Why is Spain Europe's cocaine gateway?

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Why is Spain Europe's cocaine gateway?
Spanish authorities inspecting packages containing cocaine after 8,7 tonnes of drugs were seized by Spanish authorities in the southern port city of Algeciras in 2018.Why is Spain the first stop for cocaine shipments into Europe? Photo: Spanish Interior Ministry

Spain has been a gateway for drugs and contraband tobacco into Europe for a long time. What is it about Spain that makes it such an appealing place for drug traffickers and how has it become the cocaine gateway into Europe?


For decades, it was mainly the Moroccan hashish trade coming over on boats from its nearby neighbour to the southern coast and then into the rest of Europe, or tobacco smuggled into Spain through Galicia in the 1970s and 1980s.

But in the decades since, Spain has emerged as the gateway into Europe for a far stronger and more profitable drug: cocaine.

Many of the pre-existing smuggling infrastructure for hashish and tobacco routes were repurposed for cocaine smuggling when people realised just how much money there was to be made.

Smugglers in Galicia and along the Andalusian coast began importing cocaine from Latin America, mainly Colombia, and transporting it around the rest of the country and continent for a huge profit.

Now the cocaine market is a multi-billion dollar industry, and Spain sees thousands of tonnes of the stuff arrive on its shores every year.

In early December 2023, Spanish police seized 11 tonnes of cocaine that had been stored in shipping containers in Vigo and Valencia, which was set to be distributed around Europe by two major Albanian criminal organisations.

11 tonnes of cocaine in plastic-wrapped packs from two seizures made by police in Valencia and Vigo, displayed to the members of the media at the Canillejas Police Complex in Madrid. Photo: National Police




Why is Spain the cocaine gateway into Europe?

A lot of comes down to Spain's location. The Local spoke to Araceli Manjón Cabeza, former technical director of Spain’s National Plan against Drugs and currently a professor in criminal law at the Complutense University of Madrid.

"If Spain is the gateway of cocaine and other drugs into Europe it’s purely because of its geographical positioning," Manjón told The Local.

"Whether it's cocaine from Latin America or hashish from northern Africa, we’re just the ones closest.

"Galicia (northwest Spain) already had the infrastructure for tobacco smuggling, allowing local drug traffickers to work with South American drug cartels from the 90s on.

"We also have a lot of coast, which may explain in part why there are so many drug heists in Spain," she added. With so much coastline, there's plenty of smaller, quieter beaches and towns where the police presence is smaller.

In 2018 Spanish police seized 67 kilos (148 pounds) of cocaine found inside dozens of hollowed-out pineapples at Madrid's main wholesale fruit and vegetable market. Photo: Spanish National Police


Equally, it is likely that in the heyday of the powerful Cali and Medellin cartels when Colombian traffickers were sending cocaine to Europe, Spain was not only appealing due to its strategic geography, with the Straight of Gibraltar being the gateway to the Mediterranean, but also the shared language.

Even to this day, as Spain increasingly becomes a hub for cocaine labs, rather than just a gateway, often these organisations are run by Colombians.

Specialists trained in the jungles of Colombia travel to Spain to run the production centres and use laboratory equipment of far higher quality than in Latin America, allowing them to produce cocaine bordering on - and sometimes even exceeding - 90 percent purity, something that can be sold for enormous profit in countries like the UK, Ireland, and Germany.


However in more recent years, as seen with the huge shipments seized in Vigo and Valencia recently, these gangs are mainly run or at least financed by Albanians.

Police sources have described the Spanish market being flooded by shipments in the last couple of years, largely owing to overproduction in South America during the Covid-19 pandemic and a fall in price meaning more and more is being imported.

Francisco Andrés, Head of drug control at the Spanish Tax Agency, told the Spanish press that "in recent years we are experiencing a very significant increase in the number of seizures, which means that the market is on the rise." 

The cocaine is still largely produced in Latin America, and then sent in increasingly ingenious ways across the Atlantic, including in shipping containers hidden among tonnes of bananas or inside pineapples, in fishing boats, and even in underwater 'narco-submarines'.

READ ALSO: Spaniards are the OECD's third biggest consumers of cocaine and alcohol


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