European ports are being inundated with huge quantities of cocaine, with recent record seizures suggesting that the arrival of large cocaine shipments to the continent is the new normal. 

Dutch authorities, for example, discovered more than eight tons of cocaine in the Port of Rotterdam on August 10, marking the port’s largest-ever seizure. The drugs were hidden in containers full of bananas and had arrived from Ecuador. 

In July, German authorities impounded 10 tons of cocaine in what was the second largest seizure in the Port of Hamburg. In Italy, seizure records were broken when authorities interdicted five tons off the Sicilian coast on July 16. That same day, authorities seized 6.8 tons of cocaine in Brussels, Belgium, one of the largest seizures in the country’s history. 

To understand current drug trafficking trends and the growing demand for cocaine in Europe, InSight Crime spoke with Yulia Vorobyeva, a professor at Florida International University and an expert in illicit trafficking.  

InSight Crime (IC): Europe has seen a series of record cocaine seizures recently. How should we understand what is happening? 

Yulia Vorobyeva (YV): These dynamics may be related to the growth of trafficking routes, which are moving into new geographic areas. But in general, Europe is an expanding market for cocaine. 

When we look at different indicators — the prevalence of cocaine in wastewater, retail prices, levels of purity, and drug treatment data — we can see that there are no signs of a fall in cocaine use in Europe’s established markets.  

And when we compare these results against data from previous years, we can see that in some countries cocaine use is expanding. For example, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s (EMCDDA) 2022 wastewater report showed increased use at all sampled sites in the Czech Republic. In other countries, use is stabilizing.  

IC: Are we seeing a shift from the main ports (Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg) to smaller ports or is it simply that there is so much cocaine coming that all ports are increasingly being used? 

YV: Drug traffickers are shifting from using large ports to smaller ports as they experiment and evade controls. Routes always shift, both at the national and global levels, and we have to remember that external factors, such as pressures from anti-narcotics agencies, lead to changes in trafficking methods, means of transport, and final destinations. 

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For example, there was an unprecedented seizure of one ton of cocaine in Armenia. But Armenia cannot absorb one ton of cocaine. It is possible that criminal groups are exploring new routes, including the Caucasus, to reach other destinations.  

I think we are going to see a lot more diversification ports receiving big shipments. A fall in seizure figures at traditional ports is going to be a short-term measure. 

IC: The price of cocaine has dropped steeply in the coca-growing countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. What implications might this have on the European market? 

YV: Coca prices could have been affected by several potential factors: the reduction of demand in the US, the regrouping of criminal actors in Colombia, prioritization of other illicit activities by local criminal groups, etc. But the effect of the fall in coca prices has not yet reached the destination countries.  

If European demand is maintained, and it appears that it is being maintained or even growing, then low prices at the point of origin may see prices at destination countries fall. In other words, cocaine becomes more available in Europe. But this also depends on the capacities of criminal actors to organize logistics in a changing context and on the links between traffickers in cocaine-producing nations and those in destination countries. 

IC: How are drug trafficking relationships between trafficking networks formed and why are European traffickers so confident about receiving these large shipments? 

YV: Traditionally, alliances are formed based on ethnicity, kinship, family, religion, geographic or social proximity, and cultural factors. This happens because a key factor in these relationships is trust — one partner trusts that the other won’t let them down.  

Linguistic and cultural factors are important to European traffickers, like the Albanian-speaking groups, which are dominating drug trafficking from Latin America to Europe and within Europe.  

We also see a lot more opportunistic collaboration between groups. This is happening due to groups sharing infrastructure, like the same service providers. The same is happening with drug transporters, who provide services to different buyers and sellers of the drug. Another change is that large cocaine shipments are arriving to be split between different buyers. 

European traffickers are confident of receiving their drugs because establishing corruption networks within the ports is not difficult for them. All they need to do is to approach and buy off the port workers and some customs agents. Sometimes they don’t even need anyone inside the port controls. 

IC: At least two major recent seizures transited through West Africa. Which African ports are the most important for the cocaine pipeline to Europe and how are European and African governments cooperating to stop the flows of drugs? 

YV: Countries located in the Gulf of Guinea are the most important African nations for cocaine trafficking to Europe. There appears to be cooperation between African countries and the European Union (EU) for interdictions and seizures of drugs, through counternarcotics intelligence and investigations. There are good examples of cooperation through international mechanisms, like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s CRIMJUST program, which is trying to improve cooperation between countries along illicit trafficking routes. 

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There have been examples of successful cooperation, where networks were dismantled thanks to the cooperation agencies in some countries. However, such cooperation in Africa is still very sporadic. For now, there are only a few examples, and for many reasons, I think that the cooperation desired by the European authorities has not yet been achieved. There is a need for more motivation, commitment, and political will to cooperate.  

IC: How prevalent are security cooperation agreements between the EU and Latin American and Caribbean nations? 

YV: Cooperation between the EU and Latin American countries has been very positive. Authorities are delivering a lot of training to different agencies in different fields. They are promoting coordination and providing resources, and a large effort has been made in the ports of origin.  

It is worth mentioning the many programs that exist at the interregional level, such as the Global Illicit Flows Programme, SEACOP, Colibri Project, AIRCOP, Aquapol, or MAOC.  

One of the observations I heard from some of the beneficiaries of these programs is that they have not been sufficiently exploited by local institutions. They have not yet had the impact at structural levels to reach the large networks or important members of criminal networks. The problem is that there is a lack of coordination between national criminal justice forces in some Latin American countries. Though there is still room for improvement, there is collaboration. 

IC: What role is the UN’s Container Control Programme (CCP) playing in facilitating such exchanges? 

YV: CCP is an inter-institutional mechanism. What it does is provide the platform to exchange data in real-time. Every time a seizure is made, it is updated. Only members of the program can access that platform. 

It has been useful for the beneficiaries of this program. For example, a novel mode of cocaine concealment was recently observed. This information was shared with counterparts in another member state, which led to an inspection and seizure of cocaine in containers that shared the same characteristics in a transit country. This is definitely what is needed.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and style.