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Cocaine in Germany: The 'South American tsunami'

Volkmar Kabisch | Jan Lukas Strozyk | Benedikt Strunz NDR
December 28, 2018

International security agencies likely confiscated more cocaine in 2018 than ever before. German investigators fear a more violent struggle for control of the market among gangs in the future — even in Europe.

Drug seizure in Hamburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinardt

The Spanish port of Algeciras in April 2018: Investigators regularly find drug shipments here, mainly from South America. Still, what police found hidden between crates of bananas during this particular operation would turn out to be a decisive victory against cocaine smugglers in Europe. Some nine tons of cocaine were confiscated on this day, the largest amount of the drug ever seized in a container in Europe, according to Spain's interior minister. The street value of the haul was estimated to be roughly half a billion euros.

Flood of cocaine rolls on

The record-breaking find illustrates a phenomenon that German customs and police agents refer to as the "South American tsunami." Each year more and more cocaine is seized around the globe and the amount will likely increase again in 2018, according to an internal evaluation by Germany's Federal Crime Office (BKA). German broadcaster NDR is in possession of the report, the pages of which note that 608 tons of cocaine had been seized globally by November. As a number of finds will likely go unpublished until after the new year, the BKA says it is quite possible that this year's seizures will exceed the record 639 tons impounded in 2017.

Drug seizure in Malaga
Spanish police seized some six tons of cocaine in Malaga last OctoberImage: Reuters/J. Nazca

Christian Hoppe, who heads the BKA's drug enforcement group, told NDR that the root of the problem can be found "primarily in large-scale production in countries like Colombia, Peru and Bolivia." Moreover, he says cocaine production is more efficient today, meaning more of the drug can be made from less coca than was possible just a few years ago.

Cleaner product, rising crime

The latest report issued by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) claims that the constantly rising flood of cocaine on the world market has led to increased purity of product with no change in price.

Read more: Italian Mafia, bikers, Berlin clans: Europe's crime gangs

According to NDR, customs agents are operating under the assumption that wholesale cocaine prices may in fact be going down. Alessandro Pirona from the EMCDDA also warns that growing competition is making the cocaine market much more brutal, even in Europe. "We are seeing contract killings and kidnappings, violence against police and intimidation of port workers," he says.

Colombian military in Briceno
The flow of cocaine to Europe is driven primarily by large-scale production in countries such as ColombiaImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Arboleda

Until now, Belgium and the Netherlands have been in the crosshairs of criminal gangs. Both countries — with the major industrial ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, respectively — have been entryways for cocaine into Europe for years. Christian Hoppe of the BKA says there is also a danger that increasing competition between different criminal networks could lead to more violence in Germany — for instance, in "shutting down" competition by threatening or compromising port workers, or even taking possession of cocaine shipments by violent means.

Drug trafficking a 'catalyst' for other crimes

The cocaine market in Europe today is controlled by a number of different criminal networks. Currently groups from the western Balkans and Morocco are playing an outsized role alongside German operators. An international sting directed at the Italian 'ndrangheta organized crime syndicate in early December also netted almost four tons of cocaine. Hoppe says it is important to realize that the billions in drug profits are not just invested in the fancy lifestyles of a few kingpins, but instead drug trafficking is like a "catalyst" for other crimes, such as human trafficking, robbery and money laundering. He says illegally-gotten profits also flow into and undermine the legal economy.

Seized cocaine presented in Hamburg
Experts say the drug trade fuels other crimes, such as human trafficking and money launderingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinhardt

More cocaine in wastewater

As in other countries, cocaine is no longer a drug used exclusively by socialites in Germany. Addiction counselors report that users come from all walks of life and that construction workers and students are just as likely to use the substance as are bankers and artists. According to information in NDR's possession, customs agents in Germany have seized roughly five tons of cocaine this year. That is a bit of a drop when compared to last year's record haul, yet the number is nevertheless substantial. A comparison of the amount of residual cocaine found in wastewater across major European cities such as Antwerp, Barcelona, Oslo and Paris has also shown a massive increase since 2015.

Read more: Child trafficking: A persistent menace in Latin America

The EMCDDA's Alessandro Pirona believes that particular phenomenon could be explained in a few ways, but a number of factors suggest that more and more people are using cocaine. He says that is why it is also urgent that more research is done on the problem. BKA investigator Christian Hoppe adds that since crime networks operate internationally it is also important that criminal authorities do so as well. He says it's high time to confront international criminal gangs with an international crime fighting network that can exchange information in real time in order to take appropriate measures in their own countries.

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