The largest cocaine seizure ever in Germany points to the role of the port city of Antwerp in neighboring Belgium as a major entry point for drugs destined to Europe, in addition to confirming the impact of increased South American cocaine production on global trafficking trends.
When German authorities announced in July that they had intercepted a record amount of cocaine in the port of Hamburg, the news followed similar reports of large cocaine seizures from nearby countries like Spain, suggesting that booming production of the drug in Colombia could be encouraging traffickers to send bigger quantities of product to Europe.
Federal German Customs seized three different cocaine shipments totaling 3.8 metric tons between March and May in Hamburg, Deutsche Welle reported on July 20. Two of these consignments, including a record-breaking 1.6 ton load, originated from Paraguay, while the third cargo came from Uruguay.
All three illicit shipments were concealed among legitimate commercial cargo by using a technique known as "rip-on/rip-off," whereby traffickers falsify seals meant to prevent this kind of tampering.
German authorities said the drugs had a total street value of around $920 million.
New Trends, Similar Techniques
European officials contacted by InSight Crime said that the record seizure reflects an emerging trend of traffickers sending larger cocaine shipments to Europe.
"There is a clear shift from smaller to large shipments of cocaine from South America to Europe," said Stefan Kirsch, spokesperson for the director general of Germany's national customs service.
Kirsch told InSight Crime that German authorities started noticing the trend during the summer of 2016.
"During the last years to the first half of 2016, we noticed seizures from 50 to 200 kilograms, maximum. This dramatically changed in the second half of 2016," he said.
A Belgian judicial official who deals with drug trafficking cases on a daily basis and who requested anonymity for security reasons told InSight Crime that authorities had seen a similar trend in the neighboring country.
The typical cocaine load increased from a little over 100 kilograms to "an average of 300 to 600 kilograms," the official said, linking this shift directly to the spike in Andean cocaine production as well as a drop in local retail prices for cocaine, from approximately 32,000 euros (roughly $38,000) per kilogram to an average of 20,000 euros (a little under $24,000).
The decline in price could be linked to the increase in supply. In its latest June 2017 report, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the European Union's drug observatory, pointed to increased cocaine availability in the region.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production
At the same time, the officials consulted by InSight Crime said that traffickers have not seemed to change tactics to accomodate the larger shipments. Rather, it seems that they have simply scaled up.
For example, Kirsch characterized the "rip-on/rip-off" technique as traffickers' "preferred modus operandi" stretching back years. According to the EMCDDA, the number of seized container shipments that demonstrated the use of this technique was as high as 70 percent in 2012.
In addition, Kirsch noted that the high level of purity of the seized cocaine was in line with what has been observed in the past.
Citing ongoing investigations in various countries, Kirsch declined to comment on the criminal actors suspected of being behind the shipments. However, when asked if all three loads were trafficked by the same group, Kirsch did note that "it seems to be a surprising coincidence that all three seizures used more or less the same routing, the same modus operandi and that [in terms of timing] they were ... so close to one another."
The route the cocaine took was indeed noteworthy. Most cocaine leaving South America for Europe passes through Brazil, according to the United Nations most recent "World Drug Report." Some estimates suggest that as much as 80 percent of all Europe-bound cocaine passes specifically through the busy port of Santos.
Kirsch said that drug routes from Uruguay and Paraguay -- a land-locked country that nevertheless has the world's third-largest riverine fleet behind China and the United States, connecting it to Argentina and Brazil -- were of secondary but growing importance.
The Belgium Connection
Kirsch also pointed to the increasing use of the Belgian port of Antwerp as both an entry point and a final destination for cocaine shipped to Europe.
"The shipments were to be sent from Hamburg to Antwerp by sea … and the drugs were meant to ripped off in Antwerp," Kirsch explained, referring to the drugs intercepted in the series of record-breaking seizures earlier this year.
The use of Antwerp as a transit point for cocaine in Europe is not new. But Kirsch's comments add to other indications that suggest that the port's role in cocaine trafficking may be increasing.
According to EU seizure statistics, Belgium saw more cocaine intercepted in 2015 than any other European country except for Spain. Antwerp accounted for 15.9 metric tons of the total 17.5 tons seized in the country that year. In other words, cocaine seizures in the port city represented nearly a quarter of the total amount seized throughout the EU in 2015, a little less than 70 metric tons. Indeed, cocaine seizures in Antwerp have skyrocketed, rising from just 8.3 metric tons in 2014 to nearly 30 metric tons in 2016.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of European Organized Crime
One reason Antwerp is attractive to traffickers is the sheer scale of shipping activity that passes through the port, Europe's second-largest after Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The Belgian judicial official who spoke to InSight Crime pointed to the number of direct shipping lines connecting the city with South American ports, which he said present lower risks for traffickers than routes with stop-overs because the direct routes have fewer customs checkpoints. And he also said that increasing automation in other major European ports has complicated traffickers' operations there.
"Rotterdam is getting organized on an automatic level. No human interference on the dock, only machines that are preprogrammed on a computer. So if any human, working clothes or not, wanders around between container stacks on the terminal, it is immediately suspicious," the official said.
He added that only 2 percent of containers passing through Antwerp are scanned for illicit goods, and said that "containers in Antwerp are still handled by dock workers who can be attracted by the quick and easy money criminal organizations offer them."
Ports with corruptable human workers are crucial to the success of the extensively used "rip-on/rip-off" technique. And just like Rotterdam, Hamburg has significantly automated its dock services; some even consider the port a pioneer in this field. This may explain why German authorities believe the drugs found in the huge seizures were ultimately destined for Antwerp.
The Belgian judicial official also noted that the Antwerp's geographic characteristics had contributed to its growing role in cocaine trafficking to Europe. The port is surrounded by an urban area with a population of more than 1 million, making it difficult for authorities to notice suspicious activities occurring in and around the port facilities. Additionally, Antwerp lies less than a 30-minute drive from the Netherlands where "99 percent of the … drugs goes" to be cut and redistributed, the official said.
Noteably, the increase in cocaine trafficking through Antwerp could be contributing to rising consumption of the drug in the city, a phenomenon often observed in other drug transit points. The EMCDDA's 2017 report notes that despite Belgium's relatively low national cocaine consumption rate, Antwerp had higher levels of cocaine residues in its wastewater than any other city in Europe.