Home » Side event: The changing face of the global cocaine market: reading the trends to respond with foresight

Side event: The changing face of the global cocaine market: reading the trends to respond with foresight

Organized the UNODC Drug Research Section

Moderated by: Ms Chloé Carpentier, Chief, Drug Research Section, UNODC Research and Trend Analysis Branch

(Missed initial 2 minutes)

Mr Antoine Vella, Research Officer (Cocaine), Drug Research Section, UNODC Research and Trend Analysis Branch: …to mimic the processes in Colombia sometimes with the involvement of Colombian nationals and also very often relying on quantities of cocaine, which have been shipped in camouflaged, or impregnated ways, which then require sophisticated techniques to to be extracted, and to be further processed and converted into hydrochloride. So, what is driving all of this, well there’s a lot of things to consider and I won’t have time to go into all of them, but I will begin by drawing your attention to the increasingly fragmented criminal landscape in Colombia, which is happening in the context of the recent peace agreement, which has been signed with the non-state armed group known by its acronym of FARC, which has led to a significant splintering of different groups. This adds to the already fragmented landscape which was present in Colombia, and has also resulted in the resurgence of other armed groups, and ultimately, has eliminated the monolithic actors, which used to be able to dominate the entire supply chain. And instead has led to the compartmentalization of the supply chain, and in this way, provides a lot of opportunities for new alliances to be made, and new actors including European actors to enter into the fray, and to make contact with providers at source. Which brings me to the next important point that I want to bring to our attention, which is the diversification and the emergence of new players involved in the procurement of cocaine in large quantities, from South America to Europe. So this is of course a long standing channel, but it has for a long time been dominated by certain big actors including for example ‘Ndrangheta, and these actors continue to be active, but we see more and more players; other players which were previously very minor players, becoming more important. In particular by establishing direct contact with providers in South America, and implementing essentially a new business model, in which they cut out the middleman, maximise their own profit, and sometimes also work in collaboration with other smaller groups to be able to manage shipments which perhaps could have been too small for them to handle on their own. You can see here some data, which substantiates the role of particular groups from the Western Balkan region, specifically several Croatian speaking groups and Albanian groups. The Serbo Croatian groups are very prominent now in the procurement and the transportation of very large quantities of cocaine to Europe, and the same holds for the Albanian groups. In addition to that, the Albanian groups are also very prominent in the internal distribution of cocaine within Europe. I also wanted to bring your attention to the evolution of the entry points into Europe. As you can see here, the Netherlands and Belgium have by now overtaken essentially the traditional Iberian peninsula as a point of entry for cocaine into Europe. This is based on seizure data, of course, and it’s driven to a very large extent by the very large quantities of cocaine which are being seized in Antwerp port. In particular, you may wonder how this fits into the COVID scenario. As you can see here, there are no indications whatsoever as of 2020 that the huge quantities of cocaine coming to Europe have subsided; on the contrary, you can see very, a very sharp increase  continuing into 2020. There are various interpretations for this. One of them being simply that organised crime groups having a reduced opportunity to engage in trafficking are now willing to to take bigger risks and put more eggs in one basket, essentially; but it’s quite a complicated scenario and there are other possible explanations, which I won’t go into now. However, suffice it to mention that there have also been a couple of very successful important law enforcement operations, in particular infiltration of encrypted platforms which enable law enforcement basically to make very big seizures. When we look at trafficking by air, we see a much different picture, but still not a one-dimensional one. The obvious thing is of course that trafficking by air couriers has declined, but we need to keep in mind that air cargo is not necessarily subject to the same restrictions as passenger flights, and also some groups which are particularly adept and particularly experienced in trafficking by air using mules have simply found workarounds to continue to do this only in particular, for example by shifting airports. Finally, or rather, in addition, one other phenomenon that we’re keeping a close eye on and we are following very closely is the growing importance of general aviation and of clandestine flights. You can see here specifically flights that UNODC has been able to link directly to trafficking through or from Bolivia, but it is a much broader phenomenon as you can imagine. It involves not only other countries in South America, but also in Central America, and also even with the occasions of transcontinental charter flights into Europe, which are being used, suffice it to mention, for example, recently Italian law enforcement foiled an attempt by the Sinaloa Cartel to penetrate the European market using charter flights or flights into small Italian airports. Talking about clandestine flights, one phenomenon we’re also following very closely as we see it gaining importance is the use of the Paraná-Paraguay waterway, which is being used to link the airborne modality within South America to the waterborne modality across the Atlantic Ocean. So, the Paraná- Paraguay waterway is a system of rivers which connects Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. And we see an increasing trend of flights, originating from Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay, and then landing within South America, close to the Paraná-Paraguay waterway, and from there, being shipped on these fluvial routes, down towards Buenos Aires and the delta of Buenos Aires and Montevideo; from there transshipped on to bigger vessels, and then continuing their journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Moving on, as you can see here, a selection of 14 specific but very large and very significant seizures which have been made recently. And we see here a lot of commonalities  cropping up in these cases, which allow us to link them together and really do suggest that perhaps there is one big player, one big organisation, or perhaps at least a consolidated network of actors, which are responsible for bringing really enormous quantities of cocaine to Europe. One final observation of a substantive point or point of view, we really cannot expect to understand the cocaine market, if we do not appreciate the variability of the different kinds of consumer products that are to be found in the world and consumed. Some of these products are more harmful than others, and we see for example now that there are indications of an increase in, beginnings of indications of an increase of, crack use in Europe. However, there also seems to be a significant knowledge gap or at least, lack of awareness and the emergence of crack using in Europe for example could reflect reality on the ground but also to a certain extent be linked to the lack of differentiation and the recording and reporting of crack of cocaine use in general in Europe and in other places. So this is also something that we are trying to work on, and to address with our knowledge products. I just have a few final remarks on the way forward. We see that still, the source for cocaine is relatively concentrated. So this still gives us the opportunity to intervene at source. However, the threat of expansion is really very real, or rather, it becomes more real by the hour and the international community cannot really expect to sit idle and wait for things to happen, but there is a need for pre emptive responses on the demand side and on the supply side to prevent the spread to new markets. You see there, some more specific, more operational level perhaps recommendations which I will not go into simply because I think we are running out of time but I will be happy to take any questions that come up. Thank you very much.

Chloé Carpentier, Chief, Drug Research Section, UNODC Research and Trend Analysis Branch: Thank you, Antoine. For this very detailed presentation and also offering food for thought, regarding the potential for increase, and you mentioned how availability has grown in different consumer markets of the drug, and also the proliferation of the cocaine production, outside of the traditional, I would say, countries or areas where this production has been taking place in the past. You also mentioned this fragmentation of the criminal landscape, and a new landscape, basically, with new groups. Now that goes directly to South America source to procure the product they need to sell then in consumer markets in Europe. So thank you for all these insights and I hope we can discuss them further during the q&a.

Mr Sascha Strupp Strategic Analyst, Operational and Analysis Centre, Europol: I’m very pleased to present today; it’s very timely. In fact Europol launched the European Union Serious Organised Crime threat assessment on Monday, and this is a very comprehensive four yearly analysis of the state of Serious Organised crime in the European Union. It’s a very, very comprehensive document. We relied on a lot of different sources: operational insights, strategic intelligence, and also exchanges with the public sector, private sector, many different sources, as I mentioned before. So what I will be presenting today is primarily based on the information that we gather for the sector. I’ll have some insights on criminal networks in general but they’re all applicable, and particularly applicable to criminal networks that are active in cocaine trafficking in the European Union, and then I’ll go into a bit more detail on some of the insights that we’re able to collect on cocaine trafficking activities’s impact on the EU. And I think Antoine already mentioned some of the most recent law enforcement operations, and they’ve really given us a very interesting view into the activities of organised crime in Europe. So let me start by looking in general at the criminal markets that we find in the EU around 80% of the criminal networks that we find in the European Union are involved in either the trade and drugs and organised property crime, in fraud, trafficking human beings, different types of online fraud and other types of fraud and migrant smuggling. And I think it’s quite striking that around 38% of those crime networks are actually involved in the drug trade. So, one of the main commodities that we find in the European Union, which are cannabis, cocaine, heroin and of course different types of synthetic drugs and NPS. What you see missing here is the element of cybercrime. That’s because in cybercrime, we don’t really encounter that many network type structures; there are more individuals and smaller groups. One of the things that we’ve been observing is an increase in the use of violence and you can see it here around 60% of the criminal networks that we encounter in the EU do use violence on a regular basis. We also see that a lot of criminal networks use corruption, so 60% use various types of corruption and that ranges from very petty bribery to indeed very complex multi million euro corruption schemes that we find in the European Union. It’s quite worrying for us also that we see that around 80% of the criminal networks that are active in the EU use legal business structures, and that’s also very true for criminal networks that are involved in the trade and cocaine. So different types of businesses: import-export, transportation logistics, all kinds of businesses are being used as fronts, and to facilitate drug trafficking activities in the European Union. Similarly, we also have around 68% of the criminal networks that use basic money laundering methods, and that again, often involves the use of legal business structures. And then we have a smaller proportion of criminal networks that use more complex schemes: trade-based money laundering and other complex money laundering techniques. Indeed, in terms of money laundering, what we found is that serious and organised crime as we know, on a fundamental level, relies on the ability to launder vast amounts of criminal profits. And for this purpose, we don’t just have criminal networks that are laundering money themselves; we also have professional money laundering syndicates that launder money on behalf of other criminals, and we found that those really have established something akin to an underground financial system that processes transactions and payments that are completely isolated from the regular oversight mechanisms that we would find in the normal financial industry. So data collection has also allowed us to collect some other insights on the activities of networks in the EU. So in terms of the structure we found that the majority have a fluid structure, and this is something that comes throughout the whole report and I invite you to read that on our website, but really have a move away from these very hierarchical closed structures that we know from the past to much more fluid networks of different contexts interacting with each other, coming together for different trafficking projects, using brokers, using information brokers, contact brokers and other individuals to really connect different criminals and smaller criminal groups. And this development towards these loose networks has also included a move towards increasing proliferation of crime as a service as a business model. So as I mentioned before, people who are specialised in specific niches, bringing people together, arranging transportation so not necessarily getting in touch with the drugs themselves, but really providing services for drug traffickers. Also we’re able to look at some other aspects; for instance how long networks are active, so around 25% of the networks are active for more than 10 years. So a lot of the networks are quite ad hoc. They come together for projects or similar types of ventures, but they’re not necessarily stable over a prolonged period of time. What is quite clear and it’s not just from this report, but also from our previous work, is  that organised crime, with an impact on the EU is really truly very international and transnational. So, 65% of the criminal acts that are active in the EU are composed of members of multiple nationalities, and quite often that’s many different nationalities. In total we have more than 180 nationalities that are represented in organised crime activities in the EU, and 70% of the organised crime networks that we looked at are actually active in more than three countries. Now I’ll turn to the specific topic of our event today, so the trade in illegal drugs and I’ll focus on cocaine in a few minutes. So, the trading illegal drugs dominates organised crime in the EU, I think that’s very, very clear. That’s true, in terms of the number of the criminals and the criminal networks that are involved in this activity, and also in terms of the vast criminal profits that are being generated as part of the production, trafficking, and also the distribution of illegal drugs. I mentioned this figure before but we have around 40%-30% of the criminal works that are involved in the trade and drugs. A lot of the violence that we see associated with use and organised crime in Europe is indeed associated with the trading of drugs. Corruption is very widely used to facilitate drug trafficking. So that’s ports, airports, border crossing points to facilitate the issuing of certificates, all kinds of types of corruption are being used. In terms of the online trade in drugs; yes, this has continued to grow over recent years, but indeed, this type of distribution is not, or it’s nowhere near the type of quantities that we encounter in the traditional offline supply. We see the use of a lot of technology in terms of the production, trafficking and distribution of drugs. So, in terms of new production methods, synthesis methods, and many other aspects. Overall, drug markets fuel, a huge underground economy, I think that’s gone largely unnoticed by policymakers and also law enforcement to a large degree, in the past. We have criminal networks that are really attempting to seize control of areas and some sectors of the economy to facilitate their activities. And of course, these types of underground economies, they really cause economic dependency, they undermine local communities and they perpetuate the presence of criminal structures. Turning to cocaine, I think it’s quite clear that, over the last years we’ve seen unprecedented quantities of cocaine that are being trafficked to the EU from Latin America, and this generates multi billion euro profits for many different types of criminal networks involved. That’s networks that are based both in the EU, and also those that are based in origin from Latin America. We have a number of indicators that point to a significant increase in cocaine trafficking activities. So that includes the increase in manufacturr of cocaine, and also the number of cocaine seizures that have reached record levels in the EU, and an increasing number of investigations and suspects that are being reported to Europol. And, of course, in isolation, none of these metrics would necessarily indicate that there’s an increase but if we look at the whole picture together, I think it’s quite clear that we see a significant increase in tracking activity. And that’s also reflected in some of the comments that we received from member states. So, a majority of the member states have reported that cocaine trafficking indeed has increased from their perspective since 2016. And that cocaine market is attracting a growing number of EU based and also non EU criminal networks. Indeed, in fact, if you look at across the whole range of criminal networks, active and serious organised crime, there are more crime networks, active in the cocaine trade in the EU than in other any criminal activity. So we really see that along with the North American market, the European market appears to be emerging as one of the largest in the world. Indeed, Europe is a premier destination for cocaine traffickers and I think that developing can be attributed to a number of different factors, including the growth and consumption of cocaine in Europe that are higher prices prices to be achieved for cocaine in Europe compared to the North American market, that the risk of interdiction is lower, and also the risk of seizure. So that’s really a very potent mix that incentivizes drug traffickers to target the European Union. Really, if we look ahead, we see that we believe cocaine trafficking routes to  the EU, and you see some of those here on the screen, are going to diversify further. And that’s a result of changing transport infrastructures and the emergence of new transshipment points. We believe that Africa has the potential to quickly develop as a new, very important transshipment point for all types of goods, legal and illegal, but especially for cocaine being trafficked from South America to the European Union. Indeed we already see that some networks that are originating from the EU have a presence in some of the transport hubs in Africa. And we believe that presence is going to expand in the future. So these EU-based metworks that are involved in cocaine trafficking they really have expanded their operations. I think, Antoine also mentioned that they really have global reach, they’re present in all the production countries the present in a lot of the countries of departure, in Latin America. These networks are very diverse. And they are highly entrepreneurial and highly cooperative, so they come together, they invest together in large shipments of cocaine in order to drive down prices, and also to reduce the risk of discovery. So having one large shipment rather than having many smaller shipments. In terms of the tracking activity if we look ahead,  we can see that there’s a lot of investment on the side of law enforcement to intensify controls, and this will likely push criminal networks to operate in a wider range of secondary ports, so not just the main ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and the rest, but smaller ports, and also use alternative maritime modes of transport, such as the use of pleasure and fishing vessels, as well as private and cargo aircraft again. Antoine also mentioned general aviation, that’s something that’s very much on the radar for us as well. In terms of developments in the EU itself, we’ve really seen an increasing number of cocaine laboratories, so-called secondary extraction laboratories that are being dismantled in the EU, and these laboratories are used to extract cocaine that is incorporated into liquids to all kinds of materials, and we’ve seen the use of previously unknown, and more sophisticated chemical and mechanical procedures to incorporate this cocaine into the material, and also to extract it, the laboratories itself are increasing in size, and they’re also increasing in terms of processing capacity, which obviously allows for greater output of cocaine. And we’ve also seen the emergence of multi use laboratory so the processing of cocaine, secondary extraction, and at the same time, the production of different types of synthetic drugs in the same laboratory in the same site. So that’s something that’s very interesting and something that we need to keep an eye out. We’ve seen also that there has been a specialisation in terms of the networks that are involved in drug trafficking. So we have a lot of specialised networks that are providing services to the main trafficking networks. So those networks usually provide transport and logistics and other types of services. We mentioned the EncroChat already and some of these other encrypted, services, and really it’s very uncommon now to encounter a drug trafficker, or cocaine trfficker that is active in the EU that is not using one of these services. And that’s quite, quite…the entire business of cocaine trafficking really depends on the availability of these secure communication services. The number of incidents that’s directly linked to cocaine trafficking in the EU has been increasing as well. Not just in terms of the the number of attacks but also in terms of the severity. So we really see attacks now that are escalating and are also targeting victims that were previously not targeted by cocaine traffickers: journalists, lawyers, bystanders and others that are not involved actually in any sort of criminal activity.  Overall, of course the cocaine market is the source of multibillion euro profits for criminals and really enables the criminal infiltration into our licit economy. I’ll close with a brief outlook on some of the developments that we observe generally that will have an impact on serious organised crime in the European Union in the future. And of course, organised crime is very versatile and resilient, and will quickly adapt to any sort of changes in the environment that we can expect. And they adapt in order to reduce risks to increase profits, and to exploit new opportunities. One of the developments that we see as having an impact on serious and organised crime in the future is the digitalization and in fact, in the EU we are on a path to what we call total digitalization of all types of services of all business and exchanges, and this will continue at a very fast pace, and will definitely have an impact on society. Public Administration transport trade and of course also also crime. And in fact, of course, we’ve seen the COVID 19 pandemic, the fact that we’re not sitting together at the end of the day and that we’re having this video conference is an indication that the pandemic also has changed working methods and really moved a lot of things that were previously analogue in into the digital domain, and this is going to have a significant impact. Of course the internal-external security nexus is also very important. And we really need to understand that in order to also anticipate upcoming challenges to the internal security of the EU and developments in terms of drug markets and serious organised crime. There’s a lot of conflict still in the periphery of the European Union, and this may have an impact in the future on drug trafficking activities. One of the things that we’re also looking at is the green transition, and this is the European Union’s ambition is to transition to a greener, more sustainable model. And of course this is great, and very much welcomed. But of course this is also going to attract criminals and will create a lot of opportunities for criminal networks in the future. And we also see that the financial system and the green sector are increasingly interlinked. And this will create a lot of money laundering opportunities in the future and for sure. The ones that are going to be using those opportunities are by and large, more than anyone else, the networks that are involved in the trafficking of cocaine, and of many other drugs. So these are some of the factors that will shape. Serious organised crime and drug trafficking in the EU in the future, you will find a lot more information in the Series and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2019, I invite you to visit your website and find the document there. And with that, I shall close my presentation. Thank you very much.

Ms Chloé Carpentier, Chief, Drug Research Section, UNODC Research and Trend Analysis Branch: Thank you, Sasha. Thank you very much, and congratulations on the launch a successful launch of the sector report by Europol on the main findings on the actors and the mechanisms that are used by organised crime networks in Europe. You mentioned in particular that there was more of these networks involved in cocaine trafficking than in any other activity and I think this is something that we can take as one of the, perhaps the main finding, of your research.

Police Lieutenant Xavier Alejandro Durán Portero Head of Analysis, Unidad Nacional de Investigación Antidrogas, Policía Nacional del Ecuador: Now, in Colombia, the laboratories and the cocaine producing raises in 9% but in Peru increases, increases in 1%. So, here in Ecuador we are exporting, we don’t have laboratories here, but we are using our ways to export the cocaine to another countries. So then, in Latin America, from Ecuador is leaving around 66% of cocaine from Colombia, 23% from Peru, and 11% from Bolivia related with a drug trafficking. We have another been crimes like trafficking in weapons, ammunition and explosives. There are another kind of crimes related with cocaine trafficking like (…) trafficking, chemical trafficking from Ecuador to Colombia, trafficking people departments from Ecuador, private enrichment and (…) and money laundry in the principal departments here in Ecuador, legal mining, hitmen, homicides, and murders, and other crimes related to cocaine. So, in this slide, I’m going to explain all the routes related with drug trafficking, especially with a cocaine trafficking. Maritime trafficking: we have the Galapagos, a strategic location by drug dealers in Ecuador to export cocaine from Colombia and peru. They use speedboats, go-fast and ships to another countries. We are connected to other countries in Central America, and Mexico, Honduras, and other countries. Starting from Ecuador, we are introducing cocaine from Colombia. In Ecuador they use speedboats routes. They can transport 800 kilograms using this road with speedboats. Between 1-4 days they transport all cocaine from Colombia. There’s another one in 1 day, around the Galapagos island to go to Guatemala. This one is used to transport to Guatemala in 6 days. Another road to Mexico; related with the principal drug dealers and cartels in Mexico. After that, the speedboat route. They can use another kind of route; it’s from 1-6 days using another route. Speedboats are connected with bigger ships, using other routes; they’re in Guatemala in 10 days. In Mexico, they leave Ecuador, in 2-3 days they go to Mexico in 11-15 days. In Mexico, investigations find semi-submergible tools. We have arrested the people related to these submersibles. The travel is 1 – 16 days to get to Mexico. They’re also using routes with planes, leaving Ecuador, going to Costa Rica, then to Mexico. They can also use planes to Guatemala and then Mexico. We are investigating cocaine routes by air trafficking. Drug dealers are using the Galapagos to go to Mexico in this way. It uses 8 hours to travel from Ecuador to Mexico. We have a problem in the Galapagos because we don’t have investigations there. It’s a new route used by drug dealers. The land trafficking uses all cars and routes. (…) Principal entries are introducing cocaine from Peru and transporting it to the main ports of Ecuador: Guayaquil, Santa Elena and (…). Other roads too. The country can be travelled across in four hours, so it’s a brief route. Drug dealers investigated by our police are connected with cartels in Mexico.

(Missed last 10 minutes)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *