On Tuesday this week border control cops stopped a van with a shipment of face masks coming through the Channel Tunnel. When they checked the masks they found almost £1 million worth of cocaine tucked in among them. It was a similar story a week earlier. A man called Benjamin Evans was pulled over by the Welsh police on the A40 Brecon bypass. Evans claimed he was a key worker but when the cops searched his car, they discovered nearly £60,000 worth of cocaine. ‘Possession of drugs with intent to supply does not qualify as essential work,’ said the arresting officer. There have been reports recently of a fall in the demand for ‘party drugs’ like cocaine, and of course lockdown has meant a few glitches in the usual supply chains — speed bumps, let’s call them — but the lesson of the face mask shipment and Evans the key worker is that by and large the drug trade remains remarkably unbothered by the Covid crisis.
Unlike the supermarkets, with their efficient but rather delicate just-in-time delivery model, the wholesale end of the coke trade is well used to unexpected catastrophes such as busts, arrests and so on. And according to customs officials, it’s booming like never before — lockdown or otherwise. I saw this myself during a visit a few months ago to the Cape Verde islands, a tiny archipelago off the coast of west Africa that has become a major hub for the transatlantic cocaine trade. Julio Neves, a police inspector with the local drug squad, told me how he’d recently seized ten tonnes of cocaine from the Eser, a Russian-crewed freighter that pulled into his home port. That’s a stash worth nearly half a billion pounds — and enough, at current snorting rates, to meet about a quarter of Britain’s annual coke habit.
Neves, whose rugged Latin features and swept-back hair made him look like a drug cop from central casting, told me he’d never seen anything like it. And neither had anyone else. Customs officials say it was the biggest haul of Europe-bound cocaine ever, and by some margin. A few weeks ago, the saga of the Eser came to an end, when its 11-strong crew were sentenced to ten years each in Cape Verde’s jail. The trial got little coverage outside the islands, but gave a rare glimpse into the upper echelons of the global drugs trade.
According to the indictment, the plot was hatched in a restaurant in Moscow over a dinner attended by a well-spoken Russian woman called Oxana, a Spaniard called Alfonso, and Sergei Kotlovskii, a down-on-his-luck sea captain from Murmansk. In exchange for $2 million, Kotlovskii agreed to recruit a crew of fellow sailors from his home city. Kotlovskii claimed they’d been forced into carrying the drugs against their will. The indictment, however, pointed out that no ‘high-level’ traffickers would trust a half--billion-dollar drugs run to unwilling couriers.
Just who those ‘high-level’ traffickers are remains a mystery. But the scale of their operation is yet another sign that cocaine use on this side of the Atlantic is escalating. With demand saturated in the US, the cartels are focusing more on Europe, and cocaine is now cheaper here than ever before, and also far easier to buy, thanks to the ‘Uberisation’ of dealing, using online delivery apps. It should be a matter of national shame that Britain is the best new customer, with usage rates around double the continental average. In December, Priti Patel announced a new drive against ‘-international’ trafficking, amid concerns that the rising popularity of coke among the middle classes is fuelling gang mayhem in London. Quite how many teenage stabbings are really the by-product of those coke-snorting Londoners is debatable. These days, after all, most coke users will dial up their supplies from some well-spoken WhatsApp dealer, not some street corner hood. It’s just as easy to get your coke delivered in lockdown as it is a takeaway.
Where the trade really is wreaking havoc, though, is in places like Cape Verde. A former Portuguese colony peopled mainly by black Africans, Cape Verde’s position in the mid-Atlantic has made it vital to the smugglers. Those bringing product over from Colombia use the islands as a logistics hub, where they can refuel or pass cocaine on to other ships for the last leg to Europe. Cape Verdean locals are involved in the trade, and often get paid in kind, meaning cocaine has flooded the islands.
In the favelas of the capital, Praia, I met crack addicts in their thirties who’d started aged 12. Inspector Neves and his colleagues live in fear of retribution from the drug cartels: when I interviewed him, his bosses insisted I identify him by a pseudonym.
Amid fears that the islands could become a narco-state, the drugs squad get help from the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (Narcotics), a Europe-wide counter-trafficking cell based in Lisbon that pools intelligence. The cell, which provided the tip-off that led to the Eser being searched, is headed by Michael O’Sullivan, a former Garda detective who cut his teeth fighting Dublin’s drug lords.
It’s not just the Russians, O’Sullivan insists. There is a myriad of nationalities involved and, aside from the odd shooting, they generally co-operate like model EU communautaires. Rather than offloading all ten tonnes on to one buyer, he says, the Eser’s Russian couriers would have taken bulk orders in advance, which would then be passed on individually. It is, if you like, the traffickers’ equivalent of Ocado: pick a slot, choose your order, pay and wait for delivery. ‘It’s a bit like a European common market — the Brits might chip in to buy two tonnes, the Irish or Spanish one tonne, and so on. The larger the consignment, the cheaper the wholesale price.’
At this level, Covid-19 has had little effect, according to O’Sullivan. After all, many trafficking boats don’t rely on regular ports. Nor do the bosses like hearing excuses. Two weeks ago, a vessel travelling from South America was intercepted carry-ing three tonnes of cocaine off the coast of Spain. And last week police in Portugal seized two tonnes in a container. Indeed, if anything, O’Sullivan suspects that smugglers are taking advantage while police are busy enforcing lockdown measures. ‘It’s business as usual for organised crime groups,’ he says. ‘The cocaine market in Europe is worth €10 billion. It won’t stop because of the virus.’
Russian gangs are well-placed to be wholesalers. Along with Ukraine, their homeland still has a huge pool of Soviet-trained merchant seamen, many now jobless. Over the past 20 years, sailors from lawless ports like Odessa and Sebastopol (in what is now Russian Crimea) have featured in many other record-breaking drug busts.
There is, however, the question of what the Russians behind the Eser shipment will have said to all their European customers now that it is, ahem, gone. The Colombians usually expect payment up-front, so back in Europe, the crime gangs who stumped up will be out of pocket. ‘If they’ve delivered reliably in the past, they may be given a chance to make a few more deliveries to make up the losses,’ says O’Sullivan. ‘If they’re deemed to be clowns, things may get nasty.’
Federico Varese, a criminologist at Oxford University, tells me that these days, the Colombians offer insurance against losses, where you pay a premium per kilo to cover mishaps in transit — just like those excess waivers touted to you by car hire firms. Nobody knows, though, if whoever organised the Eser shipment took one out. In other words, someone somewhere may now owe hundreds of millions of pounds to every organised crime group in Europe. It’s a reasonable guess that even if the other drug runners are out and about, that particular someone is very locked down indeed.