Despite the global pandemic, it's shaping up to be a record year for cocaine smuggling in the European Union. Authorities in Berlin say they're struggling to tackle "coke taxis" delivering drugs to people's doorsteps.
Police seizures of cocaine in the European Union are on the rise, putting 2020 on track to be a record-breaking year for drug trafficking in the bloc, Europol told Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
In recent months, authorities have intercepted major drug hauls in Belgium and the Netherlands, where the key ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam respectively serve as European entry points for the illicit product from South America.
According to Welt, cocaine seizures in Berlin have also surged. In the first half of 2020, there were 64.5% more cocaine offenses in the German capital than during the same period last year.
"Berlin is of course particularly susceptible," Olaf Schremm, head of the police drug squad, told Welt.
"Here there are politicians, as well as yuppies and rising managers, who use cocaine — sometimes as a party drug, or as a way to improve performance. It cuts through all social classes."
Authorities in Berlin are particularly concerned about a spike in "coke taxis," or drug dispatches by courier. In 2019, police in the city carried out a total of 209 investigations into these deliveries. In the first half of 2020 alone, there have already been 178 such cases, Schremm said.
"We're having a hard time keeping up with them," he said, adding that there's often only a 15-minute window between the order and delivery.
"The substance isn't handed over in public. This is a huge challenge for us."
More cocaine was seized in 2019 than ever before in Germany. Between 2017 and 2019, the amount of the drug intercepted by police increased from 3,200 kilograms to 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds).
According to Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), that trend is likely to continue in 2020. BKA director Christian Hoppe told Welt that "cautious surveys … indicate that seizure figures in 2020 will be at the same level as the previous year."
Despite efforts to clamp down on imports, "prices have remained stable," he said. "This indicates that the availability of cocaine is steadily increasing."
The global spread of coronavirus led to strict lockdowns, and interrupted travel and trade. But a number of recent large seizures in Europe show drug kingpins from South America have found ways to keep their business going.
Earlier this week, German police confiscated 1.5 tons of cocaine in Hamburg, one of the biggest seizures ever in the northern port city. The €300-million ($350-million) drug stash from Guyana was found hidden between sacks of rice in a cargo ship container.
According to Europol estimates, the European market is worth at least €9 billion ($10.6 billion) a year. France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Britain account for almost 90% of Europe's estimated 4 million cocaine users.