Where's all the cocaine gone?

Spanish police admit they are seizing less of the substance than five years ago, yet more than ever is coming into Europe. So how is the drug getting in, and where?

On the morning of December 18, 2009, the witness now under official protection was being held in the back of a van. His hands were tied with adhesive tape and his head covered by a hood. He had been beaten and kicked, but his face untouched.

Then he was stripped. Five or six of the aggressors grabbed him by the testicles, while pressing a sharp blade against his skin, threatening to castrate him. He was asked about an office colleague and the whereabouts of the boss of his company, which handles the paperwork for containers and other goods at Algeciras, Spain's biggest port. They asked him about a container from Bolivia. The witness told his captors that he had finished the paperwork a few days before, and that the container contained wooden boards. Nothing else. He was then told that the men would bring his daughter and ask her where the cocaine in the container was. They then tied his left thumb to the big toe of his right foot, and stood him up, holding him upright between them, and told him not to move. He says he felt a sharp ax blade cut the big toe of his left foot at the first joint, leaving it hanging. The aggressors continued to beat him, repeatedly asking him about the container from Bolivia and where the cocaine supposedly in it had been hidden. Eventually he passed out.

After that he was left alone for a period of time. He heard a conversation about how the men were going to tie adhesive tape around his head so that when he was shot no fluids would escape. A pistol was placed against his head. He heard the gun being cocked - he says he begged them not to kill him. Then he was left again. He was asked about another container from Bolivia. He was given names and dates. He was told to arrange the paperwork, and he was offered money. He said he would do it for free if they would let him go. He was then released. He told his family that he had had an accident. At the hospital he told staff he had hurt himself cutting down a Christmas tree.

It would take the witness more than a year, until March 2011, before he summoned up the courage to go to the police. His report is among the paperwork that is part of an operation carried out by the Drugs and Organized Crime Unit (UDYCO) against a group of so-called paleros, criminals who specialize in stealing from drug traffickers. The head of the gang - known as "Casper" and considered responsible for the theft of several paintings from the Madrid apartment of businesswoman Esther Koplowitz in 2001 - already had the container his thugs were asking after in his possession, but didn't know where or how the cocaine had been concealed amid the bananas. Or perhaps other criminals had beaten them to it.

Where's the cocaine gone? In 2009, according to GRECO, Spain's Organized Crime Special Response Group, a "paradigm shift" took place. That year, in collaboration with their Italian counterparts, the Spanish police struck two heavy blows against drug traffickers. Operation Tabaiba and Operation Giga led to the arrests of 70 people and the seizure of almost 10 metric tons of drugs. The operations dismantled an extensive sea and road logistics network linked to the Italian Camorra. The gangs' assets were also seized, and the police are still dismantling the web of companies used to launder their illegal earnings. Shortly before, toward the end of 2008, Manuel Abal Feijoo, also known as "Patoco" and one of the leading lights in the Galician underworld owing to his knowledge of the Arosa fjord and ability to navigate small motor boats loaded with drugs, was killed in a motorcycle accident. In the months after his death, the police noticed a change in the way that cocaine arrived to, and was distributed from, Galicia; not in large amounts, but a constant trickle. By 2010, 80 percent of the cocaine the police seized was being found in containers.

These days the police rarely board fishing vessels, trawlers, or yachts as they enter Spanish waters, nor do they engage in speedboat chases with smugglers as they make their way in the dead of night up Galicia's winding fjords. These days, cocaine shipments come into the country in containers from South America. The Colombian mafias export their wares hidden among legitimate goods packed into containers that are shipped via companies based in Madrid. And with the new approach, the price of cocaine has risen sharply: the police say that two years ago a kilogram cost 22,000 euros, and is now valued at37,000 euros. There is coke out there, but finding it is harder than ever.

A senior officer in the Vigo's UAR says he and a colleague "ended up smelling of bananas for a week" after they spent the best part of a month searching through a container filled with the tropical fruit shipped over from Colombia that they suspected also contained cocaine. "We went through it a hundred times, but we couldn't find it. We knew it was there; we had wire taps that confirmed the shipment," he says. The company importing the container had been set up in 2007, and was a kind of educational NGO. It had never been involved in exporting bananas. Something didn't add up. So the container was first screened, then the pallets carrying the bananas were split open; the police went through the container with the proverbial fine-tooth comb, but found nothing. And without the drugs, they had no case. They then decided to up the stakes by telling the import company that they would have to destroy the cargo, claiming there had been a refrigeration problem and the bananas had begun to rot. This unsettled the owners, who then made the mistake of discussing what to do by telephone, noting they could at least save the pallets.

This was enough for the police to take a more detailed look, which they did, and discovered that the cocaine had been placed in thin tubes that had then been drilled into the pallets. "A work of art," says one of the officers involved admiringly. The police seized 60 kilograms of drugs, a drop in the ocean compared to the good old days of intercepting fishing vessels on the high seas.

Chief Inspector José Antonio Rodríguez San Román of the national police's drugs squad admits that the police are unable to stop the containers being used to ship in cocaine. The most recent United Nations' report on global drug consumption estimates that there are around four million users of the drug in Europe, double the amount a decade ago. It says that the cocaine market is worth around 23 billion euros a year, and that Spain is still the main entry point, reflected it says, by the fact that 60 percent of successful seizures in Europe take place in Spain.

But the figures don't add up. In 2010, the Spanish authorities seized 25.2 tons of cocaine. This is less than half the amount they were reeling in five years ago. And the story is the same throughout Europe. But nobody can offer a clear explanation for the drop. "Our intelligence work among the gangs that control the drugs trade shows that the flow of drugs could have slowed, but that it hasn't stopped," says the UN report. "This increases the possibility that the traffickers have changed their tactics and methods." To be sure it does, but it doesn't answer the question as to where all the cocaine has gone.

Hanging on the wall of Chief Inspector San Román's office is a map of Africa. Several countries in West Africa have been ringed with ink. "The figures are only a reflection of the drugs we seize; what hasn't made its way in. The number of seizures has fallen because the traffickers are clever, and also because they have changed their routes: some in Eastern Europe, others..." and here he pauses to pick his words carefully, "...through the more porous nations in Africa."

Sometime between 2003 and 2004, Colombia's drug traffickers decided to try out new routes into Europe. To avoid the direct route to Galicia, with stop-offs in the Azores or the Canary Islands, they opened what has become known as Route 10, which follows the 10th parallel across the Atlantic to the coast of West Africa. Leaving from ports in the Caribbean or Venezuela where they are able to impose blackouts during embarkation to better cover their tracks, the drug traffickers ship their cocaine out in container vessels, crossing over to West Africa.

"Once there, it is simply a question of paying the right people," says a senior GRECO officer. He says that whereas once he and his officers were fighting families, now they face corrupt governments, de facto narco-states. He says that some countries are cooperating with Europe, but others have been taken over by the traffickers.

A confidential report on Guinea Bissau, written in May 2011 by Spanish diplomats, notes: "There are no official figures regarding drugs seizures. The police stations here do not have electricity. The civil service is on strike over non-payment of their salaries. The army runs the country. There are occasional press releases about operations, but nobody knows if they are true. Field work is impossible. Containers arrive at the ports, which are controlled by the army, as are the country's airports and private landing strips, only a quarter of which are staffed."

Some Spanish police officers say that Africa has become a storage and distribution point to keep prices stable and to meet demand in Europe. They say that the quality of the cocaine has fallen, and the price has risen because of the new costs. From Africa, the police believe it follows the same route as hashish smuggled through Morocco. The Spanish diplomats' report adds the following hypothesis: "There are flights from Lisbon that are full of passengers all with large amounts of luggage."

But other sources say that Africa is not the key. "The African route has never been fully exploited," says a senior Spanish police officer.

"It's not very active," adds another.

A recent report by the UK's Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) describes activity in Africa as "on the decline," adding: "We are seeing a huge diversification of entry routes into Europe."

The latest report by Europol, published in April, bears this out. The key words throughout the document, which come up time and again, are diversification and containers. "Spain continues to be an important warehouse, as well as a secondary distribution point," it says. But it also mentions Eastern Europe, noting that Mexican drug traffickers have been identified in the Balkans. Moldova is now a supply center, while cargo from Latin America makes its way to Bulgaria via West Africa and then Turkey. The Black Sea is already an established transit point. The other important distribution point is the Baltic: containers with cocaine have been detected there, despite the fact that the area is not yet a major consumer. But it is conveniently close to Russia, which is a growing market. On the edge of Europe, cocaine can be shipped out in every direction, hidden in a hundred different ways, "taking advantage of the sophisticated logistics and transport infrastructure of the region," says Europol.

"They send a few containers over to see what happens. Anything up to five; they accept that they will probably lose some of the drugs," says a senior anti-drugs officer, pointing out that at source, cocaine costs around 2,000 euros a kilogram. Even before it has landed in Spain, its price has risen to 5,000 euros, and once in Spain, the price goes up sevenfold. It rises a further threefold after being cut; so even if the gangs lose a percentage, it's not the end of the world. More can be bought, at low cost. "It's a way of diversifying risk," explain the police. The gang that opens a new route makes a commitment to keep trying until enough drugs get through. "Into Algeciras, Vigo, Valencia... these guys are prepared to pay up to 300,000 euros in bribes to port officials," says Carlos R. Cadiñanos, head of the Civil Guard's Central Operative Unit (UCO). He cites the example of the head of the cargo terminal in Barcelona, who was arrested last year by the UDYCO and then released. He could also have mentioned a Civil Guard sergeant, or another officer in Galicia, both arrested in 2009. "A port, by definition, is corrupt. We have cameras, but they break down."

The other option, less complicated, and less risky - as the hapless employee-turned-witness kidnapped by Casper and his cohorts found out - is simply to hide the cocaine in a container without the knowledge of the owner, and then track it down once it has left the port. And so the drugs keep arriving, along with ever-increasing amounts of tropical fruit.

One morning in April, two officers are unpacking crates of pineapple in the yard of the UDYCO. In the office, a senior officer is handing out free fruit. The unit doesn't know what to do with it all. The unit found some 215 kilograms of cocaine amid a ton of pineapples. GRECO had been tracing the shipment before it left Colombia. But when officers began to close in on the warehouse where the fruit was being stored, they noticed that members of Casper's gang were also in the vicinity. How could they have known? Wire taps showed that the gang had a snitch in the port, most likely a customs employee.

Customs officials prepare to board a craft in the Vigo estuary, Galicia.
Customs officials prepare to board a craft in the Vigo estuary, Galicia.CLAUDIO ÁLVAREZ
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