How Europe stole America’s crown as the world’s cocaine superpower: Map reveals how ruthless cartels stop at nothing to smuggle £50billion of ‘white gold’ a year from Colombia to the streets of London, Paris and Rome
- Cocaine seizures in Europe exceeded those in North America for the first time in 2019 and have only grown since, with a record 303 tons confiscated in 2021
- Here, MailOnline delves into how Europe became the world’s cocaine capital
It began with one man: Pablo Escobar, boss of the ruthless Medellin cartel, the man through which 80 per cent of the world’s cocaine once flowed, the first and most-infamous of the billionaire drug-lords.
But what started in the jungles of Colombia and on the streets of the USA has spread, and today’s Narcos are more likely to make their fortunes shipping white gold across the Atlantic into Europe.
Seizures of cocaine on the continent exceeded those in North America for the first time in 2019 and have only grown since, with a record 303 tons confiscated in 2021 – worth at least $12billion, though some estimate the true value of the market north of $60billion.
Unlike the South American cartels of the past, today’s bosses are just as likely to come from Italy, such as the ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra Mafia families; the Balkans, including Grupa Amerika or the Tito and Dino Cartel; and Ireland, as is the case with the Kinahan and Hutch Clans.
This brave new world was on full display this week as a ‘mothership’ carrying £136million of cocaine (a street value of up to £430m) was raided by Army rangers off the Irish coast in what is the biggest bust of its kind in the country’s history.
And police are braced for things to get even worse, as UN researchers warn smugglers are increasingly using drones – in the skies, on the waves, and underwater – to make sure their illicit products slip through the net.
Here, MailOnline delves into the murderous past and murky present of the trans-Atlantic trade to uncover how Europe was transformed into the world’s cocaine capital.
Pictured: A map shows the several methods and land, sea and air routes used to traffic cocaine from the three main producers of the drug – Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia – into the world’s largest market for the stimulant: Europe
Irish Army Ranger commandos rappel down from a helicopter on to a cargo ship on Tuesday that was found to be carrying more than two tonnes of cocaine destined for Europe
A Colombian Police boat is seen next to a submarine that was found to be transporting 2.5 tonnes of cocaine. Two bodies of drug traffickers were found onboard
Pictured: The 5,000lbs haul of cocaine seized off the MV Matthew cargo ship last week by Irish authorities, said to have a street value of more than £430million
In the mid-1980s, the American cocaine boom was in full swing. Tons of powder flowed across the southern border each year, and billions of dollars flowed back the other way.
READ MORE: Ireland braces for cartel bloodbath after commando raid on cartel ‘mothership’
In 1987, Escobar made the Forbes billionaire list for the first time and would feature every year until his untimely death in 1993.
But greed, like stupidity, is limitless and with America saturated the cartels soon began looking for ways to expand their empire even further. Europe was the obvious target.
Some form of trans-Atlantic cocaine trade had existed at least as far back as the 1970s, when well-connected members of the Italian diaspora made contact with South American coca farmers and arranged for some of their product to be shipped back to the old county.
But the trade was small, and it was not until Spanish tobacco smugglers – who went to Latin America to launder their profits – made contact with the cartels that it really took off.
These smugglers, who operated out of Galicia on Spain’s West coast, already had the equipment, know-how and networks required to get illegal goods into the country, and the profit potential of cocaine compared to tobacco made it a no-brainer.
For the Colombians, heading to Europe meant avoiding the turf wars erupting on the US border with Mexican cartels, and the chance to make even more cash.
Because of the relative scarcity of cocaine in Europe, a kilo there could fetch roughly double the price as in the US. The fact they shared a language with the Galicians was the icing on the cake.
And so Spain became the destination for cocaine in Europe, a crown it held for almost three decades until being displaced by the mega-ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam.
While the cocaine trade in the Americas was primarily land-based, in Europe it had to be different because the drugs had to cross the Atlantic. So new shipping methods were developed to carry it.
According to a 2021 report by InsightCrime, the way the operation initially worked was as follows.
The Colombians took care of production and packing in South America, much the same way they did for the trade into the US.
Galician smugglers then picked up the drugs at local ports and used fishing vessels to make the Atlantic crossing, dropping the packages just off the Galician coast for pickup.
Once ashore, more Colombians based in Spain handled the distribution. To build trust, each gang kept a member of the other hostage until the hand-off was made.
The plan worked, though growth was slow. By 1998, it is thought some 63 tons of cocaine was making its way into Europe each year – though that was still dwarfed by the 267 tons entering America.
Rotterdam Public Prosecution Service shows 17,637 pounds of cocaine in Rotterdam, The Netherlands after it was seized by customs authorities. Rotterdam is one of three major European ports where cocaine floods through in to Europe
Some of the defendants in a trial against 355 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, accused of an array of charges, are seen on screens as they join via video link on the first day of their trial, in a High Security Courthouse in Lamezia Terme, Italy, January 13, 2021
But the 2000s saw an explosion in both shipments and demand after the Italian Mafia got involved – primarily the ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra families.
Like the Galicians, these families had the networks and know-how to cross the ocean, but unlike the fishing boats used by their rivals the Mafiosos had front companies that used container ships.
That meant, instead of shipping in kilos, the cocaine could be shipped in tons. It was a revelation, and container shipping remains the most popular way of getting the drug into Europe to this day.
At its most simple, container smuggling requires corrupt officials in place at both departure and receiving ports to hide the drugs inside the containers and retrieve them at the other end. This is known as the rip on/rip off method.
In the departure port, dock workers identify a container going to a port of interest, break into it, and stash the drugs inside before sending its ID number to workers at the other end.
At the receiving port, dockers make sure the dirty container is put in a specific spot where it is easy to access so it can be opened once again, the drugs removed and smuggled out of the port, and any security tags replaced with forgeries before it passes customs.
Where smugglers cannot persuade the dockers to aid them, they sometimes send an empty container into the port with some of their men inside, who then break out and retrieve the stash in a method known as Trojan Horse.
Alternatively, cocaine can be mixed with legitimate goods before being shipped overseas – provided the owner of the goods is willing to cooperate.
And if the owner of the container can be bought off then it can be stashed there, typically in the air conditioning unit or walls, reports the the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
But such methods are risky. The majority of cocaine seizures happen at ports because that’s where the officers designed to catch them are based.
Much better, then, if the cocaine never enters the port in the first place. Which is where the ‘mothership’ method used off the coast of Ireland this week comes in.
Done this way, the container ship leaves port completely clean but is then approached at sea by smaller, faster boats with the drugs on board.
Either with money or force, the crew are persuaded to take the drugs on board, before continuing their journey across the ocean.
Before they reach land on the other end, more fast boats are dispatched to retrieve the cocaine, meaning it enters port as clean as when it departed.
The result of these new shipping methods was a surge in cocaine usage across Western Europe that still has not peaked.
By 2008, the market had almost doubled in size to 124 tons annually while in the US – where the DEA was spearheading a multi-billion dollar cartel-busting effort – it had declined to 165 tons.
Some time around 2016, smugglers abandoned their old haven of Spain and switched to Belgium and the Netherlands, targeting the mega-ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam.
That caused a second explosion, and in 2019 Europe surpassed the US as the region with the most cocaine seizures.
By 2020, it accounted for more than half the seizures outside the cocaine-producing regions of South and Central America, and in 2021 a record 303 tons were confiscated.
One senior European police source and cocaine specialist who spoke to InsightCrime said that is likely to represent just one fifth of the European market, based on a 20 per cent catch rate.
If true, that means the actual size of the European market could be upwards of 1,500 tons each year – worth around $60billion.
While the Italians still lead the way in terms of smuggling, busts of the ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra families in recent years – including one in May that netted 130 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta – has seen their influence wane.
Into the breach has stepped Balkan gangsters, such as the Tito and Dino Cartel, Grupa Amerika and Kompania Bello.
Tito and Dino is run by Edin Gacanin, who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina but moved to the Netherlands and set up a cocaine smuggling route from Peru to Europe.
His cartel is populated by family and friends from his old neighbourhood in Sarajevo, and is known as Peru’s single-largest cocaine buyer.
Grupa Amerika, meanwhile, was born in the 1990s in Serbia, reportedly as a death squad for genocidal dictator Slobedan Milosevic, but has since transformed into a criminal syndicate.
During the 2016 European cocaine boom, the gang was linked to a plot to buy cocaine in Peru and Ecuador, liquify it, then mix it with wine and ship it to Europe.
Dritan Rexhepi (pictured) was serving a sentence in an Ecuadorian prison for acting as a middle man on behalf of two Albanian criminal organisations. Italian prosecutors said Rexhepi had access to ‘endless amounts of cocaine’. He is reported to have escaped in January
Some of the cocaine packages seized from Rexhepi’s group
The Hutch-Kinahan Feud saw 10 people – mostly from the Hutch clan – killed in a single year, including a raid by machine-gun-wielding men at Dublin’s Regency Hotel in 2016. Left: Daniel Kinahan, believed to be the leader of the Kinahan cartel and right, Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch
Dairo Antonio Úsuga, one of Colombia’s most notorious drug lords who once had an enemy buried alive, exhumed then beheaded, was sentenced to 45 years in prison last month. His organisation – the Clan del Golfo (the gulf clan) is thought to be Colombia’s largest drug trafficking organisation, supplying as much as 70 percent of the world’s cocaine
Kompania Bello is known as a network of criminal organisations run by ‘capo’ Dritan Rexhepi, an ethnic Albanian, who was arrested in 2020 in coordinated raids in Europe and the Middle East.
Italian prosecutors said Rexhepi had access to ‘endless amounts of cocaine’ while Europol said the raid was ‘the biggest of its kind ever against Albanian-speaking organised crime’.
Closer to home, lucrative cocaine profits are thought to have fuelled a vicious gang war in Ireland that has left at least 18 people dead since it erupted in 2015, and led to dozens of arrests.
The Hutch-Kinahan Feud saw 10 people – mostly from the Hutch clan – killed in a single year, including a raid by machine-gun-wielding men at Dublin’s Regency Hotel in 2016.
The Kinahans are known associates of the Camorra family and thought to be heavily involved in the drugs trade and have been linked to the tanker seized off Ireland this week. Officials say they are satisfied the Kinahans had a hand in the racket.
A Joint Task Force busted the vessel on Tuesday with a daring special forces raid. Ireland’s elite Army Ranger Wing stormed the Panamanian-registered ship off the south-east coast of Ireland after the vessel refused orders to stop.
Once the commandos secured the ship, members of the Irish navy and the National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (DOCB) went aboard, where they found 2,253kg (5,000lbs) of cocaine, which could be worth as much as £430 million.
While Kinahans and an Albanian-led consortium are believed to be among twenty European criminal groups involved in the smuggling operation, it is believed the cocaine itself originates from the feared Colombian Gulf Clan, or Clan del Golfo.
The Clan has a fearsome reputation for violence, has established international connections with other criminal groups including the Albanian Mafia, and is thought to supply as much as 70 percent of the world’s cocaine.
Clan del Golfo is so powerful, in fact, that the US government has designated it as one of the top 5 transnational organised crime groups in the world, despite its leader known as ‘Otoniel’ being sentenced to 45 years in prison in the US this year.
Irish authorities believe the MV Matthew was a ‘mothership’.
The MV Matthew is seen on Wednesday moored at Marino Point in Cork, as it was being searched after it was seized and impounded by Irish authorities on Tuesday
The MV Matthew is escorted into Cobh in Cork by the Irish Navy on Tuesday
According to Tom Chandler, author of the 2018 book ‘Narco Wars: How British Agents Infiltrated The Colombian Drug Cartels’, ‘law enforcement agencies in UK (along with USA and Spain) started targeting motherships and a huge intelligence-led investigation called Operation JOURNEY took place.
‘Over several years (1998 to 2002), Operation Journey identified dozens of motherships transporting cocaine to Europe, and seized over 24 tonnes of cocaine.’
The method then was the same back then as was seen with the MV Matthew this week, Chandler told MailOnline, and motherships are ‘responsible for a large proportion of the cocaine that arrives in Europe.’
Explaining the method, Chandler says it is designed to to ensure that no drugs are on the ‘mothership’ when it passes through ports.
‘When drugs are sent by sea, the most vulnerable points are when it is in the port of departure or arrives at the destination port,’ he says.
‘That is when Customs or police might search and seize the drugs. Motherships are so successful because they avoid both risk areas.
‘A mothership leaves port ‘clean’ with no drugs. Any search will reveal nothing. They are then loaded at sea, often by fishing boats, or speedboats.’
Then, he says, ‘the mothership transports the drugs safely across the Atlantic, but before arriving at any European port the drugs are off-loaded at sea to other smaller vessels – often local fishing boats, or yachts or pleasure craft that are low-risk.
‘The Mother ship then arrives at its European port ‘clean’ and without drugs. And the drugs arrive safely into smaller local marinas, fishing ports or remote coastal areas.’
As a result, law enforcement agencies must intercept the motherships at sea in order to seize the drugs, as was seen off the south-east coast of Ireland.
‘This method is very common, and both Spain, Portugal, UK and other countries have well-trained specialist teams who are used to board and take control of the motherships at sea,’ he said.
Despite the resources being put in to intercepting such ships, Europe’s cocaine boom doesn’t look set to end any time soon.
New technology such as submarines and drones opens up yet more smuggling opportunities, making it more challenging for the authorities to stop.
Police suspect that home-made submarines have been used to transport cocaine from South America to The Continent for at least a decade, but it was not until 2019 that they got conclusive proof.
Officers in Spain seized the vessel along with three tons of cocaine after it got into trouble off the Galician coast, a month after it is thought to have started its journey in the Brazilian Amazon.
A second sub was then discovered in a workshop in Malaga in 2021.
At 30ft long, officers believe it would have been capable of carrying 2 tons of cocaine and may have been designed to fetch it from motherships off the coast.
As subs can dive under the water, it makes them harder to detect than traditional vessels and the development of drone technology could make the task harder still.
A Spanish Customs ship and Civil Guard divers are seen next to the bow (L) of a suspected narco submarine found off the coast of northwestern Spain, 14 March 2023
UN researchers warn smugglers are increasingly making use of partially and fully-submersible vehicles that can be controlled remotely, and can carry hundreds of kilos of drugs each.
They also warn that cocaine packages are now being strapped to the underside of container ships by such craft, perhaps without the crew even knowing.
As the technology develops and becomes more widely available, it is sure to pose fresh challenges for officers trying to stem the tide.
The cocaine trade has come a long way since Escobar, but it does not look to be stopping any time soon – and Europe is now at its dark heart.
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