Cocaine trafficking across Europe in the age of technology

With technology evolving rapidly, drug trafficking is set for the dawn of a new era. It is now possible to buy drugs online and have them delivered right to your doorstep just like any other product. How is this changing the relationship between drug suppliers and users? MO* looks at how cocaine dealers, users and law enforcement agencies are adapting to the accelerating pace of technological change in Europe.

‘It’s all about marketing and efficiency nowadays.’

‘I became a dealer because the cocaine I was getting was often of such a low quality that my nose would start to bleed.’

The pusher pulled out his smartphone and began scrolling through cocaine deals he was sent for New Year’s Eve.

‘It’s all about marketing and efficiency nowadays. Dealers are organized in networks. You call the headquarters, specify how much you need, and someone will bring cocaine right to your doorstep in a matter of minutes.’ Just like a food delivery service.

To the eyes of a tourist, Antwerp is an unusual crime scene. Utterly charming due to its local markets, whitewashed buildings, swarms of bicycles, and rich fashion tradition, most don’t realize that over here, ‘even the pigeons are on cocaine’.
© Bibbi Abruzzini

According to the latest data published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), about a quarter of the adult population in Europe is estimated to have used illicit drugs at some point in their lives.

What most of the people in the old – and increasingly narcotized – continent have in common , is access to technology. Like everyone else, drug dealers and users form a tangled mess through smartphones, emails and laptops.

In Europe the cocaine market is undergoing changes in terms of both supply and demand. More than fourteen million Europeans have reportedly used cocaine in their lifetime and 832 kilograms of ‘the rich man’s aspirin’ are being consumed on a daily basis.

But things have changed; no more ‘missions to the ghetto’ required. Cocaine can now be bought with a click of a mouse and first time buyers can even avoid making an anxious phone call.

French cocktail

In Belgium, experts have warned of the growing risk of mafiosi using technology to facilitate international drug trafficking.

‘Selling drugs has become so much easier with technology, and buying it safer now that you do not have to go out in the street to find a dealer,’ a cocaine user from Paris explained.

While official reports show that France’s drug use is relatively low compared to the rest of Europe  – with less than 4 percent of the population claiming to have tried cocaine  – the streets of Paris seem to tell a different story.

If you go out in the French capital, you may find that a hit of cocaine is cheaper and lasts longer than your cocktail. After-hours venues are mushrooming – together with dilated pupils.

A dealer, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that he himself pays 50 euros a gram for the ‘nose candy’, but usually buys ten grams at a time. He uses social networks as a ‘virtual word of mouth’ to advertise his services, and makes sure purchased cocaine gets delivered to people’s apartments.

‘Internet technology has emerged as an important facilitator and is commonly used in the marketing and sale of drugs,’ Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol, Europe’s crime fighting agency, said.

Similarly, in Belgium, experts have warned of the growing risk of mafiosi using technology to facilitate the international drug trafficking business.

Antwerp port security at work. Only 2 percent of passing containers are screened by security officers.
© Bibbi Abruzzini

Cyber attacks

25 percent of all cocaine being trafficked from South America into Europe passes through the port of Antwerp.

To the eyes of a tourist, Antwerp is an unusual crime scene. Utterly charming due to its local markets, whitewashed buildings, swarms of bicycles, and rich fashion tradition, most don’t realize that over here, ‘even the pigeons are on cocaine’.

Years ago, Antwerp established itself as a hub for the international diamond industry, but this elegant city’s trade extends far beyond shining gemstones.

Based on a scientific analysis of raw sewage, the Belgian city has the most cocaine being discharged in Europe.

‘It appears that due to the large port of Antwerp, cocaine is being imported and exported from and to Belgium. The most recent available data shows that the number of seizures due to cocaine has remained fairly stable over the last three years. The quantities seized, however, suggest that the seizures are increasing in magnitude,’ Andrew Cunningham, scientific analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) told MO*.

Security and intelligence agencies report that around 25 percent of all cocaine being trafficked from South America into Europe passes through the port of Antwerp, where only 2 percent of passing containers are screened by security officers.

The port has turned into a honey jar for tech-savvy organized crime groups that are now increasingly rooted in its logistic chain. Cyber-attacks have become a new tool for drug traffickers.

In Antwerp’s port, hackers recently infiltrated computer networks in at least two companies, allowing traffickers to send in lorry drivers to steal cargos where cocaine and heroine were hidden before the legitimate owners arrived.

‘These criminal organizations are always looking for new ways to get drugs out of the harbor,’ Danny Decraene who heads the Antwerp organized crime unit of the Belgian Federal Police, said.

Experts believe that to fight cyberspace drug dealing, law enforcement agencies need to engage in undercover operations to understand the practices of suppliers and users. Photo: Naples
© Bibbi Abruzzini

The mafia on Facebook

‘You’ll see long queues of drug users outside council estate buildings where Camorra clans traditionally operate.’

In Naples, drug trafficking remains largely an ‘old school’ trade, but technology is starting to have a growing impact on the market.

A recent investigation by the Italian weekly news magazine L’Espresso, showed that the Camorra increasingly relies on Facebook to manage trafficking and that both fugitives and crime bosses are active online.

Naples, the Mecca of pizza, charms you with its picturesque streets, laundry hanging outside the windows, sunshine, and the colorful characters of the Neapolitan comedy. But there is another side to the city, making headlines, plagued by drugs.

In Naples, drug trafficking remains largely an ‘old school’ trade, but technology is starting to have a growing impact on the market.
© Bibbi Abruzzini

Beneath the city’s espresso-powered chaos is the pulsing heart of the Camorra – known locally as The System – one of the oldest, largest and deadliest criminal organizations in the world.

The Campania region, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, has one of Europe’s highest ratio of drug dealers to inhabitants.

‘Crime rates are high, rules lived by only arbitrarily; this city is insane,’ a policeman told MO* at the Police Headquarters in Naples.

According to the celebrated author Roberto Saviano in the city a dose of cocaine can be bought for as cheap as 10 euros.

‘Everyone knows where to buy drugs here; you’ll see long queues of drug users outside council estate buildings where Camorra clans traditionally operate,’ a Neapolitan citizen explained.

Police forces have adapted to the realities of investigating in the digital era as doses are increasingly ordered via WhatsApp and Facebook. Ingenious online strategies are now popular among younger dealers in particular, according to the police.

‘Amazon of drugs’

‘The online marketplace for illicit drugs is becoming larger and more brazen.’

E-drug deals are increasingly common. According to the European Commission, ‘technology is a ‘significant game-changer’ in the trafficking, production and distribution of drugs, with the Internet having a profound impact as a communication tool and marketplace’.

Today, drug traffickers use the ‘dark web’ to sell cocaine via e-commerce sites that governments find difficult to regulate and track. You don’t need to be all that tech-savvy to buy drugs without setting a foot outside your door.

It’s enough to download a free web browser called Tor to have access to the underground Internet. Tor is a browser that renders your online endeavors virtually untraceable. It automatically hides your IP address, and allows its users to anonymously browse the web.

© thebitbag

Screenshot of the Silk Road website when it was still up and running.

The software was initially intended for protecting the U.S. Navy and its communications, and later grew to be a refuge for people subjected to stringent censorship. The service is increasingly gaining popularity – recently reporting over 2.5 million users.

The most famous online black market accessible through the Tor browser was probably Silk Road. Also known as the ‘Amazon of drugs’, the website permitted users to buy pure Afghan heroin or South American cocaine by using Bitcoin, an anonymous Internet currency.

A large-scale bust by the FBI and the UK’s National Crime Association has resulted in the shutdown of Silk Road and dozens of rivals. However, a number of smaller sites are believed to be sprouting up as we speak.

In its latest World Drug Report, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) warned that illicit online drug sales will pose unique challenges for law enforcement. ‘The online marketplace for illicit drugs is becoming larger and more brazen,’ it said. ‘If the past trend continues, it has the potential to become a popular mode of trafficking in controlled substances in years to come.’

Technology is challenging current policies and responses as the drug market becomes increasingly dynamic, and innovative. It has become much more difficult for law enforcement to trace buyers and vendors.

Experts believe that to fight cyberspace drug dealing, law enforcement agencies need to engage in undercover operations to understand the practices of suppliers and users and that international cooperation is essential.

© Bibbi Abruzzini

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