Cocaine trafficking from South America into Europe is “rocketing” and the money spent on it by Irish users is "going straight into the hands" of cartels.
That is according former Assistant Garda Commissioner Michael O'Sullivan, now a top EU drug official, who was speaking on the back of the seizure of 172kg of cocaine in Cork harbour on Thursday.
The haul in Ringaskiddy, with an initial value of €12m, is by far the largest cocaine seizure in Ireland for many years.
Gardaí say the cocaine is likely to be very high purity and would have been cut down four or five times, multiplying the final value.
Mr O'Sullivan, the head of the EU Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre — Narcotics (MAOC-N) estimates the European cocaine market is now worth at least €13bn with record hauls over the last two years.
He said Colombian cartels are getting “more sophisticated” all the time, with recent trends including the first-ever seizure of a narco submarine from South America in European waters.
The former senior garda said this has now extended to self-destruct features on vessels, as seen off the west African last December, when a vessel suspected to be carrying a multi-tonne shipment was blown up just as law enforcement agencies neared the ship.
MAOC-N brings together naval, police, and customs intelligence and assets of seven EU countries, including Ireland.
“Cocaine trafficking is rocketing,” said Mr O’Sullivan.
He said Europol (the EU police agency) and the EU's European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction estimated that the cocaine market was worth around €9bn in 2017.
“I would estimate its now worth €13bn, if not more,” he said.
In 2020 MAOC-N was involved in the seizure of about €2.3bn worth of cocaine, or more than 20 tonnes, at least equalling the record of 2019.
“What we are seeing is bulk production of cocaine, bulk shipping and bulk buying,” he said.
Already this year, he said, MAOC-N was involved in the interception of three vessels and one plane, including the seizure of 4.2 tonnes of cocaine by the French Navy last January, he said.
He said the profits being earned by criminal gangs from cocaine would not happen if there wasn’t a market in Ireland and Europe.
“The thing is a lot of ‘nice people’ are fuelling it, they have no problem spending their disposable money on it.
"Their money goes straight into the hands of organised crime and goes back out to Colombia.”