Russia becomes the alternative entry route for Latin American cocaine to Europe

Faced with police pressure at the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, Latin American cocaine shipments now continue through the Baltic and enter through St. Petersburg, Russia. (AFP)

While the Russian authorities are “distracted” by the invasion of Ukraine, The big Latin American drug cartels take advantage of the situation to open new routes and markets. The Russian port of St. Petersburg it is becoming the new entry for Colombian and Peruvian cocaine to the European markets. According to the organization specialized in the subject InSightCrimewould be replacing the traditional drug entry ports of antwerpin Belgium and rotterdamin the Netherlands.

This week, the Federal Security Service (FSB) Russian arrested two Colombians and a third citizen of a European country (they did not want to specify) when they tried to hide a shipment of almost 700 kilos of cocaine who had entered through St. Petersburg on a freighter carrying soybeans from Brazil. Another version indicates that, in reality, it left through the Paraná River and was loaded with grains in a Uruguayan port. This seizure followed another made in late March, when St. Petersburg police discovered 200 kilos of cocaine hidden in a truck that was transporting fruit recently arrived from Colombia. A year earlier, they had discovered 400 kilos of the same drug hidden in a shipment of bananas from Ecuador. According to the Russian police, most of the containers detected with Latin American drugs come from the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) cocaine seizures in this Russian port “They multiplied by six between 2016 and 2021, going from 144 kilograms to 872 kilograms per year.” Yulia Vorobyeva, a professor at Florida International University and an expert on drug trafficking and organized crime, told InSight Crime that “cocaine is distributed from St. Petersburg and Moscow, which are the two logistics hubs…from where it is trucked to other countries of Europe”. One of the reasons why the cartels choose the port of Saint Petersburg is because the main entry centers so far, those of Antwerp and Rotterdam, introduced “very effective” technological innovations to their surveillance posts. Since then, they continue to search for the best alternatives. Two weeks ago, The largest cocaine seizure in the history of that country was made in Oslo. They were “800 kilos that entered a shipment of fruit from Latin America”, although the port of departure was not specified. Norwegian police indicated that it was German police who warned what was happening after they were discovered. another 1,200 kilos in the port of Potsdam. A few months earlier, the Spanish police had managed to intercept in Galicia a “narcosubmarine” He was carrying five tons of cocaine.

Saint Petersburg-Russia-cocaine
The old and beautiful port of Saint Petersburg, with permanent traffic, is now the chosen one for the Latin American drug cartels to reach Europe. (Reuters)

None of these destinations are the definitive ones, rather they are ports of entry to later distribute the cargoes in the most lucrative Central European markets. Until now it was known that the cocaine entered Russia, mostly through Turkey and, according to the Turkish investigative journalist Cengiz Erdinc, “It plays a significant role as a transit country for cocaine to other markets on the continent.”

Some 3.5 million Europeans used cocaine in 2021according to him European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), four times more than 20 years ago. The continent has been hit by a “tsunami” of cocaine, said the head of the Belgian federal police, Eric Snoeckwith 240 tons seized in 2021, according to Europol, almost five times more than a decade ago.

Europe, just behind the United States, is the second most lucrative market for the big drug cartels, which are moving to Paris, Berlin either Amsterdam some of its bosses and methods. “Kidnappings, torture and beatings: there is so much money at stake that criminal organizations have brought to our countries the methods that the cartels have always used in their countries of origin,” he explained to the AFP, Stephanie Cherbonnierfrom the French anti-drug office.

The cocaine market - with a huge contribution from South America - and methamphetamine is experiencing a huge increase in Europe, driven by record levels of trafficking, according to Europol.  (Alessio Pisano/AFP)
The cocaine market – with a huge contribution from South America – and methamphetamine is experiencing a huge increase in Europe, driven by record levels of trafficking, according to Europol. (Alessio Pisano/AFP) (ALESSIO PISANO/)

The large ports of northern Europe are being hit by drug-trafficking violence and unprecedented actions. Among other operations, the Mexican gangs even dared to “conspire to kidnap” Belgian Justice Minister. Shootouts became frequent in the streets of Antwerp. “The country could soon be considered a narco-state,” warned the chief prosecutor of Brussels, Johan Delmulle. And the profits for the cartels are sky-high. A kilo of pasta base in catatumbo, Colombia, worth 370 dollars. Once mixed with a cocktail of acids and solvents and turned into “coke”, it reaches $1,000 a kilo. Once in Rotterdam, that package is already worth $50,000 and on the streets of Amsterdam reaches 100,000 dollars. In Paris, a delivery takes you to the elegant apartment of a consumer for 70 dollars per gram. Europol estimates that the European cocaine market is currently moving between 7,600 and 10,500 million euros on the street.

“The US market is saturated and cocaine is sold in Europe at prices between 50 and 100% higher“, Explain Florian Colas, head of the French customs intelligence unit. “Another advantage for traffickers is less dissuasive prison sentences and multiple logistical options.”

The Mexican cartels established their European bridgehead in the Costa del Sol Spanish in the early 2000s, which was already the main Moroccan cannabis transport hub. But the arrest of several major smugglers and, above all, the explosion of maritime traffic, convinced them to redirect the smuggling through the gigantic container ports of northern Europe, such as Antwerp, Hamburg, Le Havre and rotterdam. “Some cargoes go through Caribbean ports” on their way from South America, while others “go through the Balkans or West Africa before entering Europe,” he explained to the AFP, Corinne Cleostratedeputy head of French customs.

A shipment of cocaine concealed in boxes of fruit imported from Ecuador in the port of Antwerp, the Netherlands in January 2023. (JONAS ROOSENS / AFP). (JONAS ROOSENS/)

The internal distribution is in charge of the local bands. The Moroccan “Mocro maffia” in Belgium and the Netherlands, the Albanian, Serbian or Kosovar mafia and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta They share the market according to their territories and specialties. Several French dockers have been jailed for working with drug gangs in Le Havre, and police say some have been forced to help traffickers. One of them described to his lawyer how he was caught. “Before, I earned 200 or 300 euros a month selling (stolen) perfumes or cartons of cigarettes. One day some guys asked me to take some bags (from the port) for 1,000 euros a bag”said.

The gangs are willing to pay up to 100,000 euros for removing a container from Le Havre, where “we can only control one percent of the containers because we don’t have the resources to do more,” a customs official admitted. But now, with the opening of the Russian ports, these “expenses” have decreased considerably. A shipment can pass through St. Petersburg or in smaller ships through one of the Baltic Republics for less than half. The Russian mafias are very efficient and have well-oiled the routes through which they traffic other products for many years.

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