Irish criminals and their EU counterparts are exporting cocaine to non-EU countries as the market here becomes saturated, Europol has warned.
Countries such as Australia, Russia and Turkey have become new markets for groups such as the Kinahan gang as western European countries find themselves flooded with cocaine, amid a huge increase in supply from South America.
Cocaine is now the second most commonly consumed illegal drug in the EU. As of 2017 the market for the drug was worth €9.1 billion according to Europol’s Drug Markets report. It is estimated about four million EU adults have used cocaine in the last year.
As well as being a major destination for cocaine, Ireland, along with a handful of other EU countries, is now a base for international export for “other, less saturated and potentially more profitable, markets”, the report notes.
Europol identifies the Kinahan organised crime gang as one of the major drug gangs operating in the EU.
Cocaine is imported to Ireland by the Kinahans for distribution nationally. Surplus product is then smuggled to other countries.
Europol pointed to the arrest of 10 people connected to the Kinahan gang in Ireland and Australia in 2018 “as part of an investigation into the smuggling of cocaine using air couriers between Ireland, Australia and New Zealand”.
The gang were transporting cocaine from Ireland by paying or coercing travellers to swallow pellets of the drug and smuggle them internally. The operation started as far back as 2014.
As well as offering a less saturated market, cocaine sells for a much higher price in Australia – sometimes for four or five times as much as in Ireland.
Europol also noted major Irish drug gangs, like their counterparts in other EU countries, are expanding their operations to rural towns, rather than simply selling their drugs wholesale to dealers in those towns.
This is similar to the “county lines” phenomenon observed in the UK in recent years “in which drug-selling gangs from the capital city, possibly driven by excess supply, seek new markets in provincial areas”.
County-lines trafficking has been blamed for massive increases in addiction, violence and intimidation in rural areas of the UK.
“The provincial towns are considered attractive thanks to the direct access to local users and potentially new customers and the comparatively weak competition from local drug dealers.”
This supply model typically consists of gang “elders” recruiting young people, including teenagers, and sending them to more rural areas to sell drugs. A sophisticated system is established where provincial users ring a dedicated phone line in the city to place an order.
The order is then relayed to the local dealer who supplies the drugs to the user. “This ensures that the provincially based dealers remain dependent on the city-based ‘elders’,” the report states.
There is evidence of county lines style trafficking in Ireland, Belgium, Estonia, Greece, and Sweden, Europol said.
The phenomenon “blurs the boundaries between national wholesale and local street dealing,” it stated.
The agency also noted the emergence of criminal “service industry” where major drug gangs contract work out to third parties, including “hitmen” from other countries.