There are many famous pairings in life: burger and fries; Lennon and McCartney; rich people and bad taste. Now there’s another one: bananas and cocaine.
Shipments of bananas have become the go-to cover for drug traffickers shifting kilos of cocaine from Latin America to the UK and Europe.
Last week UK police discovered half a tonne of cocaine hidden in a batch of bananas on a boat from Colombia at a port in Essex, south-east England.
The huge haul is part of a trend of an increasing number of busts where cocaine, which can be bought for around £3,200 a kilo in Colombia and sold for £30,000 once in the UK, has been found hidden in bananas after crossing the Atlantic.
In June, eight tonnes of cocaine concealed in a shipment of bananas from Colombia was found at the port of Setubal in Portugal. Two weeks earlier, 840kg of cocaine was found hidden among bananas unpacked in supermarkets in the Czech Republic. It was not the first time cocaine packed with bananas had turned up at supermarkets or shops by mistake. One farmer from Belgium was about to sell boxes of bananas he’d just bought from the market when he discovered they also contained bricks of cocaine.
In April four tonnes of cocaine with a potential street value of £300 million, the biggest seizure of the drug in Britain since 2015, was found hidden among 20 pallets of bananas in a container from Colombia at Southampton docks on England’s south coast.
At the same port just over 100kg of cocaine was found alongside bananas from Colombia in January this year. A week later a tonne of cocaine was discovered at Southampton in banana boxes en route to Antwerp, and 400kg was found packed with bananas on its way from Ecuador to Albania in the Balkan country of Montenegro.
The previous month, along the English coast in Kent, 1.2 tonnes of the drug was found in boxes of bananas shipped from Costa Rica and three tonnes of cocaine was found in bananas at the Italian port of Gioia Touro. The list goes on and on.
So what’s going on? Why are cocaine and bananas so often found together?
Cocaine and bananas have a close affinity – both products are sourced from Latin America and extremely popular in Europe. The UK for example, the largest consumer of bananas in Europe, is the seventh biggest importer of bananas in the world. In 2020 the UK imported £476 million of bananas, with the biggest source country being Colombia, which is also the world’s biggest cocaine producer. The UK, like much of Western Europe, is also a dedicated consumer of cocaine and has an annual spend on powder and rock cocaine of £3.2 billion.
“Bananas and cocaine are from the same regional origin and both are high demand consumables in the UK,” said Tony Saggers, an organised crime consultant and former head of drug threat and intelligence at the National Crime Agency.
“It therefore makes sense to utilise the legitimate presence of one to cover and conceal the other, towards the same entry points and markets. Traffickers will know that hundreds of banana consignments will embark on UK bound journeys and to some extent play on the law of averages in terms of disruption.”
Saggers said smugglers either infiltrate legitimate banana shipments with cocaine packages before removing them at destination, or set up their own shipments using front companies or fake documentation.
He said that cocaine smugglers could be taking advantage of increased shipments of bananas from Colombia to the UK resulting from Britain leaving the European Union. “If, as a result of industry changes forced by the impact of Brexit, the soft fruit industry routes the majority of its bananas direct to the UK, then criminals will adapt and use that direct traffic for cover and concealment.”
But there are more specific reasons why bananas have become such an ideal smuggling partner for Colombian cocaine gangs.
“There are three reasons that cocaine is so often moved in banana shipments,” Jerry McDermott, co-director and co-founder of Insight Crime, a think tank studying organised crime in the Americas, who is based in Colombia, told VICE World News. “First, the main banana producing region of Colombia, Uraba, is home to the country's most powerful drug trafficking organisation, the Gaitanistas, as is the exporting port of Turbo.
“Second, bananas, as perishable goods, need to move through ports as quickly as possible, putting pressure on customs authorities. And third, bananas need to be transported in refrigerated containers, which are perfect for hiding cocaine, either in the cooling units or the thicker walls.”
Keith Ditcham, acting director of the Organised Crime and Policing Research Group run by RUSI, said: “Most cocaine from Latin America comes over in bulk in container shipments, and the smugglers need a cover load, and that cover load reflects the trade exports coming to Europe from Colombia. There is a good trade of bananas between Latin America and the UK, so therefore bananas are the most obvious cover load. Traffickers don’t want to use an expensive commodity.”
With bananas being such a common smuggling companion for cocaine, is this not now something the authorities are wise to? “Yes it’s a red flag,” said Ditcham. “Officers will be well aware that this fruit is being used as cover to smuggle cocaine. But they have to use intelligence, they can’t search every consignment.”