Britain's Drugs Crisis: The Cartels: Cocaine trade surges in Europe: Colombians exploit lucrative market

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The Independent Online
COLOMBIA'S drug cartels last year shipped more cocaine to Europe than ever before as the South Americans sought to exploit the most lucrative illicit drugs market in the world.

According to unpublished figures from the Customs Co-operation Council, an international organisation based in Brussels, cocaine shipments to Western Europe surged over the past 12 months. Seizures reached an unprecendented 1.4 tons in 1993, an increase of 10 per cent over the previous year.

Because drug seizures are generally estimated to represent less than 10 per cent of the total volume of drugs being smuggled, the quantities seized by Europe's police and customs forces point to a rapidly growing market of hard-drug abusers in the European Union.

The drugs came in via Spain and Eastern Europe and were distributed in cooperation with European organised crime syndicates, according to drug intelligence officers on the Continent.

American Drug Enforcement Agency officials have warned for some time that with cocaine fetching 44 per cent more on the European market than in the United States ( pounds 26,000 a kilogram against pounds 18,000), the Colombian cartels were

determined to break into the market in a big way.

Attempts to stamp out hard-drug usage in the US have been a dismal failure, but with 54 separate law-enforcement agencies participating in the 'war on drugs' and much more repression of dealers and middlemen, the European market is a safer option for drug traffickers.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a United Nations agency, stated in its annual report on Monday that criminal groups operating in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are now deeply involved in running the cocaine and heroin trade to Western Europe, co-operating with both Colombian cartels and heroin traffickers from Turkey and Iran.

The report said that these highly organised and violent criminal gangs are expanding their operations - often via Poland - to Central and Western Europe. They have made Warsaw and Prague the new hubs of the distribution networks, where traffickers can make contact and carry out their transactions in relative

security.

European drugs analysts have been anticipating a large increase in the use of 'crack' cocaine for some time. The Colombian cartels are so keen to become established in Europe that they are reported to be offering large discounts and commissions for shipments to their confederates across the Atlantic.

More than half the cocaine seizures in Western Europe last year occurred in Spain in the course of seven major operations. But by far the most impressive seizure was in Antwerp, Belgium, where customs officials discovered 2,100kg of cocaine ingeniously disguised as bricks of coke-style coal exported from Venezuela by container.

The Balkan route for heroin, which passes from Turkey to Western Europe, is still the major global conduit. Despite the disruption caused by war in the Balkans, four tons of heroin were seized along this route last year, about 30 per cent of all seizures.

The heroin is produced in the 'golden crescent' area of Afghanistan and the 'golden triangle' of Thailand, Laos and Burma, and makes its way overland to Iran and Turkey, jumping significantly in value every time it crosses a border.

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