Drugs reach Europe packed between bananas or pineapples. Customs officers seize record amounts of cocaine, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The market is changing. More trade, more gangs, more violence.

One record follows the next: 73 tons of cocaine were seized in the port of Rotterdam alone last year – with a sales value of around five billion euros.

In Hamburg it was more than 19 tons – more than ever before. But for the investigators, these successes are also bitter proof that Europe has become a hub for the cocaine trade.

“We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Jan op gen Oorth from Europol in The Hague of the German Press Agency.

The amounts keep getting bigger

More cocaine is now available in Europe than ever before, find Europol and the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction in the latest cocaine market report.

In 2020, 214.6 tons were confiscated in the EU. A record, and it was surpassed in 2021: According to preliminary data, 240 tons were seized. At the top is the port of Antwerp, followed by Rotterdam and then Spain.

There are many reasons for the cocaine boom. According to Europol, production in South America has increased enormously and with it smuggling. The cartels work more professionally.

“They are set up like legal business enterprises,” says Op gen Oorth. Drug experts estimate that 2,000 tons of cocaine are produced annually in Colombia alone. More than 60 percent of them come to Europe.

The controls have also been strengthened. “But they are not enough in view of the immense delivery volumes,” says the Europol spokesman. And if the investigators then discover packages with cocaine between a load of bananas or pineapples, then that’s little more than bad luck for the drug cartels. “They say: ‘What’s the point?'” says Op gen Oorth. “They accept these losses.”

The cocaine is not only intended for Europeans, says the spokesman. “The EU has become the hub for Asia, the Middle East and Australia.” The criminal gangs used the “EU seal of approval”: A container from the EU is checked less quickly than one from South America.

The excesses of violence are increasing

More and more groups want to benefit from the lucrative business. But more competition also leads to more violence. The international gang around the Moroccan-born Dutchman Ridouan Taghi, for example, who is currently facing a major trial in Amsterdam, is notorious for extreme violence. The murder of crime reporter Peter R. de Vries in Amsterdam last year is said to be attributed to the gang.

More violence and stricter controls mean that the cartels switch to other ports in Calabria, for example, or in Hamburg.

North German customs seized a record amount of 19.1 tons of cocaine in 2021, more than twice as much as in the previous year. In February 2021, the investigators discovered 16 tons in containers from Paraguay alone – the largest single load of cocaine ever seized in Europe with a sales value of more than two billion euros.

In the course of the investigation, a further 18 tons were found in the Netherlands and Belgium. And not only that: In the end, the perpetrators were also found. According to the Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office, the international gang was broken up in April. After raids in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Paraguay, around 20 suspects were arrested – including the alleged mastermind.

It was one of the great successes of European investigators. But the investigators are under no illusions. Most deliveries from South America will probably make it through, despite customs’ best efforts. It is difficult to assess whether the seizure of record quantities in 2021 had any impact on global trade at all.