocaine was sold in Europe as in the United States. 2020 marks the explosion of trafficking to the Old Continent. Since last year, local consumption has been dangerously competing with that in South America.
All these illegal flows are part of an expanding economy starting from Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador or Paraguay… Cocaine crosses the Atlantic before arriving in the major ports of the North Sea concealed in maritime containers carrying legal cargoes of fruit, tea, sugar, canned goods or livestock.
The most gangrenous docks in recent years
In 2022, with 110 tonnes intercepted, the biggest seizure of cocaine in Belgium was made at the port of Antwerp, unsurprisingly, the largest European port. The previous year, 70 tonnes were seized in Rotterdam, Netherlands. In France, over 26.5 tonnes of cocaine seized in 2021 in the port of Le Havre. In Hamburg, Germany, 19 tonnes were seized in the same year.
More recently, the largest cocaine seizure in Spanish history took place this August. 9.5 tonnes of cocaine from Ecuador were hidden in banana crate containers.
Spanish authorities discovered the cargo in the port of Algeciras, in the south of the country. According to an official statement, the Spanish port of Vigo was also used by the same group of 30 criminal organizations. They were able to bring monthly 40 containers to the continent.
In addition to that, the 250 tonnes of the product discovered by the European authorities in 2022, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Only 10% of the volume of cocaine in circulation would be intercepted. Total seizures are expected to increase by 25% in 2023, according to Belgian authorities.
The reaction of the authorities
European customs only have the right to inspect 2% of the thousands of containers passing through their ports, according to the standard.Last November, as seizures continue to rise, Stéphanie Cherbonnier, Director of the French Anti-Drug Office (OFAST), attested : “we feel like we’re emptying the ocean with a teaspoon”.
Despite all the difficulties faced, the European Union is getting organized to deal with the urgency of growing traffic. According to its Drugs Action Plan 2021 – 2025, huge steps are already being made internationally. These include disrupting and dismantling criminal organizations operating in the EU, stepping up detection of cocaine trafficking, and strengthening the fight in cooperation with South American countries. On a national scale, countries are facing the issue as well. On February 11, 2023, the Douai Special Assize Court in France convicted six men, following the seizure of a ton and a half of cocaine in the port of Le Havre. Further north on the continent, the ports of Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp began cooperating in early July to tighten International Ship and Port Facility Code (ISPS) regulations.
In recent weeks, Belgian customs and police have intercepted a total of more than 23 tons of cocaine at the port of Antwerp, with an estimated street value of more than 2 billion euros, thanks to the deployment of more personnel and an increased number of container scanners. Several thousand kilos of cocaine were also seized in the Netherlands as a result of cooperation between Dutch and Belgian services. Investigations also led the Belgian Federal Police, in cooperation with the French police, to arrest a major drug trafficker from Marseille in Brussels on October 24, who had been on the run in Belgium and the Netherlands.
In addition to implementing new procedures, the authorities face another challenge. As with the drug trafficking, the violence and corruption of South American cartels is being imported to European docks.