Throwing grenades, assassinations, and plans to kidnap political figures

South American cocaine and cartel violence sweep Europe

Most cocaine crosses the Atlantic in containers and the drug is hidden in shipments of bananas, sugar or canned goods.


Coca flows into the French capital, like most major European cities.

Submitting an order does not require more than 10 minutes via encrypted messaging applications such as “WhatsApp” and “Signal”, and the customer receives it at his home, just like pizza. Delivery services have also revolutionized the drug market.

In the year 2021, about 3.5 million Europeans consumed cocaine at least once, according to the European Observatory on Drugs and Addiction, which is a “historic” level four times higher than that recorded 20 years ago.

Supply increases as demand for white powder accelerates.

The volume of seizures in Europe, which is the only official measure in the region, again set a record in 2021 with the seizure of 240 tons, according to the European Police Office (Europol), compared to 213 tons in 2020 and 49 10 years earlier.

Belgian Federal Judicial Police director Eric Snook describes what is happening as a "tsunami".

Since the drug lords made Europe a priority in the early 2000s, the profits of this market, estimated at tens of billions of euros, fuel widespread corruption and high-violence crime.

The main ports of northern Europe are ravaged by the violence of local mafias that destabilize deep-rooted democracies such as Belgium and the Netherlands.

From grenades and shootings in the streets of Antwerp to assassinations in Amsterdam, to plans to kidnap political figures in both countries this fall;

The smugglers' methods threaten public order and shake the entire society.

Brussels prosecutor Johan Delmole warned in September that Belgium would soon become a "drug state".

Cocaine's journey begins thousands of kilometers away.

And grow in the slopes of the high plateaus in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia leaves from which the drug is extracted, which was popularized in the 19th century by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and a number of European chemists for its therapeutic properties.

In the Catatumbo region in northeastern Colombia, coca has long replaced the food crop, thanks to which José del Carmen Abril feeds his family of eight children.

Wearing a straw hat, the 53-year-old father says, "Coca-Cola replaced the government that never came here, and thanks to it we were able to build schools, health centers, roads and homes."

And in a country where the minimum daily wage does not exceed $7, a coca grower can earn five times that.

Hundreds of thousands of Colombian farmers work in the field of coca cultivation, and the billions of dollars spent by Bogota and Washington over decades in the “war on drugs” have not changed anything, as production continues to grow.

Production reached a historic record level in 2021: 1,400 tons were harvested compared to 1,010 tons in 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, representing a jump of 43%.

Experts estimate the total volume of cocaine that was offered on the global market in 2021 at more than 2,000 tons.

In Katatumbo, traders buy a kilogram of dough from farmers for about $370, and once mixed with a mixture of acids and solvents, it costs more than $1,000 a kilogram.

Colombia alone is the supplier of two-thirds of the cocaine consumed in the world, but the fall of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the mid-1990s and the peace agreement concluded in 2016 with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels changed the nature of the market.

For a long time, the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels gave priority to their "natural" market, the United States, but they are also targeting Europe, where consumption is rising.

Europol estimates that the value of the annual retail cocaine market in Europe ranges between 7.6 and 10.5 billion euros.

"The US market is saturated, and coca is sold in Europe at a price that is 50 to 100 percent higher," explains Florian Cola, director of French customs intelligence.

"Another benefit for traders is that the criminal risks may be less severe in Europe than in the United States," he adds.

Like 90% of global trade, most cocaine crosses the Atlantic Ocean in containers, the drug hidden in shipments of bananas, powdered sugar or canned goods.

Another part is smuggled by air in suitcases or in the stomachs of smugglers who set out from Cayenne, French Guiana, for Paris, and sometimes on the seabed in remote-controlled submarines, such as those seized by Spanish police in July.

At the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century, the Mexicans established their bridge to Europe through the Spanish Costa del Sol, one of the axes for smuggling Moroccan hashish.

A few years later, with the capture of many smuggling barons and the explosive growth of shipping, they turned their attention to the major shipping ports of Northern Europe.

Cocaine is shipped in the Brazilian port of Santos, which is controlled by the São Paulo mafia, and the port of Guayaquil in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Peru, and reaches the ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Le Havre.

"Some shipments stop in the Antilles, others go to the Balkans or pass through West Africa before ending up in Europe," explains Corinne Cleostrat, deputy director of French customs.

These tracks are organized according to a precise "action plan".

Mexican cartels sell their “products” to European multinational crime organizations, sometimes through intermediaries who distribute the goods, collect the money and share the losses if the goods are seized.

The "Morco Mafia" (of Moroccan origin) in the Netherlands and Belgium shares missions with Albanian, Serbian, Kosovar organizations and the 'Ndrangheta mafia from Italian Calabria, according to its location and specialization (logistics, protection, money laundering).

These groups oversee the receipt of drugs at the ports, entrusting them to local "little hands" in a strict division of duties.

The gangs' potential is great because the cocaine trade is incredibly profitable: a kilogram that buys $1,000 in Latin America sells for €35,000 in Europe.

Once it leaves the ports and is mixed with other materials, the goods are sold to the customer for about 70 euros per gram.

The high profit margin finances all forms of corruption. Bribes are paid to dock workers, port agents, truck drivers, customs officers, and sometimes policemen, to allow drugs from containers to reach “small hands.”

A French policeman confirms that the 2,200 Le Havre dock workers who oversee the containers piling up on the docks have become, or are often forced to be, preferred partners of smugglers.

In recent years, many of them have been sentenced to prison in France for "complicity".

Some dock workers give smugglers a badge to enter the port, others move a container loaded with drugs out of sight of cameras or “authorize” the exit of another.

In Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, police and customs agents surprised a number of smugglers hiding in containers with food and blankets waiting for a shipment of cocaine to arrive.

A container “exit ticket” can cost up to 100,000 euros in Le Havre, where customs officers admit that they check “only 1% of the containers, because we do not have the capabilities to do more.”

In addition to paying bribes for complicity or silence, the massive proceeds fuel violence that is widespread on the streets of port cities.

In five years, the Flemish city's public prosecutor's office monitored "more than 200 incidents of drug-related violence", from threats and assaults to the throwing of explosive devices into homes.

In the Netherlands, criminal groups have gone even further.

Smugglers are willing to do anything to defend their trade, from kidnapping port workers and torturing rivals to eliminating those who get in their way.

The dismantling of the encrypted messaging network Sky/ECC last year opened an unprecedented window into the drug traffickers' tactics.

In 2020, Dutch police discovered containers that had been converted into detention and torture rooms.

Belgium thwarted a plan to kidnap the justice minister in September.

And in the Netherlands, Crown Princess Amalia and Prime Minister Mark Rutte seem to have been targeted this fall.

To stem the tide sweeping across Europe, the police and judiciary unleashed "total war".

And through the development of intelligence work and "targeting" and the strengthening of international cooperation and port security, seizures break records every year, as about 90 tons were confiscated in Antwerp in 2021, about 70 tons in Rotterdam, and 10 tons in Le Havre.

It is estimated that only 10% of the volume of cocaine in circulation is intercepted, but the number is believed to be much higher.

"We have an increasing number of automated docks, which makes the (smugglers') job more difficult," says the director of the customs squad responsible for interceptions in the port of Rotterdam.

But smugglers found "alternative routes" through less guarded ports, including Montoir-de-Bretagne near Saint-Nazaire in western France, where about 600 kilograms of raw cocaine were seized this year.

European police launched an operation to track down the smugglers.

And at the end of November, Europol announced the dismantling of a “supercartel” that controlled a third of the cocaine smuggling to Europe: 49 suspects were arrested in France, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium.

French customs agents are in Martinique on the first front line with smugglers.

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