Rise of Coke Labs in Europe Signals ‘Death’ of the Smuggled Cocaine Brick

Drug experts tell VICE World News that traffickers are increasingly dissolving pure cocaine into materials and extracting it in large scale European labs.
Max Daly
London, GB
Finished powder cocaine packages processed in a lab in Galicia, Spain after being smuggled in machinery as cocaine base. Photo: Eduardo Parra/Europa Press via Getty Images.

Drug traffickers are transforming the cocaine trade by setting up super labs in Europe capable of turning seemingly innocent materials into high grade white powder. 

Drug gangs are increasingly opting to finish off the cocaine-making process in Europe, the world’s second largest cocaine market after the US, because it is cheaper, easier to smuggle and more lucrative. 

Police are finding a rising number of labs where pure cocaine base, dissolved into materials such as plastic and charcoal for transport, is extracted and processed into powder ready for distribution across Europe. Labs are also being used just to process smuggled cocaine base into high purity, street-ready powder.   


Before 2018 cocaine labs in Europe were rare. If they were found, they tended to be just buildings where smuggled bricks of cocaine powder were mixed with adulterants and re-repressed into bricks to make them appear high purity.

But in the last five years the number of labs being found – and their capacity to process huge amounts of the drug to feed into Europe’s €10 billion cocaine industry – has rocketed. 

More than 30 labs, mainly in Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, were found in Europe in 2021.

In the Netherlands between 2018 and 2021, 45 such labs have been uncovered, 10 of which were classed as “large scale” labs able to produce 100-200 kilos of powder cocaine a day.

Often, police have arrested Colombian “cooks”, employed by gangs for their expertise in extracting and processing the drug. In 2020 Dutch police found an industrial scale lab complete with sleeping quarters, located in an old riding school in a town 75 miles from Amsterdam.

In Spain, labs are also on the rise. Last week Spanish police discovered a super lab in a countryside house in the northwest region of Galicia.

It had been producing 200 kilos a day of cocaine, the equivalent of 5.6 tonnes, or 5.6 million gram bags a month. During the raid, 1.3 tonnes of cocaine base and 151 kilos of cocaine powder were seized and 18 people from Spain, Colombia and Mexico were arrested. The gang had been smuggling the cocaine hidden inside the metal cylinders of stone crushing machines. 


In 2022 police found an open air cocaine lab just outside Madrid. Chemists had been extracting cocaine base from cement mix smuggled from South America and processing it into 120 kilos of powder, scientifically known as cocaine hydrochloride, a week. 

“You wouldn't think Europe would be a better place to produce cocaine than Colombia, but the evidence shows that it may well be, if you have the proper connections,” Laurent Laniel, principle scientific analyst at the the European Union’s drug agency, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, told VICE World News. 

So why the shift in tactics? Laniel said in producer countries such as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia cocaine base is almost half the price of finished cocaine, costing drug traffickers $600 a kilo compared to $1,000 a kilo. 

He said gangs in Colombia increasingly prefer to sell cocaine base or cocaine paste, a less refined form of the drug, to traffickers rather than powder in bricks because of increased clampdowns on the chemicals needed to turn cocaine base into powder. 

Crucially, cocaine base is far easier and more efficient than cocaine hydrochloride for dissolving into “carrier” materials such as plastics and charcoal. Cocaine disguised in this way, according to Laniel, is “very hard for the authorities to detect”, because scanners, X-rays and sniffer dogs are most often unable to identify it.


As a result, experts estimate huge quantities of the cocaine smuggled in this way gets from South America to Europe unhindered. 

Incredibly, gang chemists can not only conceal but effectively “lock” the cocaine into carrier materials, meaning that even if the authorities know a shipment contains the drug, it may not be able to extract it to prove it is cocaine unless it has the chemical key to do so. 

“The chemical concealment process consists of making cocaine molecules bind to the molecules of another, so-called "carrier" material, such as plastic, cement or tar, in order to obtain a new substance that looks like the original carrier material and is rich in cocaine, which may represent anything between 7 and 40 percent of the total weight, but typically will not test positive for cocaine outside a forensic lab,” said Laniel. 

“The ‘locking’ process consists of introducing one or several additional steps using specific substances when chemically concealing the cocaine within another material. Unless you know what additional substances were used, in what way, and at what phase of the concealment process, it will be very hard or even impossible to retrieve the cocaine from the carrier material.” 

Cocaine labs in Europe are often better equipped to process cocaine base into cocaine powder than Colombian labs. It’s easier for gangs to buy industry-grade apparatus and chemicals needed to produce cocaine hydrochloride, so the finished product is of a higher quality, and can either be sold at a higher price or goes further if it is cut with adulterants. 


Could this method be a game changer for Europe’s ever-expanding cocaine market, as demand for the drug continues to spiral? 

“At face value it looks it,” said Laniel. “When we seize cocaine at the ports we have stopped it reaching the market, but by the time we find the labs it’s almost too late, because some of them have been producing 5 tonnes a month for a long time. This M.O. seems to be efficient from the traffickers’ point of view, because cocaine base is simply not being seized at the borders.” 

He said encrypted messages hacked by police via Encrochat and SKY ECC phones revealed that European gangsters had been praising the efficiency of this method in terms of saving money and evading detection, and encouraging others to use it. 

Laurent said the US Drug Enforcement Administration has told him they are yet to come across similar cocaine labs in America.

However, in both the US and Colombia, according to Laniel, police are saying “the cocaine brick is dead” in terms of smuggling, because traffickers prefer to transport the drug out of South America in different forms to be made into bricks in the US and Europe. 

Pieter “Posh Pete” Tritton was one of the first European traffickers to adopt the method of dissolving cocaine base into materials and extracting it back home. He mixed cocaine base with liquid rubber, impregnating it into the ground sheets of tents which were smuggled from South America into the UK, before the drug was extracted in a lab. He was caught due to an informer in 2005 and locked up in Ecuador for 12 years. 


“We never lost a single shipment,” Tritton told VICE World News. “I hit upon the idea in Parkhurst prison [where he was locked up for drug dealing], when I read an article in the Sunday Times about cocaine being impregnated in plastic garden furniture, and I saw the future.

“We were impregnating latex solution with cocaine base because you lost less in the extraction and obviously it was cheaper than cocaine hydrochloride,” said Tritton. “With base you’d lose 10-15 percent during the extraction process, but with cocaine hydrochloride you would lose up to 30 percent, and it would also lose more of its potency.

“Without a shadow of a doubt for traffickers this is the way forward, this is the future of this business. More and more people are going to turn to it, because it has more chance of success and it’s more lucrative. You are almost guaranteed to land it [smuggle it without getting caught]. It’s extremely difficult for them [the authorities] to find it and prove that the person knew what they were carrying, because it’s not the finished product. 

“Each ‘chef’ tweaks the recipe, so unless you know how they put it in [to the carrier materials], it’s hard to get it out. For the police it’s harder to combat, and for the end user, it means higher quality, lower cost cocaine on the streets.” 

But Tritton, who wrote a book about his experiences as an international drug smuggler in Ecuador’s most dangerous prison, said the extraction method had one achilles heel for traffickers. 

“The only weak point is the labs, because everything is there, the machines, the chemicals, the cocaine. That was our downfall. The police waited until we set up a lab, the informer told them where it was, and there was no walking away from it after they raided it,” he said. “But they are not easy to find, they could be anywhere. I imagine people will start using underground labs. An old nuclear bunker with a nice big door that takes police a month to get through would be ideal.”