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Massive EU Sting Operation Takes Down Cocaine "Super Cartel"

cocaine
A typical cocaine cargo insertion in an ordinary import container at Port of Rotterdam, July 2020 (file image courtesy Netherlands Public Prosecution Service)

Published Nov 28, 2022 7:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

Europol has coordinated a massive sting operation to take down a "super cartel" believed to be responsible for a third of all cocaine imports into the EU. European law enforcement has seized more than 30 tonnes of cocaine linked to the group over the course of the investigation. 

According to Europol, a coalition of crime kingpins joined forces to dominate a large swathe of Europe's cocaine business, one of the most lucrative drug-smuggling markets in the world. 
The scale of the group's smuggling operations in Europe were "massive," according to Europol. 

"These are serious criminal offences pertaining to international drug trafficking, mainly from South America via the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam," Dutch prosecutors said in a statement.

The investigation was equally massive. Law enforcement agencies from Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UAE and the United States planned the operation over the course of two years. Much like the ANOM secure-phone program - which duped unwitting smugglers into paying the FBI to handle their communications - the latest investigation was enabled by phone hacking. A hack of the notorious SKY ECC secure phone network allowed the international team to listen in on the smugglers' encrypted comms.

This month, 49 suspects were arrested in a two-week-long sweep, including six "high-value targets" who were captured in Dubai. The Dubai-based individuals await extradition proceedings to Spain, France and the Netherlands. 

Europe's cocaine consumers pay well at the street level, creating an attractive incentive for South American cartels to move product into the market. Much of the cocaine smuggled by boat out of Colombia never reaches the United States; instead, it is loaded into containers in ports in Panama or Mexico and shipped to the busiest Northern European hubs. Brazilian ports have also become a hub for exports of Bolivian cocaine, which is smuggled by road on a winding cross-border route and then packed into "clean" containers bound for Europe.

At the other end, a small cottage industry of retrieval teams (known as extractors) has sprung up in Rotterdam, ready and willing to infiltrate the port and recover the illicit goods from inbound shipping containers. In 2021 alone, authorities in Rotterdam seized 70 tonnes ($5 billion) worth of cocaine and detained 400 "extractors" who were assigned to retrieve it.