Police Report Shows Evolution in Drug Trafficking

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A new study from the Americas regional police association Ameripol explores the shifting dynamics of the global drug trade, as new trafficking routes and criminal networks emerge to meet the demands of evolving consumer markets.

The report (pdf), entitled “Situational Analysis of Drug Trafficking – A Police Perspective,” is a collaboration between the American Police Community (Ameripol), an association of police from around the region, and the European Union (EU), focusing on the drug trade in the three main coca production countries — Peru, Colombia and Bolivia — as well as key transit countries.

One of the most notable aspects of the report is its plotting of the rise of new trafficking routes to meet the needs of ever changing drug consumer markets around the globe. Most of these rely on maritime transport, which the report classifies as “the biggest drug trafficking threat.” (See map below)

Many of these routes now run through Brazil, which is now the world’s second largest consumer of cocaine and a key transit point for shipments destined for Europe. The report examines both the traditional and developing trafficking routes that take cocaine from production countries to the cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the northeast of the country, where it is processed, then either sold locally or exported.

At the heart of many of the routes sits Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state and a critical thoroughfare for drugs arriving from Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. The report highlights the cross-pollination of illegal activities in the Amazon region, noting that pilots involved in drug flights are also often involved in the illegal mining that blights the region.

Ecuador, too, has become an ever more critical transit point for the global cocaine trade, not only for cocaine heading along traditional routes to the United States, but also for drugs being moved to Europe, Australia and Asia. The port of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous city, is given particular attention due to its increasing levels of drug trafficking. The study notes how the practice of removing container seals and replacing them with counterfeits after placing drugs inside — known as “Gancho Ciego” or “rip-on rip-off” — is a major problem at the port.

According to the report, approximately 120 tons of cocaine passes through Ecuador per year — up to 15 percent of global production according to the UNODC 2013 World Drug Report. However, it notes, this has not led to the growth of domestic cartels. Instead, Ecuadoreans are recruited by foreign transnational groups to facilitate drug trafficking operations.

mapdrugsThe report also focuses on secondary transit locations that lie outside the region, in particular Africa, underlining its growing significance as a transit point both by sea and air, which it says demands a “global and specialized response.” It highlights how a combination of weak economies, inadequate law enforcement and corruption, and strategic location has left African nations particularly vulnerable to drug trafficking.

(Click on map to enlarge)

While the report touches on established transit countries such as Guinea Bissau, it also identifies new routes, among them a maritime link via the coast of East Africa and Suez Canal. Many of the routes identified are based on the adaptation of traditional smuggling networks for cocaine trafficking, such as those used to move marijuana from North Africa to Europe. However, it emphasizes the impossibility of accurately mapping out routes because “the ink never dries” before routes change again.

Ameripol also highlights how evolving drug markets combined with the fragmentation of Latin American organized crime groups have led to changes in the makeup of the underworld, and the rise of alliances between small groups from the western hemisphere with African and European groups. As pointed out by the study, such groups have grown in importance and begun to increase their presence in South America. One striking example it identifies is Brazil, where Nigerian criminal groups now control an estimated 30 percent of the cocaine leaving São Paulo.

InSight Crime Analysis

The changes in the world of drug trafficking highlighted in the report can be explained by market dynamics: the rise of cocaine consumption in Europe as the US market declines; and the opening up of what were previously negligible markets elsewhere.

The report addresses many of the changes in drug trafficking previously tackled by reports from the likes of the US State Department, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the European Police Office (Europol). The rise of the European and decline of the US cocaine markets has been well documented in recent years by the UNDOC, while the increasing importance of Africa received considerable attention in the EU Drug Markets Report, released in January.

The importance of maritime transportation to this new web of drug trafficking was also raised by Europol. In its report, Europol similarly highlighted the use of shipping containers, which it states could not occur without the assistance of corrupt port officials. In looking at the opening of new routes, Europol outlined not just increasing traffic via Africa, but also Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe. The use of the Suez Canal highlighted by Ameripol fits in with such developments, as it provides quick access to the Mediterranean and Baltic coasts of all of those countries.

Europol also elaborates further on how changing markets and criminal fragmentation have affected the global drug trafficking underworld. Both countries most closely associated with the drug cartels in the truest sense of the word, Colombia and Mexico, have seen monolithic criminal structures atomize into smaller, often competing, factions. Combined with the growing importance of drug markets outside of the United States, this phenomenon has opened the way for European and African organized crime groups to strike up new alliances and increase their own role in the drug trade. As Europol notes, Eastern European groups have especially benefitted from this shift, which may explain the increasing use of the region as a transit point.

Overall, the picture of the global drug trade painted by Ameripol is one of change and flux, but also flexibility and constant evolution. It is also a reminder that when it comes to the drug trade, as long as there is a demand to be fulfilled, then organized crime will find a way to fill it.

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