Cocaine is flooding into Europe as drug market continues to evolve

A cocaine lab near Madrid
A cocaine lab near Madrid. (Policía Nacional)

BARCELONA, Spain — Three weeks ago, in the farmlands of central Spain, police spotted something peculiar: a surveillance drone hovering over a forest. Pushing in, they discovered something never before seen in Spain: an outdoor drug laboratory set up under a tarp where Colombian chemists were extracting cocaine that had been infused into concrete powder, a process that police estimate was funneling 264 pounds of cocaine into the country each week.

Last month, Spanish police also seized 1,843 pounds of cocaine and shut down several laboratories and processing centers just outside of Barcelona, and in July they seized six remote-controlled, unmanned submarines fitted with hidden compartments built to transport cocaine to Spain from Africa. On Wednesday, Spain’s national police announced they’d seized another 145 pounds of pure cocaine hidden in industrial rolling machines shipped from Peru. Last year, around 300 tons of cocaine were seized across Europe, but according to Europol deputy spokesperson Claire Georges, the amount being seized is only “a very small part of what is coming in.”

These recent busts, largely made possible by advances in tapping criminals’ encrypted phones, underscore a reality that European drug authorities have been warning about: More cocaine than ever is pouring into the continent, where South American chemists, traffickers and local mafias are helping to bring it to market.

With increasingly clever ways of smuggling the drug and its coca base — including infusing cocaine into plastic chips, charcoal or clothes — authorities and analysts believe they may be finding only 10% to 15%, or even as little as 1%, of what’s coming into Europe, a booming market for cocaine that now rivals the one in the United States.

Seaport drug police officers
Police officers approaching a container ship in Rotterdam harbor, the Netherlands, which has become a hub of drug smuggling. (John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

“The number of shipments coming in has increased, the interdiction rate has increased,” forensics expert Andrew Cunningham, who heads the markets, crime and supply reduction unit at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, Portugal, told Yahoo News. “Cocaine use has increased, and the quality of what’s on the streets has increased.” The only thing that isn’t up, said Cunningham, is the price. On the street, cocaine still sells for around $65 a gram, even though the potency of the drug has gone up. In Europe it is being cut less — boosting its strength — apparently because traffickers have so much product that “they want to get rid of it quickly,” said Cunningham.

Authorities say there is now a surplus of the drug, with chemists turning some of it into highly addictive crack cocaine or mixing it with deadly fentanyl. Worldwide cocaine production is breaking all records, with some 1,800 tons in 2019, and numbers have grown each year since.

In recent years, traffickers have increasingly looked to expand their customer base in Europe, where cocaine can fetch double the wholesale price of that in the U.S. And while Colombian cartels have historically dealt only with Italian mafias, who controlled its entry into Europe, new criminal actors are now involved in producing, smuggling and distributing cocaine across the continent.

A police officer walks through a display of seized packages of cocaine
Seized packages of cocaine at a police base in Cartagena, Colombia, previously bound for Rotterdam. (Felipe Caicedo/AP)

Since the breakup of Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1990s, “the trend in drug trafficking has been away from monolithic, centrally controlled operations and towards ever more multinational, decentralized networks, involving numerous different trafficking cells, which often have specialist roles,” said James Bargent, a journalist at InSight Crime who co-authored “The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe,” a report released by Global Initiative. He added that “these fluid networks are more flexible and agile, and less vulnerable to law enforcement, as each node knows little about the others and can often be easily replaced if one is taken down.”

Over the past 15 years, Albanian crime groups have muscled into the scene and Colombian and Dominican traffickers have moved to Europe to oversee operations from Spain, long a major hub for cocaine entry. Now, however, most smuggled cocaine is believed to be coming via maritime containers into the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands — Europe’s biggest — and the nearby port of Antwerp, Belgium.

“The Netherlands has always been a country that’s connected with some drug trafficking, but that’s because it’s a country that’s a transportation hub,” criminologist Lieselot Bisschop, a professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, told Yahoo News. “There's a lot of infrastructure that facilitates trade overall. Illegal trade can piggyback off of the legal trade.”

Belgian customs officers search for drugs in a container at the port of Antwerp
Belgian customs officers search for drugs in a container at the port of Antwerp. (Francois Walschaerts/AFP via Getty Images)

With nearly 9 million containers coming through the Dutch port every year, added Georges of Europol, “it’s impossible to check everything, given the volume, and [smugglers] take advantage of the situation.”

In 2021, authorities seized over 70 tons of cocaine with a street value of over $3.5 billion in that port alone — a new record. “But this is just the tip of the iceberg,” a report posted on the Port of Rotterdam website stated. “It seems that these drug seizures are not really hampering criminal activities.”

As the amount of cocaine coming into the region has skyrocketed, so has the number of traffickers and distributors, narco-crimes, murders and public shootings, all of which has shaken traditionally tolerant Dutch society. Jan Struijs, chairman of the Netherlands PolitieBond police union, said recently that his country has transformed into “a narco-state.”

But European intelligence agencies recently got a huge boost. In 2021, French, Belgian and Dutch authorities cracked into criminals’ encrypted networks, including the one used most by drug traffickers, Sky ECC, giving them access to over 4 million messages. “We could see the conversations happening live between drug traffickers and other criminal groups,” said Georges. “This has completely changed what law enforcement knew about the criminal underworld, really a groundbreaking moment.”

Many of the ongoing busts across Europe were facilitated by taking down the phone networks, “as we realized who's working with who, and the location of the labs,” Georges said. Hundreds of alleged cocaine traffickers and distributors have been arrested as a result, drug seizures have soared and dozens of laboratories have been shut down across Europe.

Bales of cocaine
Bales of cocaine weighing more than 5 tons at a Portuguese navy base in Almada, south of Lisbon. (Armando Franca/AP)

Europol is also going after another group that has sometimes proved to be an integral part of the smuggling network: port workers. According to Europol, port workers may be offered up to 10% of a shipment to look the other way.

Despite the progress that's being made, authorities acknowledge it will be difficult to keep on the pressure. Criminal networks are quickly adapting, changing up delivery ports, with smaller European ports now being favored.

Drug traffickers and law enforcement have long been engaged in a type of “arms race” when it comes to trafficking methods, said InSight Crime’s Bargent. “Every time law enforcement develops new methods or improves its capacity for detection or interdiction, then traffickers have two options: They look for new routes or they develop new techniques, which is driving the increasing sophistication of smuggling methods.”

Some traffickers chemically transform cocaine so it looks like pet food or is infused in industrial materials like plastic, Bargent said. Other smugglers have dressed up as nuns or stitched their cocaine haul into “fake buttocks.”

Bisschop is concerned that cocaine users don’t make the connection between their partying materials and the effects of organized crime groups, whose presence is linked to increased violence, firearms and human trafficking. “I was just talking with a student who said she was surprised that her peers who use cocaine don’t seem to know or care. I don’t know whether everybody is connecting the dots.”

Georges thinks that if current trends continue, cocaine users may change their activities and attitudes.

Violence is on the rise in Europe,” she said. “And that’s mainly because of increased competition, especially in drug trafficking.” She added that while she hopes that narco-crimes are contained, “if the violence starts reaching the streets,” as it has in parts of the Netherlands, “there might be a switch in the public perception of this drug.”