Cocaine processing has taken root on European soil, Mexican and Dutch synthetic drug traffickers have teamed up, and a new chemical technique is encouraging the establishment of super labs in the meth trade in Europe.
These are among the most striking findings of a new report from Europol and the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), analyzing recent changes in Europe’s cocaine and methamphetamine markets.
The analysis highlights the explosion of Europe’s cocaine retail sector, which it values at around $11 billion in 2020. Europe seized 214.6 metric tonnes of the drug in 2020, marking a fourth consecutive year of record seizures. Preliminary data for 2021 and 2022 suggests that the trend is continuing and even increasing.
Meanwhile, Mexican meth is revolutionizing the continent’s growing synthetic drug trade, displacing substandard products in physical and darknet markets, converting MDMA chemists into meth makers, and turning Europe into a transit zone. giant for cargoes from Latin America to the Asia-Pacific region.
Below, InSight Crime discusses five key takeaways from the latest EMCDDA report.
European cocaine production booming
Europe produces cocaine at a much higher degree of sophistication than previously thought, according to the report.
Until recently, cocaine processing laboratories in Europe were limited to ‘secondary extraction facilities’, where cocaine is recovered from materials in which it has been concealed for transport. Since the mid-2010s, however, raids on laboratories in Spain and the Netherlands and seizures of coca base – the raw material for cocaine production – show that Europe is assuming an increasing role in the cocaine production.
While the EMCDDA has warned of this development since 2017, the new report details trends in seizures of cocaine precursor chemicals in Europe, suggesting the process has advanced alarmingly. Furthermore, analysis of dismantled labs in the Netherlands indicates that Europe produces cocaine at a level of potency and purity that may exceed Latin America.
Factors the report lists in support of this hypothesis include the chemicals found in these labs, many of which are produced in European countries such as Germany, Poland and Spain, and are likely to be of better quality than those found in Latin America. The types of chemicals found also suggest that labs are implementing the relatively new reoxidation process to standardize cocaine batches and increase production efficiency.
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Even more concerning, according to the report, is the evidence of active collaboration and knowledge exchange between Latin American and European criminal networks to optimize these processes. This results not only in the arrests of Colombian chemists in European laboratories, but also in the laboratories themselves, which are built on the Colombian model, but to higher specifications.
Peruvian cocaine gains ground in Europe
Coca grown in Colombia has long dominated the cocaine market in the United States and Europe. But the report details chemical analysis of European cocaine samples that suggests that is changing.
Just over half of all European samples analyzed by the Cocaine Signature Program (CSP) run by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were of Colombian origin, a steep drop from 68% reported in the previous 2019 EMCDDA study. During the same period, samples of Peruvian origin jumped from 19% to 32%, and samples of Bolivian origin remained constant at 5%.
This change may be partly due to production trends, as estimated coca cultivation decreased by 7% in Colombia in 2020, while increasing by 13% in Peru and 15% in Bolivia. It may also reflect the expansion of criminal networks smuggling Peruvian cocaine through Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. Over the past five years, Brazilian criminal groups such as First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) have teamed up with Italian mafias to turn Brazilian ports such as Santos into hubs for the transatlantic cocaine trade, while that huge cocaine seizures in Germany and Belgium have been traced to river ports in Paraguay.
Additionally, the CSP finds a strong correlation between cocaine of Peruvian and Bolivian origin and cocaine produced using the “clean ethyl acetate processing” method, resulting in a chemical signature of cocaine which is virtually exclusive to European cocaine samples. The report hypothesizes that criminal networks traffic large quantities of intermediate products such as coca paste from Peru and Bolivia across the Atlantic, to be processed on European soil.
However, European countries have not reported any major seizures of coca paste in recent years, suggesting a significant intelligence gap around this trafficking strategy.
Always more cocaine arrival and departure points
The vast majority of cocaine still arrives in Europe in shipping containers. As law enforcement cracks down on known trafficking hotspots, the trade is expanding to more and more regions.
The report lists the top countries shipping cocaine to Europe in 2020 as Brazil (71 metric tons), Ecuador (67.5 tons), Colombia (32 tons) and Costa Rica (20.4 tons). While the first three have long been recognized as transatlantic shipping countries, Costa Rica was a new addition. In 2020, InSight Crime highlighted how the emergence of Costa Rican cocaine brokers was helping to spur an increase in cocaine exports to Europe from the port of Limón.
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While the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain remain the main cocaine hubs in Europe, transshipment points are also multiplying. In particular, the report notes a wave of cocaine seizures in North African countries such as Morocco, Libya and Algeria. This suggests that long-standing cocaine routes through West Africa may now have spread northward, perhaps capitalizing on pre-existing hashish trafficking networks. The report also notes an increase in seizures in Western Balkan countries such as Albania and Montenegro. Both are home to powerful drug trafficking clans that have steadily expanded their influence in Latin America.
Mexico’s master cooks of methamphetamine
A decade ago, the methamphetamine trade in Europe was small and localized, with production and consumption mostly confined to Czechia and its immediate neighbours. These artisanal kitchens rarely made more than 50 grams and the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine process was difficult to scale.
A decade later, that all changed, thanks to the Mexican methamphetamine pioneers. First hired by local criminal groups in the late 2010s, these professionals – experts in the large-scale production of methamphetamine for the US market – arrived in Belgium and the Netherlands, the largest producers of synthetic drugs from the continent such as amphetamine and MDMA.
In 2019, Mexicans or other Latin Americans were arrested in connection with three methamphetamine labs in the Netherlands, with Mexican collaboration suspected in two other cases. The following year, that number would double, with nine reported cases involving Latin American cooks, mostly Mexicans but also Colombian and Dominican nationals.
A transatlantic collaboration quickly developed. Dutch criminal networks would provide the laboratory, equipment, chemical precursors and waste disposal – the Mexicans would provide the cooks, either receiving payment per kilogram of product or through part of the drug load.
Chemists brought with them a new method of production whose ability to “recycle” waste, previously wasted by Czech meth cooks, meant infinitely greater purity and yield. As of 2019, this has allowed Dutch methamphetamine production to be concentrated in a small number of industrial-scale “super labs”.
To understand the significance of this shift, one need only look at global seizures of a precursor chemical called ‘BMK’ (benzyl-methyl-ketone) – the main ingredient in one of the two main manufacturing processes of methamphetamine. In 2020, Mexico made the largest BMK seizures in the world; the second largest seizures in the world took place in the Netherlands.
Mexico’s meth route to Europe
In addition to helping increase domestic production, Mexican drug trafficking networks have also transformed Europe into both a growing consumer market and an important transit hub.
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Although still small, the European methamphetamine market is larger than ever, with the amount of reported methamphetamine seized in the European Union between 2010 and 2020 increasing by 477%. This has included several multi-ton bans of drugs from Mexico, mostly hidden among legitimate goods traveling by shipping container.
In 2020, meth from Mexico caused two record seizures: 1.6 tons in Slovakia and around 750 kilograms in Spain. Then in 2021, Bulgaria banned 450 liters of Mexican liquid methamphetamine, the second largest seizure in the world, while Spanish authorities dismantled a drug trafficking network active in Spain and the Netherlands, which had smuggled smuggled 2.5 tons of crystal meth linked to the Mexican Beltrán Leyva cartel. The investigation suggested an attempt to generate European demand for crystal meth, the EMCDDA report says.
Additionally, the Mexican product has quickly dominated online methamphetamine markets, which are mostly supplied by a small but steady flow of drugs arriving in Europe by parcel post. Although references to Mexican meth only started appearing on darknet markets in late 2017, in 2018 about half of all meth listings that year were related to Mexican production.
However, on a global scale, Europe remains a limited market for methamphetamine, Mexican or otherwise. This means profits are still relatively low, with EMCDDA statistics showing that in 2019 the average retail price in the Netherlands for a gram of methamphetamine was $58.
In contrast, the same year, a Reuters survey found that the equivalent price per gram was $70 in Thailand, $298 in Australia and $588 in Japan. As a result, the EMCDDA reports that the majority of European methamphetamine production may be destined for more lucrative markets in East Asia and Oceania. Some European countries, such as Spain, are thus also playing an increasing role as transit points, moving European and Mexican methamphetamine shipments around the world.