Shifting Sands: Cocaine's New Routes into Europe
As drug cartels continue to change their trafficking routes to evade interference by authorities, enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up.
In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show, which will premiere February 5 at 11 PM, we are releasing all of season three for free online along with updates to the stories. Today's installment follows up on a dispatch called "Lines in the Sand," which explored the cocaine highway running from Venezuela through Africa.
Cocaine's route from the jungles of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru to the cash cow that is the European drug market is continuing to mutate and flourish amid the war on drugs.
Over the past decade, the narrative has been about the emergence of a new route into Europe's back door, from Colombia to West Africa and overland through the Sahara dessert up to the North African coast. In season three of VICE on HBO, Ben Anderson explored the trips narcotics take from South America through Africa and met up with smugglers as well as a DEA special agent who explained the routes and how they operate.
Since then, according to Europe's top cocaine trafficking analysts, the sands have shifted once more, leaving the world's anti-drug patrols again scrambling to keep up. Some aspects have remained fairly stable: Spain, Belgium, and Holland are still the main arrival points for cocaine from South America, and cocaine consumption remains relatively high in Europe compared to the rest of the world, especially in the heavy tooting nations of Spain and the UK.
But in terms of trafficking routes into the continent, much like the global drug scene as a whole, it's a story about diversification and proliferation.
"Cocaine traffickers are diversifying their routes and methods," Dr. Axel Klein, an international drug trade expert from the EU's Cocaine Route Programme, told me. "We are seeing a rise in shipments to the Balkan countries, for example to the Greek port of Piraeus, where smugglers are taking advantage of the disintegration of law enforcement. Also to Turkey, Montenegro, and Albania."
This has all been made possible, says Dr. Klein, because of the declining power of Colombian cartels. "European groups can just buy it in Colombia and ship it over, so we are also seeing a rise in the amount of pleasure craft being used across the Atlantic."
He also points to the increasing emergence of cocaine extraction labs in Europe. Inside these labs, which have recently been found in Spain, Portugal, and Poland, chemists extract cocaine from innocuous looking goods such as wooden pallets or bottles of alcohol that have been impregnated with the drug.
But it is in Africa where the biggest developments have occurred. Although data from this region is notoriously patchy, what evidence there is indicates that the overland route through the Sahara has largely been abandoned, according to a report on drug trafficking in West Africa called "Illicit Narcotics Transiting," seen by VICE and due to be published in the spring by one of the world's leading economic thinktanks, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Instability and violence in Libya and Mali have made the area too volatile to risk shifting large amounts of cocaine, according to the report. Moreover, the influence of corrupt states that initially facilitated the smuggling operations across Africa including Guinea Bassau, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, have now been curtailed, as has the influence of Colombian mini-cartels on the ground in Africa.
But, as the OECD report details, others have been quick to step into the breach and fill their own boots with filthy drug lucre: mainly bent politicians and gangsters in Nigeria and Ghana, who have moved to maximize their involvement in the West African transit hub. Cocaine is now increasingly moving through the major seaports and airports in Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana for transfer to Europe.
The rise of Nigeria as a cocaine smuggling hub has been quick, and has largely come about with the help of the Nigerian diaspora in Brazil, a country that in the last two years has leapfrogged Colombia and Venezuela to become the world's most prolific disembarkation point for cocaine into Europe. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, last year 35 percent of cocaine seized in Europe disembarked from Brazil, with 11 percent coming from Colombia, and 10 from Argentina. Indigenous Nigerian criminal groups have linked up with a growing Nigerian population in Brazil, most notably in Sao Paulo, to transport drugs into Europe.
The OECD report estimates there are now 1,000 Nigerians engaged in the drug trade in Sao Paulo. They buy the drugs and send couriers by air and sea to West Africa, into the hands of one of the 50 Nigerian organized crime groups operating there, chiefly out of Senegal's capital, Dakar. It is thought these groups sent over a staggering 1,500 drug mules—four a day—on flights out of Sao Paulo in 2014.
The cocaine is then re-packaged and forwarded on to Nigerian gangs based in European cities, most notably in Holland and Spain. To ensure a smooth transit, the gangs grease the palms of between 50-100 key politicians and security figures in West Africa. Drug trafficking in the region, the OECD report says, has led to a small property and building boom and a rise in the import and purchase of top-of-the-range vehicles, including Hummers and other four-wheel drives.
According to the report, while some cocaine traffickers have been known to hand out small amounts of cash to locals, most of the money ends up in the hands of a clique of already rich and powerful figures, further exacerbating income inequality and financial exclusion for the most vulnerable in the region. Only a fifth of the money made from cocaine trafficking, estimates the report, is thought to stay in the region.
Europe is on alert from the fallout. A senior specialist in cocaine trafficking at Europol told me Nigerian gangs are a growing concern in many of Europe's major cities. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland recently asked Europol for help in tackling cocaine markets that they say have become dominated by Nigerian suppliers.
But the report says the cocaine gangs from West Africa are not content with one product. They have already diversified into producing and trafficking methamphetamine after learning how to make meth from South American cooks they brought over to Nigeria. Last year five meth laboratories were discovered and dismantled in Nigeria, and a growing number of Nigerians are being caught smuggling meth into Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
"Meth production is clearly becoming a significant drug control challenge in the region, and is worthy of concern," the OECD report warned. "In the future, meth will most likely become more prominent, and with West Africa as the manufacturing hub, the potential impact on stability, governance, and development is unknown."
But routes into Europe are not all about geography. Europol has made parcel post a priority because it is well aware that Europe's teeming postal system is home to a blizzard of cocaine packages, both from professional traffickers and darknet suppliers.
You've almost got to feel sorry for the enforcement agencies: trying to sift through the European postal system for drugs is arguably far tougher than trying to stem the never-ending tide of cocaine packages being stashed among legitimate containers transported over sea, a task Europol admits is beyond them. "It's very easy to smuggle big quantities of cocaine in containers on ships," the cocaine specialist at Europol tells me, "because we only search two percent of them. Traffickers know this, so they take advantage."
And here we are. The cat and mouse game of clamping down on drug routes only for them to vanish and pop up somewhere else is completely dwarfed by the absurd difficulty of finding small bags of white powder among millions of freight containers and billions of postal packages. You can't help but think there must be another way.