Drug smuggling

Netherlands, Belgium overtake Spain as main gateways into Europe for cocaine

A man holds a chunk of coca paste at a makeshift lab in Colombia's Cauca department.
A man holds a chunk of coca paste at a makeshift lab in Colombia's Cauca department. Raul ARBOLEDA AFP

Belgium and the Netherlands have become the main import hubs for cocaine trafficking into Europe, supplanting Spain as the main route of entry into European countries, according to a Europol study published this week.

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The report, published on 7 September by Netherlands-based Europol, the EU's crime fighting unit, noted that criminal organisations, from Colombia especially, are using the ports of Rotterdam (Netherlands), Hamburg (Germany) and especially Antwerp (Belgium) to bring cocaine into the Netherlands, from where it is spread throughout Europe.

"The epicentre of the cocaine market in Europe has shifted northwards," the report, drawn up in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said.

Cocaine purity at retail level and distribution of cocaine into Europe by country.
Cocaine purity at retail level and distribution of cocaine into Europe by country. © UNODC

The increasing use of containerised cargo, relying on the large capacities of the port terminals of Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg "have consolidated the role of the Netherlands as a transit area" for cocaine, according to the report.

Cocaine seizures

The North Sea coasts have "supplanted the Iberian peninsula as the main entry point for cocaine arriving in Europe," it said.

In 2020, cocaine seizures in Antwerp totalled 65.6 tonnes, Europol said in the report.

In February, Germany and Belgium made a record seizure of 23 tonnes of the drug, which was hidden in sea containers.

A handout picture released on March 22, 2021 by the French "Marine nationale" press service shows French soldiers posing on March 21, 2021 aboard the French amphibious helicopter carrier (PHA) Dixmude in the Gulf of Guinea, next to the six tons of cocaine they seized aboard a ship flying the Saint Kitts and Nevis' flag.
A handout picture released on March 22, 2021 by the French "Marine nationale" press service shows French soldiers posing on March 21, 2021 aboard the French amphibious helicopter carrier (PHA) Dixmude in the Gulf of Guinea, next to the six tons of cocaine they seized aboard a ship flying the Saint Kitts and Nevis' flag. © CORENTIN CHARLES/AFP

The European cocaine market has been significantly boosted by increased supplies, especially since the 2016 peace deal between the Marxist FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government led to the emergence of different groups competing for control of cocaine production, the report said.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) controlled part of the area where coca is grown and regulated access to available cocaine supplies for international middlemen and traffickers.

Splinter groups

The 2016 peace agreement "ended the FARC's integrated command structure and led to the emergence of different splinter groups exercising control over different regions and cocaine production" in these areas, the report said.

This has "multiplied the potential for the formation of new alliances and partnerships", it continued.

European criminal organisations have changed their strategy, forming alliances with these groups without intermediaries and obtaining cocaine directly from the source.

After cannabis, cocaine is the second most widely used drug in Western and Central Europe, with the most recent estimates putting the number of users at 4.4 million by 2020, the report concludes.

(With AFP)

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