Pubdate: Fri, 25 May 2001
Source: Independent (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Jan McGirk


The powerful cocaine lords of Colombia have shifted their focus from the
United States to Europe, where cocaine is increasingly seen as a
prestige drug, prices are higher and the removal of border controls has
made international drugs -trafficking child's play.

A report drawn up by Donnie Marshall, the outgoing chief of the United
States Drugs Enforcement Agency, concludes that the supply of white
powder to the United States may be outstripping demand because prices
there have remained stable. As the US becomes saturated, Europe and the
former Soviet bloc are attracting an illicit marketing blitz, according
to the agency's latest analysis.

According to the DEA report, "In Europe, cocaine seems to have the
prestige and allure of danger, thrills and enhanced endurance that
attracted American athletes, media stars and Wall Street traders to the
drug in the 1980s."

By contrast American youths are increasingly turning to ecstasy and a
belated rave scene, while demand may have been affected by the increased
awareness of the dangers of cocaine addiction.

The US coke habit still demands a supply of at least 300 tons
(300,000kg) annually, and officials are stepping up surveillance and
customs seizures, but Colombia's criminal drug syndicates are launching
a profitable expansion drive in Europe where higher prices prevail.

"They're not focusing on increasing their markets inside the United
States," Mr Marshall said. "Rather, we see that many of these
organisations are looking toward Europe and the former Soviet Union for
creating their new markets."

Russians have been active in Colombia for years, and even helped to
design a smugglers' submarine which was discovered by authorities in an
Andes dry dock prior to completion.

Despite the intensive eradication efforts of Plan Colombia, financed by
the United States at $ 1.3bn (pounds 900m), the going rate for a kilo of
cocaine in the US has kept steady at around $ 36,000. Over the past five
years, Colombia's annual production of cocaine has doubled and now is
estimated at 580 tons - partly due to high yield strains of coca plants
from Peru. A new United Nations report indicates that the DEA
under-estimates the narco-traffickers' capacity in Colombia, which it
says tops 800 tons per year.

Mr Marshall, a drugs agency veteran who is about to retire, told
reporters: "I believe that this change in trafficking patterns is a
result of the pressure the US and Colombian law enforcement has had on
those organisations."

European cocaine consumption is thought to be less than a third that of
the US, even though Europe (including eastern Europe) has triple the
population. Although prices were relatively low in the early 1990s when
the cocaine cartels last inundated Europe with their excess, street
rates for a gram of high-grade cocaine in London now run to about pounds

Increasingly, the Balkans are used as a transit base, edging out Spain.
European police and customs forces are pooling their intelligence to a
greater extent than before. But bigger and more frequent seizures are
thought to be more a sign that the flow of drugs from Latin America is
unstoppable than that anyone is winning the drugs war. A report to the
European Parliament last year warned that the European Union had thrown
away a valuable trained resource when it disbanded routine customs
checks at borders.
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