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Europe's pushers

October 26, 2009

The escalating instability in Afghanistan, corruption and war in Africa, organized crime in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and cartel wars in Latin America are all contributing to the flow of illegal drugs into Europe.

A farmer harvests opium in Chapliar, Afghanistan
Afghanistan's instability feeds Europe's heroin habitImage: AP

New figures on the state of the drugs problem in Europe will be released by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in the first week of November. The figures, which in recent years have seen stabilization in addiction figures and even reversal of some drug trends, are likely to be impacted by increasingly fluid security situations around the world.

The continuing instability in Afghanistan remains a huge concern on many levels, including the effect it is having on Europe's illegal drug trade. The seemingly unstoppable flow of heroin and opium out of the country feeds the habits of an estimated 15 million addicts worldwide, with Europe, Russia and Iran consuming half of Afghanistan's supply. With Afghanistan producing 92 percent of the world's opium and trafficking the equivalent of 3,500 tons of opium per year in the form of heroin, the war-torn Central Asian country is Europe's biggest pusher.

As the security situation worsens and the focus of Western strategists remains largely on a military defeat of the Taliban rather than a coordinated attempt to both destroy the insurgents' main cash crop while providing poor famers with an alternative source of income, experts believe Europe's dependency on Afghanistan is unlikely to wane any time soon. The situation in countries surrounding Afghanistan is also likely to keep the flood gates open.

Afghanistan the motor behind Golden Crescent's supply

Afghan laborers throw a sack during a drug burning ceremony
Almost 98 percent of Afghan opium gets out of the countryImage: AP

According to the latest UN Office on Drugs and Crime report, less than two percent of the opium and heroin Afghanistan produces is seized by authorities before it leaves the country.

Most of the supply - around 40 percent - is distributed through neighboring Pakistan, a country with its own mounting security problems. Iran and Central Asia provide alternative routes, with restive and corrupt former Soviet states providing passage into Eastern Europe where the heroin is then distributed throughout European Union countries.

"Afghanistan is obviously a problem due to its production rate but the transit routes its neighbors offer are probably more important," Fabrice Pothier, the director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Deutsche Welle.

"Pakistan has become the main platform for spreading opium to South East Asia while Tajikistan has opened up a route into the former Soviet states, Russia and Eastern Europe. This is not only bring heroin through these countries but also developing markets and the subsequent health problems associated with use and addiction as it goes," he said.

Organized crime networks aiding flow into Europe

Turkey also plays a central role in the heroin trade destined for Europe. Being geographically and historically linked to the so-called Golden Crescent area of opium production - which is Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan - Turkey's position on the cross-roads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and its many land and sea connections to the neighboring region, makes it an important player in both the transport and refining of Afghan opium. Statistics suggest that around 80 percent of unrefined opium from Afghanistan is made into heroin in Turkey.

A police officer guards smuggled heroin
Some heroin reaches EU states through the Balkan RouteImage: AP

Europe has also seen an increase in heroin trafficking over the last few years via the Balkans. Providing the main overland connection between Asia and Europe, the Balkan route provides passage to an estimated 75 percent of the heroin smuggled into Europe. The region's recent history of civil war and upheaval, and the emergence of a widespread organized crime network, makes the Balkans a hot-bed for all manner of trafficking operations.

"Organized crime in the Balkans has been on the rise for the last 20 years ever since the break up of the former Yugoslavia," Pothier said. "Organized crime and corruption is embedded in the structure of most of the Balkan countries and therefore the Balkans have become a major market and transit point between east and west for everything from Afghan heroin to small arms and slave labor."

The flow of cocaine - the favorite narcotic among Europe's 15-34 year olds - is also being aided by instability in transit regions which smoothes its progress to European users. UN figures show that in the last two years, around 40 tons of cocaine has been entering Europe annually through Western Africa.

West African hubs favored by Latin American cartels

People gather around a speedboat of a type believed to be used by drug traffickers
Cocaine passes through West Africa on its way to EuropeImage: AP

West African countries such as Guinea-Bissau have become the preferred hubs for Latin America's cartels trafficking cocaine to Europe in recent years as destabilized and corrupt governments provide traffickers with the infrastructural chaos which eases passage.

Consequently, the booming West African cocaine trade actually creates more corruption and threatens security across the region. UN officials say that countries which have weakened governmental infrastructures and are more susceptible to corruption have an increased potential to become a 'narco state' and a nation dependent on drug money to survive.

"The West African hubs are relatively new and have been developing over the past decade due to the number of local conflicts in the region and the knock-on effects of the US crackdown on cocaine," Pothier said. "South American cartels are very flexible and have taken advantage of African hubs to target Europe as an alternative market to the US. The bulk now goes to Spain and Italy, Europe's main entry points for cocaine, and huge increases of cocaine uses have been recorded in both countries over the past 10 years."

Cocaine still heading for US despite Mexican crackdown

With Africa an already established route and Europe a willing alternative to cocaine previously tagged for the United States, some experts are concerned that the current drug war in Mexico may lead to the West African route becoming more popular.

A Mexican Navy sailor stands guard as seized drugs are burned
The crackdown in Mexico could force more drugs into the EUImage: AP

A traditional route for cocaine trafficking into the United States from South America, Mexico has seen a huge escalation in drug-related violence as cartels battle each other for control of transit routes which supply the $40 billion-a-year cocaine business across the border in the US.

Some observers believe that the producers of cocaine in Latin America will eventually start to notice the adverse effects the violence is having on its supply routes in Mexico and, coupled with the steady decline of cocaine use in the United States, will look to another market.

Pothier, however, believes that while this cannot be ruled out over time, the current violence in Mexico has yet to have an effect on the flow of cocaine to the United States and is therefore not hindering the flow of the Latin American supply.

"This violence we are seeing is coming mostly from a reorganization of supply lines and a conflict between central government and regional powers who have had an understanding with the cartels in thier areas," he said. "We will have to wait and see whether violence will actually have an effect on the supply, but we haven't seen any signs of less cocaine reaching the US."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge