Cocaine and drug trafficking | Cocaine smuggling from South America: – Only one group is dominant

Cocaine and drug trafficking |  Cocaine smuggling from South America: – Only one group is dominant

Thanks to a flatter structure without mafia bosses, and with steely control over logistics, criminals from the Balkans have seized control of cocaine trafficking from South America.

South American production has risen sharply in the past decade. Official sources say that smugglers from the Balkans were ideally placed to meet European demand.

They control the complex logistics needed to transport cocaine from laboratories in the Andes to street vendors in Paris, London or Berlin.

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More cocaine comes to Europe from the United States

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recorded seizures of 315 tons of cocaine in Europe in 2021. In the same year, seizures in the United States of America amounted to 250 tons. In the past decade, cocaine purity has increased in Europe. UNOC considers it a sign of abundance, according to Reuters news agency.

– When we talk about large shipments to the European continent, there is only one group that dominates – smugglers from the Balkans, says Brazilian Federal Police officer Ivo Silva.

The Balkans are a peninsula extending from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea. The definition of what the term Balkans covers varies slightly. But these countries are included: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Romania.

The groups from the Balkans have avoided the strict top-down structure that characterizes the cartels in Mexico and Colombia. Instead, the trafficking organization operates in small, highly mobile and secretive cells capable of smuggling staggeringly large quantities of cocaine.

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No godfather

Police investigators called these groups the Balkan Cartel. Penetrating these networks has proven difficult.

– There is no strict hierarchical structure in the Balkan Cartel. There is no godfather, says a former US narcotics investigator.

The former DEA investigator says Balkan criminals happily cooperate with the Israelis, Dutch, Swedes, Americans, Dominicans and Chinese.

– He says they are working with who they should be, but they are turning away from the Americans.

Responsible for 60 murders

The actions of cartels in the Balkans leave an ugly trail behind them. In March, Greek police arrested a Balkan group said to be responsible for more than 60 murders in Europe. European Commissioner Ylva Johansson said drug-related murders now challenge terrorism as Europe's biggest security threat. One Europol investigator says there are supposedly more than 50 different groups from the Balkans now operating in Latin America.

We have to go back more than 20 years to understand the strong presence of criminals from the Balkans in Latin America today. During the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, criminal smuggling groups flourished. When peace came in the early 2000s, some groups sought new opportunities in Latin America.

Here they formed alliances with powerful criminal networks in both Colombia and Brazil. Gradually they built. The shipment was carried out with the help of several thousand sailors from the Balkans. Sailors were bribed or forced to tamper with containers, hide cocaine among their possessions, or reload cocaine onto small boats at sea.

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Good at anonymity

It took a long time for the Balkan Cartel's large-scale smuggling operations to reach its peak. This is partly because these smugglers were adept at maneuvering between different jurisdictions with forged documents.

The seizure in June 2019 showed how deeply Balkan gangs penetrate international shipping. Then US authorities found 18 tons of cocaine on board a cargo ship belonging to the world's largest shipping company, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC).

Another impact came when Europol began an investigation into two encrypted communications services the previous year. They assumed that criminals were making heavy use of both EncroChat and Sky ECC. French, German and Belgian investigators were able to hack the services within two years.

Under the guise of tens of millions of conversations, they found a vibrant ecosystem where suspects spoke openly about drug trafficking, arms trafficking and planned murders. Both services have been shut down, but the investigation into the recordings continues. So far, more than 6,500 suspects have been arrested, according to Europol.

On Tuesday this week, a trial also began in Hordaland District Court in which five Albanians were charged with importing 150 kilograms of cocaine into western Norway.

Uses legitimate companies

Despite a series of major seizures, the Balkan gang continues to flood Europe with cocaine, according to police sources. Brazilian police officer Alexandre Custodio says the Balkan gang had previously used fake companies to smuggle cocaine. They've stopped doing that. Now they use real and legitimate export companies.

The Balkan Cartel is the largest vehicle in Europe's booming cocaine trade. They've improved their methods, and it's working, a US Drug Enforcement Agency source tells Reuters.

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(© NTB)

Jabori Obasanjo

Jabori Obasanjo

"Coffee trailblazer. Certified pop culture lover. Infuriatingly humble gamer."

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