Since the end of the fiercest phase of Covid-19, European governments and policymakers have had a hard time facing the downturns of rebounded economic activity, inflation, and a general economic crisis involving almost every sector of the economy.
In this context, cocaine traffickers are among the few happy faces. Their business is more fervent than ever, with supply and demand at record levels. While European cinemas follow the actions of “Cocaine Bear”, the cocaine market is instead in “bull” mode, rising at an unprecedented rate thanks to new industry developments.
Eleven billion euros is the (probably underestimated) size of the European cocaine market, the second largest in the realm of illicit drugs after cannabis. This is the result of years of relentless growth that allowed Europe to overcome North America regarding cocaine seizures for the first time in 2019 (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction & Europol, 2022). Although seizures provide an incomplete picture of the quantity of substance circulating on a territory, they constitute a reliable proxy and show how the old continent is beating the one that has put cocaine under the spotlight since the 80s.
Europe remains the second biggest consumer market after North America. It accounts for 21% of users worldwide, against 30% of the US and Canada. About one person out of twenty aged 15-64 has tried cocaine at least once, and 1.25% of the same age group have used it in the past year. The main difference between the two markets is that seizure and consumption data for North America saw a dip in 2018 and a slight decrease since then, while those for Europe have been rising more and more since 2016-2017 (UNODC, 2023). We will investigate some critical drivers for the European market in the following paragraphs. Cocaine consumption has touched record levels: 3.5 million Europeans declared to have consumed it at least once in 2021, roughly four times more than twenty years ago. Seizures keep rising, signaling that the authorities are responding to the phenomenon but also that the size of the European cocaine market is one never seen before (UNODC, 2023). In part the effect can be explained by population growth. However, the UNODC (2023) also reported a rising prevalence of cocaine use starting around 2016, when the routes currently bringing the product to Europe, which we investigate later, started developing. More recently, an even sharper increase in demand has been connected to the end of lockdowns since cocaine, especially insufflated powder, tends to be consumed in social contexts.
On the supply side, the growth in coca cultivated in Latin America is the first key driver for record availability. Cultivation rose by 35% between 2020 and 2021. Covid-19 might have harmed cultivation and production in 2020 due to curtailed international travel, closure of borders between the source countries, and an overall difficulty for buyers to access sellers. Nonetheless, there was no major disruption from a long-run perspective: the tons cultivated in 2020 were still double the amount in 2014. On top of increased cultivation, improvements in converting bushes into the final product drove supply up. (UNODC, 2023)
The matched growth in supply and demand was such that retail prices remained relatively stable during the past decade. At the same time, purity increased, confirming that more cocaine is now available in the European market than ever. (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction & Europol, 2022) The lack of price increase despite higher purity also showcases how the most significant chunk of profits for traffickers does not come from retailing. Nor from production. In fact, it comes from transportation. A ton of coca leaves, usually necessary for one kilo of final cocaine, costs roughly $400. The coca paste obtained from it is generally priced at $700-900. Then, the paste is turned into the final product, which is shipped towards Europe. The wholesale price usually lies between $30K and $50K. The retail price per kilo is generally between $60K and $92K. These numbers highlight how the biggest markup is on transport and distribution. Quite impressively, during this stage, the product, costing around $800, ends up going for about $40K per kilo (VICE, 2020; European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2021). Hence, the real profit lies in transporting the drug from South America to final users in Europe. How does this happen?
We just showed how the core business of narcotraffickers revolves around transporting cocaine from the production countries to Europe. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze how and through which channels they manage to do it. Follow the logistics of this global supply chain works and you will understand most of the cocaine business.
Although Colombia remains the first trafficker of cocaine in South America, the so-called “Southern Cone” has become the primary departure point for Europe-bound routes. Specifically, seizures often occur along the “Paranà-Paraguay” waterway connecting Paraguay and Brazil and on River Plate’s estuary. (UNODC, 2023)
Most importantly, the arrival destination has changed, too. North Sea countries have dethronized the Iberian Peninsula, with the port of Antwerp, Belgium, becoming the main hub where cocaine arrives to be transported all around the continent. Besides Belgium, Netherlands, and Spain, other channels lead to the UK, France, and Italy, but these shipments are mainly meant for domestic consumption. (UNODC, 2023)
The shift toward the North Sea is primarily due to the advanced infrastructures that smugglers can benefit from in massive ports like Antwerp or Rotterdam (The Economist, 2022). This brings us to the main point of this section: how does cocaine trafficking occur in practice? How does the substance get from South America to Europe? Although cocaine is also air shipped, maritime trade remains the leading solution by far. Covid-19 made air shipments even rarer because of the restrictions on global air passenger transport, the primary method to smuggle cocaine through the air (UNODC, 2023). At the same time, transport by sea has evolved, and there are now multiple different ways used by traffickers to get their goods to destination. Many involve containers and explain the choice of the largest container ports in Belgium and the Netherlands. With the rip-on/rip-off method, drugs are loaded in containers at the departure port and recovered at the destination port. The Trojan horse strategy implies loading smugglers directly with drugs so that they can unload them upon arrival. Smuggling can be even more concealed behind legitimate trade, hiding cocaine within legitimate goods, in the container’s structure, or even through chemical camouflaging, i.e., by impregnating a carrier material with cocaine that is subsequently extracted in a laboratory. These techniques rely on the fact that authorities check only a paltry number of thousands of containers processed daily. This is even more the case for containers carrying perishable goods like bananas, which are thus often chosen to smuggle cocaine (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction & Europol, 2022; AFP News Agency, 2023).
However, the maritime trade of cocaine does not necessarily involve containers. Traffickers often use commercial vessels and drop drugs into the sea close to destination. Alternatively, pleasure vessels like yachts and inflatable boats are effective ways to transport drugs, lowering the likelihood of checks and detection even more. Finally, smugglers increasingly use semi-submersibles, and we might see autopiloted versions in the future (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction & Europol, 2022).
The global supply chains responsible for bringing cocaine to Europe present some transhipment points between South America and our continent. We are witnessing a significant development in this context, too. Indeed, the role of Western and Central Africa as transit zones has reportedly increased since 2019. Intuitively, Africa’s geographical location makes it a natural stop point for shipments from South America to Europe. Moreover, cocaine can be smuggled inland towards Northern Africa and eventually to Europe via the already-existing cannabis routes that start from Morocco., These countries often exhibit generalized poverty and unemployment, resulting in a wide pool of desperate people that are willing to work as “mules”. (Bird Ruiz-Benitez de Lugo, 2021; UNODC, 2023)
Overall, the developments in the logistics of narcotrafficking changed the entire business by much and led to the unprecedented current flow of cocaine to Europe. Understanding the described patterns is not only helpful for authorities and policymakers to know where to operate to tackle this phenomenon. It is equally crucial for regular people to open their eyes to such a tentacular market, which seems invisible if you stay away from it but is actually succeeding more and more all over Europe.
AFP News Agency. (2023, February 10). Cocaine is flooding into Europe. Where is it coming from? YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuzxqVuuqnE&t=54s&pp=ygUYY29jYWluZSBmbG9vZGluZyBldXJvcGUg
Bird Ruiz-Benitez de Lugo, L. (2021, April 28). West Africa’s Cocaine Corridor: Building a subregional response. Global Initiative. https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/west-africas-cocaine-corridor/
European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2021). European Drug Report—Trend and Developments. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/edr/trends-developments/2021_en
European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, & Europol. (2022). EU Drug Market: Cocaine—In-depth analysis. https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/eu-drug-markets/cocaine_en
The Economist. (2022, November 3). Why Belgium is now the cocaine capital of Europe. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsH152NE9Ak
UNODC. (2023). Global Report on Cocaine 2023—Local dynamics, global challenges. United Nations Publications. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/cocaine/Global_cocaine_report_2023.pdf
VICE. (2020, December 15). Why Cocaine is Worth So Much. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01ped04I84Q&t=216s