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Soon Available the IIS Cargo Incident Annual Report 2021. Send in your incident data till 20 January 2022

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Drug Habit

Cocaine trafficking into Europe – impacts on the legal supply chain

It’s generally accepted that cargo crime is now a frequent ‘fundraiser’ for Organised Crime Groups (OCGs), the proceeds from which help to facilitate their other many and varied activities. Compared to the income potential of drug trafficking, stealing goods out of warehouses and from trucks may seem relatively nominal in terms of generating hard cash but the need to transport drugs to the estimated 270 million addicts and users of illegal drugs globally is where drugs, traffickers and supply chains all interconnect.

And for legitimate operators of supply chains, that means risk. Big risk. And, growing risk.

Nearly 40% of criminal networks are active in drugs trafficking, and the production and trafficking of drugs remains the largest criminal business in the EU. With a retail market estimated to be worth at least €5.7 billion annually, cocaine is Europe’s most commonly used stimulant. and the range of criminal organisations involved in cocaine trafficking is wider than ever. Within Europe, there is significant cooperation among OCGs.

INTERPOL states: ‘Criminal networks traffic a range of drugs including cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. As international borders become increasingly porous, global abuse and accessibility to drugs have become increasingly widespread. As criminals devise ever-more creative ways of disguising illegal drugs for transport, law enforcement faces challenges in detecting such concealed substances.’

It’s also a growing challenge for more and more supply chain stakeholders too…

Despite most countries and city nightlife being shut down by Covid-19 restrictions for most of 2020, cocaine was the second most used illegal substance in Europe last year, with more than 4.5 million people using the drug at least once. Only a fraction was seized by authorities. Infiltration by drug traffickers is leaving the legal supply chain at risk of both delays and violence, and similar conditions are likely to have persisted over 2021 and are going into 2022.

While the legal supply chain endured more disruptions and delays than ever before in 2020, cocaine smuggling into Europe increased through a rising demand. Cocaine was the second most used illegal drug in Europe last year and despite 125 tonnes of cocaine being seized in ports by authorities on the continent, some say that may only amount to 10% of the total trade. At least 1,250 tonnes of the drug is estimated to have reached the overall European market during 2020. While the total quantity for 2021 is still uncertain, the types and number of seizures reported over the year are clearly indicating that the tempo is not decreasing.

These numbers highlight the continuing issue of cocaine smuggling into, and trafficking across, Europe – and the need for maritime and land-based logistics operations to mitigate against the risk of being impacted along the various points of the illegal supply chain.

Actors and smuggling

A wide range of actors are part of supplying Europe with cocaine. On the South American side, it is the local coca farmers cultivating coca leaves in large plantations, local producers running cocaine labs where the cocaine is made, brokers that sell the cocaine to interested wholesale buyers, and trafficking groups facilitating smuggling to large ports.

On the European side of the Atlantic, the involved actors are predominately the major organised crime groups (OCGs) that are in control of cocaine trafficking. They purchase the cocaine in bulk quantities from their contacts in South America and move the product across Europe to the larger local markets in major cities.

While the criminal actors involved in the cocaine trade generally have their hands on the product most of the time while getting it from the South American jungles to consumers in Europe, there are two critical points where the traffickers are not in control of the cocaine, and where the illegal activities overlap with both the maritime and the land-based supply chain.

Critical overlaps

The first is on the maritime side when the cocaine needs to be moved across the Atlantic Ocean. While many cocaine traffickers involved in the inter-continental drug trade use private vessels like yachts and even ocean going submersible vessels, the most common method of smuggling cocaine is by exploiting

commercial cargo vessels sailing between South American and European ports. The drugs can be placed under water in openings in the ships’ hull like vents or drains, or even attached to the ship itself in large metal cylinders.

But by far the method allowing for the most volume is to breach port facilities and place bags of cocaine inside shipping containers – known as the ‘rip-on/rip-off’ method. The containers are loaded onto cargo ships, moved to Europe, and unloaded in a major port. The receivers in Europe then have to extract the cocaine from the port, which can be as relatively easy as bribing a port worker to open a gate and look the other way.

The second critical point is indicated by the threat against legal logistics operations and happen if the trafficking groups fail to obtain the drugs inside port facilities.

With multi-million-euro shipments being the norm, the traffickers will track and seize their cargo, and in Northern Europe there are multiple incidents of trucks carrying containers from ports being hijacked and attacked on the roads – when further investigation is carried out, the containers will have been loaded with cocaine, and the criminals will have had to intercept the cargo to get their drugs.


Trafficking organisations in Europe are ready to go to extreme lengths to obtain and keep their drugs secure. A single kg of cocaine is worth as much as €80,000 in street value and, with little control during shipping, bribery of port workers is common to obtain access to secure areas. Threats and coercion, however, are used just as often.

A rather disturbing case from the port of Le Havre in 2020 indicates that a port worker was kidnapped, tortured, and killed after refusing to support drug traffickers operating in the port. The uncovering of an underworld prison, complete with cells and an interrogation room/torture chamber in the Netherlands, just north of the port of Antwerp, in 2020 further indicates the brutality related to the drug trade.

And the threat continues beyond the ports. Land-based hauliers and drivers face the same risks and can be threatened, beaten, and even held hostage for short periods of time while the criminals get their product out of the lorries. In addition, there have been incidents of drivers being caught in the middle of firefights between traffickers and police, when authorities show up. With €80,000/kg at stake, the perpetrators will rarely shy away from violence to get what are often +100kg shipments.


Aside from the direct threat against innocent logistics workers, logistics organisations also face a considerable insider threat. This insider threat is apparent when lorry drivers accept offers from trafficking groups to use their vehicles to transport illegal drugs on their otherwise legal trips with cargo consignments.

Sometimes the drugs are hidden inside the driver’s cabin, sometimes in the cargo, and at other times the traffickers may even have taken the time to do modifications to the lorry to install compartments to hide the drugs. Either way, the legal cargo consignment is made to camouflage the illegal trafficking and purpose of the trip.

The potential threat related to this setup is that the driver will likely get arrested if caught, leaving the cargo consignment stranded at whatever border crossing or police checkpoint this happens at. Still, with the Schengen agreement and the largely open borders in Europe, it is relatively rare that anything like this is found on the continent. This is also why most of the identified cases we have of insider cases are at the Calais-Dover crossing between the UK and Europe, as extensive border protection and control measures have been in place here since long before Brexit.

Online drug trade

Another overlap between drugs and commercial logistics is the online drug trade. The online drug trade has long been driven by dark-web marketplaces, where customers have been able to buy a wide range of drugs and other illegal wares. The marketplaces look very similar to other types of internet shops, complete with images of the product, customer and vendor ratings, and shipping rates.

These efforts are designed to make the drug trade appear almost legitimate – there is even the possibility to buy “fair-trade” or “conflict-free” drugs online, so customers can tell themselves that the drugs they buy haven’t come from a highly illegal and violent supply chain. Payment is done using bitcoin and other types of crypto currency, meaning that the transactions are very difficult to trace and making transactions virtually anonymous.

The drugs are sent via regular mail and postal services, with parcels containing drugs disappearing into the millions of online purchases being shipped across the European continent each year. Numbers from Dutch authorities indicate that as many as 9,000 parcels containing drugs are sent each month, noting that this is only parcels shipped from the Netherlands. With such a high volume of drug shipments, it isn’t hard to imagine how most lorries carrying parcels might contain one or two shipments of illegal substances, and while it rarely impacts the legal business directly, it says a lot about the extent, use, and frequency of movement of illegal drugs.

Increased vigilance and mitigation

The illegal drug trafficking routes into and across Europe overlap with legal supply chains in several areas in ports and on land, and as demand is increasing, so are the threats to maritime and land-based logistics. With the central market of clubs, bars, and nightlife widely re-opening as Covid-19 restrictions across Europe have been relaxed in recent months, there will be plenty of clients, and the supply will keep going. Logisticians should keep vigilant to mitigate against the risks of both violence to port staff and drivers, and infiltration of operations on a wider scale.

About the Author

Kristian Bischoff is Europe Analyst at Risk Intelligence. He previously served in the Danish Army, and worked with analysis and physical security in international NGOs and emergency response organisations. Additionally, he has been a part of the Danish Atlantic Treaty Association, a Copenhagen based think-tank researching issues on international security.

Risk Intelligence offers global risk intelligence and near real-time threat alerts 24/7. Its land-based supply chain tool, LandRisk Logistics, provides lane threat assessments and route planning, and enables fast reaction time and alternative route assessment with incident alerts and on-the-road browser access.


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