21 May 2020
By Cecilia Anesi, Giulio Rubino, Nathan Jaccard, Antonio Baquero, Lilia Saúl Rodríguez and Aubrey Belford, OCCRP, 20 May 2020
OCCRP — As a wave of coronavirus infections hit Italy in late March, Rocco Molè, a member of the country’s ’Ndrangheta organized crime group, was faced with a dilemma.
He was holding on to 537 kilograms of cocaine, freshly smuggled into the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro, which his clan controls. But due to lockdowns brought in to control the virus, he could only move small amounts of the drug at a time northwards to Europe’s cocaine users.
So he decided to bury the stash in a lemon grove.
The incident recounted in a statement by Italian police shows the predicament facing cocaine smugglers, as the global pandemic has increased scrutiny on them and disrupted their smuggling and distribution networks. But it also highlights their flexible approach to their trade, which has kept business booming even as many of the world’s legal sectors have ground to a halt.
In Molè’s case, the gambit turned out to be a costly mistake, according to the March 28 statement. Italian police, conducting lockdown checks, noticed him out and about and followed him to the grove where he had buried the plastic-wrapped bricks. He is now in jail facing drug trafficking charges.
But OCCRP reporters have found that the world’s cocaine industry — which produces close to 2,000 metric tons a year and makes tens of billions of dollars — has adapted better than many other legitimate businesses. The industry has benefited from huge stores of drugs warehoused before the pandemic and its wide variety of smuggling methods. Street prices around Europe have risen by up to 30 percent, but it is not clear how much of this is due to distribution problems, and how much to drug gangs taking advantage of homebound customers.
What is clear is that cocaine continues to flow from South America to Europe and North America. Closed trafficking routes have been replaced with new ones, and street deals have been substituted with door-to-door deliveries.
In Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, lockdowns and government eradication efforts have curbed some production, while travel restrictions have shut down some significant export routes, such as speedboats. In destination markets in Europe and the United States, authorities are still seizing large hauls with remarkable frequency – a sign that drug smugglers are still doing a brisk trade.
For over a month, OCCRP reporters in Europe and Latin America tracked announcements of seizures and spoke to law enforcement officials, analysts and sources within the cocaine trade.
They found an industry that has proved nimble at finding ways around the unprecedented global lockdown and quarantine measures. The cocaine trade is thriving in a world where even mainstays like oil are facing major disruptions.
As many countries begin partially reopening their economies, traffickers may now be in a position to become more powerful than ever. With economies in distress and many businesses facing ruin, cash-rich narcos may be able to cheaply buy their way into an even bigger share of the legitimate economy.
Read more at OCCRP
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