Ireland’s place in the global cocaine trade and implications for public security

Strategic Insight 012/2023

Alexander Chance

11 May 2023

Ireland’s place in the global cocaine trade and implications for public security 

The UN’s first ever Global Cocaine Report, published in March by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), identifies various trends in the international trade in cocaine, including increased rates of production, changes to established routes and smuggling methods, and growing specialisation amongst criminal actors involved in trafficking. The report also highlights a persistent and growing demand for cocaine across several regions, in particular in Western Europe, with the prevalence of cocaine use in Ireland now the fourth highest in Europe as a proportion of population and sixth highest in the world.

Drawing on the Global Cocaine Report, the UNODC’s latest World Drug Report, the EU Drug Market: Cocaine report, and the Azure Forum’s own analysis of drug trafficking across Ireland and the UK, this commentary examines key trends in the global cocaine trade and how they affect both regional and domestic drug markets. It identifies three possible implications of these dynamics for public security in Ireland, and concludes by urging a coherent and proactive policy approach that simultaneously addresses both the local and transnational elements of drug markets.

The evolving global cocaine economy 

Internationally, the market for cocaine is at a record high, with both the manufacture and use of the drug reaching unprecedented levels in recent years. This trend has been seen across various matrices, from escalating rates of coca cultivation in production countries, to historically large seizures along trafficking routes, to higher numbers of cocaine users entering drug treatment programmes in user markets.

As with other licit and illicit economic activities, major world events have had a significant effect on the global cocaine trade. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in larger maritime shipments, most commonly via legitimate container cargo, as traffickers responded to heightened border restrictions and fewer flights. At the retail level, the pandemic accelerated the existing trend towards drugs sales via online criminal marketplaces, and their delivery via ‘fast parcel’ courier services.

The routes used to meet demand in established and emerging cocaine markets have also shifted over recent years, with Brazil and the Southern Cone region assuming greater importance as primary departure points from South America for cocaine destined for Western and Central European markets. West Africa continues to occupy an important role for cocaine in transit to Europe, whilst Southern and East Africa – a well-established waypoint on the so-called ‘Southern Route’ for heroin – has also now become increasingly prominent for cocaine flows to both Europe and Asia. Corruption, violence and expanding local drugs markets in countries along each of these transit routes have been the corollaries of rising volumes of cocaine being transported to consumers in the most lucrative, higher-income markets.

In terms of the criminal actors involved in global movements of cocaine, the trade is increasingly operated by loose networks of smaller, more specialised enterprises who contract one another to perform specific tasks, such as constructing concealments, inserting and/or retrieving drugs into/from legitimate cargo, brokering deals, laundering criminal assets, or enforcing payment. A number of European wholesale purchasers have moved ‘upstream’ to secure more efficient and cost-effective supply lines directly with South American criminal groups. In tandem, Colombian, Mexican and – more recently – Brazilian drug traffickers have steadily projected their influence further ‘downstream’, with the São Paulo-based ‘PCC’ organised crime network, for example, extending their presence into Portugal and Lusophone African countries. Balkan (including Albanian) organised crime groups occupy a central role in the maritime trafficking of bulk cocaine shipments, notably across the Atlantic but also to lucrative markets in Asia and Australia, with the UAE acting as their key hub for money laundering.

Regional dynamics 

At a European level, the most significant change of recent years has been what the UNODC describe as the ‘shift of the epicentre’ of the regional cocaine trade to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, which has had a critical impact on the Belgian and Dutch criminal economies. A concurrent increase in the use of maritime containers for transatlantic cocaine trafficking has led to the emergence of multi-layered criminal ecosystems around major ports and their surrounding areas, with local ‘collector’ gangs, aspiring wholesalers and brokers vying to claim the rewards of extraction, warehousing and onward sale of cocaine shipments. The corruption and violence that these activities have spawned in Belgium, the Netherlands and other European port cities is now well documented, and remains a serious concern.

A related shift in the regional cocaine trade has been the increase in cocaine production in Europe. Police raids on drugs laboratories in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have revealed exact copies of Colombian laboratories using sophisticated chemical processes not only for extracting cocaine base from cover commodities, such as charcoal or plastic, but also for the conversion of cocaine base into cocaine hydrochloride (powder cocaine). European forensics agencies have not yet observed any emergence of the smokeable, highly addictive products made from cocaine paste or cocaine base in South America, but continue to monitor for such a development given the significant processing capability discovered in Europe in recent years.

Notwithstanding this, both drug treatment data and wastewater analysis in various European countries indicates growing use of crack cocaine across multiple markets, including those with little previous crack consumption. Use of crack cocaine in Europe is typically seen amongst marginalised communities, with many using it alongside or instead of opiates, such as heroin.

Implications for Ireland 

Given Ireland’s role as a prominent, growing and diversifying consumer market for cocaine, there remains potential for further violent competition amongst different organised crime groups seeking to control supply at wholesale and retail levels. The risk of violence would increase substantially in the wake of any fracturing in the dominance of established actors, as has occurred in other lucrative European cocaine markets. And given the increasing willingness of international criminal groups to insert themselves further ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ along global and regional drug supply chains, it cannot be taken for granted that any such competition would be undertaken solely amongst Irish criminal actors previously well known to An Garda Síochána.

Irrespective of the degree to which the Irish cocaine market sees competition over wholesale and retail supply, the global trend towards an increased proportion of trafficking via maritime containers creates heightened risks of corruption in and around Ireland’s ports. With Ireland’s post-Brexit trade dispensation including additional direct shipping routes to and from Europe – and 85% of Irish load-on/load-off container movements now to/from Dutch and Belgian ports – there is likely to be a commensurate increase in bulk cocaine importations via maritime containers, whether for domestic consumption or for onward transportation to Britain. The experience of other European port cities suggests that the logistical challenge of regularly locating specific containers holding cocaine within busy port estates leads inexorably to the corruption and/or coercion (via inducements and/or threats) of port staff who move, schedule or have access to containers, such as stevedores, control room operators, security guards and even customs officials. In some larger port cities, the demand for regular collections has also led to local street gangs – typically comprised of marginalised youths – being sub-contracted to carry out the high-risk retrieval of drugs from containers, known as the ‘rip-off’. Whilst there are, as yet, limited indications of these dynamics in Ireland, any significant growth in containerised cocaine importations would likely portend an increase in port-related corruption, threats of serious violence against port workers and the possible involvement of lower-level, local gangs in retrieving drugs from ports.

At the other end of the supply chain, the use of crack cocaine has rapidly gathered pace in various parts of Ireland, in particular in economically deprived communities and amongst vulnerable groups such as existing heroin users and homeless people. Despite repeated warnings over the growth in crack consumption in recent years, this trend has only worsened during the past 18 months. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) cautions that crack consumption is likely to be ‘both underestimated and under-documented’, not least due to users’ ability to produce their own crack from powder cocaine, as well as obtaining it from dealers. The two cocaine markets of powder and crack cocaine are not, therefore, mutually exclusive, with availability of the former likely to influence use of the latter. Left unchecked, the current trajectory in crack consumption suggests an increase in what the EMCDDA describe as ‘serious consequences in terms of public health and security’.

Policy implications 

Placing the Irish cocaine market within its international context suggests that domestic policy responses to drug use must remain cognisant of these wider, cross-border factors and actors that shape the evolution of drugs markets at a local level. This is particularly relevant given the recently established Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use, which will consider legislative, policy and operational reform. Whilst the social harms of drug use are felt most acutely in local communities, the contours of drug supply are typically set within a much broader, globalised illicit economy. A coherent policy response therefore requires a coordinated approach that not only addresses street-level harms, but also understands and proactively tackles the transnational criminality that frames national and sub-national drug markets.

Dr Alexander Chance is a Senior Research Fellow at the Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy and Head of Policy and Research at Transparency International Ireland. 

The Azure Forum is a nonpartisan, independent research organisation. In all instances, the Azure Forum retains independence over its research and editorial discretion with respect to outputs, reports, and recommendations. The Azure Forum does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all author views should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy is Ireland’s first and only independent think tank dedicated to providing recommendations on peace, security and defence. As Ireland’s first national security research institute, the Forum aims to contribute to national and international security analysis and strategic studies for a more peaceful, secure, resilient and prosperous future nationally and globally at a time of emerging global risk.