Record seizures tell of booming cocaine trade

Record seizures tell of booming cocaine trade
Bales of cocaine seized on a vessel in Setubal, Portugal, on January 31 (police officers’ faces have been pixilated in accordance with Portuguese law). Picture: Carlos Santos/EPA

Record production of cocaine and rising income levels in Ireland is creating a new boom in the cocaine trade, a senior garda tells Security Correspondent Cormac O’Keeffe.

Detective Superintendent Seamus Boland says what Ireland is experiencing is being witnessed across much of Europe.

The global rise in the production and trafficking of cocaine is one that is being increasingly documented across the continent: from record seizures in the major ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp; the operations of an EU law enforcement taskforce charged with combating the Atlantic cocaine trade and in the reports of the EU drugs agency.

“We’re no different in Ireland than other European countries,” said Det Supt Boland, based in the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (DOCB).

“The seizures of cocaine all across Europe appears to be going up. You have the mother lode, the 9.5 tonnes, the last day in Cape Verde, obviously heading for Africa and coming to Europe where it tends to make its route.”

That seizure at the start of this month, which had a nominal value of around €650m (but many multiples of that once cut down), is believed to be the biggest ever seizure of cocaine on this side of the Atlantic.

The haul was the result of intelligence gathered by the EU’s Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre-Narcotics (MAOC-N), working in conjunction with police in Cape Verde.

MAOC-N is led by former assistant garda commissioner Michael O’Sullivan.

After the seizure, a senior source described it as a “mother lode and a half”, which put all other recent seizures in the shade.

To find bigger hauls of cocaine you have to travel to the other side of the Atlantic, where seizures of 14-21 tonnes have been made in Colombia and the US.

The week before the Cape Verde haul, in another MAOC-N operation, 2.5 tonnes of cocaine was seized by the Portugese navy.

And just days before that, Italian authorities made their biggest seizure of cocaine in 25 years, with the interception of 2.1 tonnes of cocaine off a boat from South America that was destined for Spain.

European sources have previously told the Examiner that a “tsunami” of cocaine was coming across from South America for the European market.

It is understood that MAOC-N was involved in the seizure of more than €1bn worth of cocaine in 2018, a sharp rise on the previous year.

Figures from the ports of Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Antwerp (Belgium) show that 73 tonnes of cocaine was seized in 2018, compared to 54 tonnes in 2017.

A detailed analysis of the cocaine trade, published last December by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said there was a “surge” in the availability of high-purity cocaine.

Detective Superintendent Seamus Boland
Detective Superintendent Seamus Boland

It said this was being driven by “record” levels of production, the largest in Colombia, increased sophistication in cocaine manufacturing and a greater number of organised crime groups involved in trafficking.

It said intelligence from Europol, the EU police agency, suggested that British, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Irish crime groups had become “important brokers in the cocaine trade”.

This was reflected last August with the seizure of 133kg of cocaine on a ship in Costa Rica that was bound for Cork, with gardaí saying that the Kinahan crime cartel accounted for the lion’s share of that haul.

“Internationally, the production of cocaine in the last 12 months is one of the highest recorded,” said Det Supt Boland.

Figures involving operations by the DOCB (not Garda figures as a whole) indicate a significant rise in cocaine trafficking:

  • 159kg of cocaine was seized in total in 2018, compared to 81kg in 2017;
  • There were 29 significant cocaine seizures last year, compared to 23 in 2016;
  • The three biggest cocaine seizures in 2018 were 66kg (Rosslare, in November), 49kg (Dublin, in December), and 36kg (Dublin Port, in December)
  • This compares to the three biggest seizures in 2017: one seizure of 20kg and two seizures of 10kg.
  • “You look at the seizure in Liffey Valley last December, of almost 50kg, that’s a lot of cocaine,” said Supt Boland. “By the time that is sold at street level [after being cut four to five times] that’s probably 200kg-250kg of powder.”

    With individual deals of one gramme, that’s up to 250,000 street deals.

    Det Supt Boland expresses caution in looking at seizures alone, for example in comparing 2017 to 2018, as a reliable indicator, saying you can be “lucky with seizures” one year.

    “Seizures are not always a true reflection of what’s happening,” he said.

    But he did accept there was a pattern of very large seizures in 2018, that were bigger than those in 2017. His figures also show an increase in the number of significant DCOB operations involving cocaine consignments in 2018.

    He said Spain has recorded seizures of six tonnes and three tonnes.

    He said that while be believes gardaí have got much better at their job, it was impossible to know how much was still getting through.

    You measure it by the price of a drug at street level and the reality is, even with all the seizures made, whether in Ireland, Spain, UK ,or Holland, the price of cocaine hasn’t gone up for people consuming, so given the laws of economics the volume is still there.

    He said the price of a gramme of cocaine on the streets here was between €50-€70. He said time will tell if the 9.5 tonne haul will have any impact on cocaine prices.

    Health Research Board data shows a 90% jump in new treatments for cocaine between 2012 and 2016, from 297 to 568, while cocaine-related deaths rose from 21 in 2010 to 44 in 2015.

    Det Supt Boland said the global factors of increased cocaine supply was combining with a return of cocaine usage to levels akin to the Celtic Tiger area resulting from rising incomes.

    “People have more money,” he said. “We’re back in a lot of ways to the levels of the 1990s in the good times, with more socialising and more partying.”

    With some 29 years in the job, during which he worked in local drug units in Dublin’s city centre, on both the north side and the south side, he said the average cocaine user was paying the salaries of the gangs, including the Kinahan cartel.

    “The reality is the money from cocaine for the cartels isn’t made from the unemployed or inner city communities, it’s from the working people, the middle classes or upper classes,” said Det Supt Boland.

    “It’s people with disposable income that is generating the wealth from cocaine. They go out and snort their cocaine out socialising, with no thought, nor care, to where that money goes.”

    Tomorrow, Det Supt Boland talks about the fight against Irish gangs.

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