The EU strengthens cooperation with Latin America in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking

In Brussels this Thursday, European interior ministers and those of 14 Latin American countries will seek greater coordination, information-sharing, the streamlining of operations, and the commitment to a bilateral calendar of meetings

EU Latin America
The president of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen, arrives for a meeting with the president of Chile at the La Moneda Palace in Santiago, Chile this Wednesday.Elvis González (EFE)
Silvia Ayuso

For the European Union, drug trafficking and the violence it brings with it have long ceased to be a localized issue. The problem extends from Spain to Sweden and Germany, passing through transit countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, whose ports are the main entry points for cocaine from Latin America into Europe and where political figures — from ministers to the heir apparent to the throne of the Netherlands, Catharina-Amalia, Princess of Orange — have been threatened by organized crime groups. There is no doubt that more must be done to tackle this menace and, in Brussels this Thursday, the current Spanish presidency of the EU wants to take a decisive step to intensify and, above all, formalize cooperation with Latin America in the fight against cross-border organized crime, especially drug trafficking.

Accepting the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council’s invitation, 14 Latin American interior and security ministers from the Latin American Committee for Internal Security (CLASI), will attend a long working lunch in Brussels this Thursday, together with their European counterparts and the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson. In the first interregional meeting of ministers of this type since the creation of CLASI, a year and a half ago, formulas will be agreed upon to “consolidate and redouble efforts to confront transnational organized crime and its negative effects on societies,” according to a draft of the statement (seen by EL PAÍS) that will be issued after the meeting.

“We want a more structured and directional relationship to be established between Latin America and the EU,” explains the acting Spanish Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska. The Argentine Minister of Security, Aníbal Fernández, gives an example: “A ship with drugs arrives in Antwerp [Belgium], your concern has to be knowing where it came from, and almost all of us know where it came from,” he says about the need to share information and cooperate more at all levels.

Giving a political boost to this cooperation is more important than ever, Grande-Marlaska emphasized on the eve of the meeting. Because although Europe has been fighting organized crime for years, we can observe, due to the use of new technologies, “a paradigm shift in organized crime, which is much more specialized, has many more technological and economic means, and also uses more violence.”

“The dynamics are changing, and the authorities have to be one step ahead and move and improve the things that we have to improve, that is why this meeting is very important for us,” agrees the Minister of the Interior of Ecuador, Juan Ernesto Zapata. Presiding over CLASI since May this year, Zapata summarizes the organization’s priorities as: “coordination, exchange of information and logistical support” to “jointly confront drug trafficking.”

To this end, the EU and CLASI are committed to a “multidisciplinary approach” to combat all aspects of transnational organized crime. At Thursday’s meeting, a “schedule of future meetings” will also be agreed upon, both at ministerial and technical levels, to create a “culture of mutual cooperation” that involves, among other things, promoting and streamlining the exchange of police and judicial information, as well as the application of best practices and even operational plans, or even including the gender perspective as “an important element of the joint fight against serious and organized crime.”

There is also consensus to promote the “institutionalization” of Ameripol, the mechanism that aims to promote cooperation between law enforcement in the Americas, inspired by Europol, but which still lacks the institutional framework to be a forceful instrument in the fight against organized crime in the region. “We are already moving slowly,” says Fernández, who recalls that Ameripol’s statute has been ready for a year and that he says he is confident that this Thursday’s meeting will provide the political acceleration that is missing.

The event, which has the support of the EU’s 27 member states, has been promoted by Spain which, since assuming the rotating presidency of the EU in July, has wanted to resume and strengthen ties with Latin America by organizing the first EU-CELAC summit in eight years that same month. The fight against drug trafficking, a scourge that affects both regions, will be at the center of the talks seeking ways not only to reduce the supply of drugs, but also demand “and the damage they cause to public health.” To this end, the joint statement points out, the aim is to promote greater exchange of information and intelligence, “through joint operations that involve financial investigations and encouraging action against the illicit drug trade that is oriented toward development, including alternative development.”

It is also a perfect time to take this step because, as European sources point out, after Spain, the six-monthly European presidency will pass to Belgium. The country also suffers from this scourge due to its geographical location and the fact that Antwerp is one of the main European points of entry for Latin American cocaine. “In the past, the final destination or most desirable markets were in the United States. Now, 80% of all the drugs that leave Ecuador have a European market,” says Zapata.

Attempted kidnapping of a minister

At the end of 2022, it was revealed that the Belgian Minister of Justice, Vincent Van Quickenborne and his family had to take refuge in a secret location after an organized crime kidnapping attempt. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the heir to the Dutch throne, Princess Catharina-Amalia has also been living under strict security measures for almost a year due to threats from organized crime groups. It is a problem that is also increasingly worrying countries like Germany and even Sweden, which has seen how its southernmost ports become new entry points for drugs due to greater controls in Antwerp and Rotterdam.

“Sweden has become a transit country for drug trafficking,” the head of the Swedish Customs criminal division, Erik Friberg, confirmed this summer.

According to EU data, in 2019, income in major crime markets amounted to €139 billion ($146.45 billion), equivalent to 1% of the EU’s GDP. Criminal organizations “are present in all EU countries” and their activities are cross-border. What is more, 70% of criminal organizations operate in more than three member states, Brussels emphasizes.

Cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking between the EU and Latin America is not new. In 2018, the Assistance Programme Against Transnational Organized Crime (PAcCTO) was inaugurated. It was a five-year program for 18 Latin American countries and funded by the EU to promote citizen security and the rule of law in Latin America. Given the “positive results” of PAcCTO, which concluded in 2022, community sources indicate that a second version is expected to be launched before the end of this year. This transnational cooperation also received a fundamental boost — which we now want to deepen and make more lasting — with the signing, in Brussels in March last year, of the declaration for the creation of CLASI, in which the eight PAcCTO signatory countries grew to a total of 14 today: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, and Uruguay committed to “promote, whenever possible, a close articulation of our actions, national strategies and public policies to combat transnational organized crime.”

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