How the cocaine trade is spreading


THE SENTENCING of three men to long prison terms for drugs smuggling by the Cork Circuit Criminal Court yesterday tells a dramatic story in its own right about an audacious criminal operation that failed spectacularly after several human errors. It also gives a revealing glimpse into the huge transatlantic cocaine trade from Latin America now targeting Ireland as a transit point and destination. The case shows how this country has joined certain West African states, together with Spain and Portugal as parts of those smuggling routes. Despite the excellent Garda work in securing these convictions we simply do not know how many other similar operations may be succeeding undetected.

The sheer scale of the cocaine trade is shown in the estimates that this 1,550kg haul was worth at least €440 million and perhaps twice that, depending on the drug's concentration. Garda estimates that it might have been purchased from the Medellin cartel for about €40 million show the scale of superprofits involved as the cocaine crosses borders and eventually gets on to the street markets in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. Their suspicion that the men jailed yesterday are not necessarily the main organisers - and further investigations may lead to more charges against others involved - bears out research showing that major international drug traffickers are now the principal players in this highly lucrative market.

The latest annual report from the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) spells out how rapidly major drugs traffickers have developed new routes through West African countries such as Benin, Cape Verde, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau and Senegal. It estimates that 200-300 tonnes of cocaine from Latin America pass through these states, from where it is stockpiled, repackaged and then smuggled on into Spain, Portugal and the UK, often in fast motor boats. Cocaine seizures in Portugal, for example, have recently been doubling year on year to reach 34 tonnes in 2006. This Cork trial shows something similar was planned for Ireland. The supply of cocaine has also increased, as Bolivian and Peruvian producers make up the difference made by crop eradication programmes in Colombia.

The INCB report argues that governments need to do much more individually and through regional organisations and the United Nations to hit the major drugs traffickers who control these markets, rather than concentrating only on small-time users. Assets could be frozen and pre-emptive action taken against their activities at international level. This case shows the importance of Ireland's participation in the EU's policing and preventive activities, including in the Mediterranean which at first sight appears far removed from our concerns.

A vast and rapidly changing market on the scale revealed by this trial must be responded to in equal measure by public authorities and with a similar geographical remit. Ireland is already fully involved in the retail end of the international cocaine trade, as well as in other drugs markets. This case vividly brings home the transatlantic dimension.