In their endless search for increased profitability and larger markets, the European Union (EU) is now attracting more attention from well-known cartels from Mexico (such as Sinaloa and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) as well as other Central/South American cartels). The cartels are targeting the European market for expansion because, compared to American narcotic trafficking laws and prosecutions, Europe’s progressive policies on substance use allow them to develop “criminal workarounds” in a system that provides them with an operational advantage.
Due to its central location between east and west, the EU will see new business partnerships between the largest cartels streamline the process and increase profits as the EU becomes a significant narcotics manufacturer and distributor. At the same time, as partnerships increase, so will conflicts, resulting in violence that will impact EU law enforcement and civilians.
In an article titled “It's official: Europe is awash with drugs,” Politico reports the 2023 annual report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), states “… illegal drugs are everywhere, pretty much any psychoactive substance can be found on the market [the EU], and no one can escape their swelling availability and subsequent ill effects."
Cutting their losses
While Europe offers lucrative opportunities for the cartels it also presents some logistical challenges. The cartels now have to manage a complex and expensive precursor chemical and narcotics supply chain from China to Mexico and then to Europe. They also must contend with advances in law enforcement operations and technologies resulting in an increased seizure of bulk drug shipments by authorities before they can reach distribution markets through the EU.
In 2023 alone, 2.7 metric tons of cocaine was seized from a Balkan cartel on 24 August as it was being shipped to the EU, and in late September, the Irish Navy seized 2.2 metric tons of cocaine, also bound for the EU. This constant risk of interception and confiscation of drugs constitutes a significant loss for cartels.
Due to these losses, the cartels have intentionally pivoted their strategy. They have started exporting illicit shipments of coca paste (coca paste is the first stage in cocaine production) to clandestine drug labs operated jointly with their new EU TCO partners.
As any good business leader would do, cartel leaders are constantly looking for ways to reduce their losses, cut input costs, and increase profits. Now, they have a solution that will see increased profits from the EU, most of which they will “reinvest” in the massive American market, creating significantly more challenges for US law enforcement.
Moving to synthetic drugs
Part of the cartels’ updated business model is to follow the American “forced drug transition” example from semi-synthetic to synthetic narcotics, offering substance users a better “drug high”. The transition is because synthetics are easier to manufacture and more addictive, which works flawlessly in their marketing strategy.
Making a good business decision to cut losses by 50% or more, the cartels also want to manufacture synthetic opioids locally. Their components, precursor chemicals, are dual-purpose use, meaning some have legitimate use and are not classified as illegal substances. Additionally, the process is cheaper and easier due to the lower volumes of precursors required.
The EMCDDA notes that India is already increasing the trafficking of synthetics to Europe. It also reports that the volumes of imported narcotics (cocaine and heroin) seized decreased significantly year-on-year, as have the number of laboratories that have been identified and dismantled.
One of the attractions of synthetic narcotics to cartels is their increased potency. The EMCDDA states that fentanyl (the legal, pharmaceutical version) has a potency of at least 80 times that of morphine. In contrast, non-pharmaceutical (illegally produced) fentanyl and various derivatives, which cause many deaths, are even more powerful.
This means smaller quantities need to be manufactured without sacrificing profits. Smaller amounts of precursor chemicals are required to manufacture synthetic drugs, which are more easily accessible and transportable from various sources. The WHO estimates that "China is the world's largest single producer of active pharmaceutical ingredients by volume, manufacturing over 2,000 products and comprising a quarter of global output, with annual production close to 2 million tons."
The danger of fentanyl is not that someone will choose to become addicted to it but that the drug traffickers will mix it, or a derivative, with other drugs such as methamphetamines, MDMA, or cocaine (since they look similar), resulting in a bigger market of unwilling addicts.
Adding pressure to the US system
US law enforcement is overwhelmed on all fronts, with the crisis now at extreme levels where progressive laws in some cities, such as New York or San Diego, embrace harm reduction policies that make it easier for substance users to obtain and use more powerful narcotics. EU laws are even more lax (or progressive, depending on one's point of view), making the expansion into the EU straightforward. Ultimately this all assists the cartels to make more money which will be channeled out of Europe and be used for further North American expansion.
As substance addiction continues to increase because of cartel activity, users will turn to crime to support their habit, leading to increased violence at all levels of society. Whether snatching a handbag, mugging, home invasions or carjacking, crimes of all sorts will be committed by more people desperate for more illegal substances.
Moreover, local gangs will want in on the profits. They will want to increase the areas in which they sell drugs, leading to gang conflicts and the resultant violence, which will impact the police, paramedics, hospitals, and innocent bystanders.
These criminal activities will increase the pressure on already stretched law enforcement officials. While the police are committed to doing their jobs, the sheer volume of work they will be called to do will overwhelm them as they will not have sufficient personnel to handle all the assigned tasks. Courts will suffer a similar fate, as they will also be overwhelmed with cases of people accused of violent crimes committed in desperation.
The increased expansion of fentanyl availability by the Mexican cartels will directly increase the number of long-term substance users, overwhelming health services as well. These narcotics can involve sharing injecting material, leading to higher levels of HIV or hepatitis, and risky sexual behavior with the associated consequences. There are also various physical health issues, especially with fentanyl, including respiratory depression, heart failure, seizures, weakened immune systems, and more. First responders will naturally be required to deal with these issues on top of the other dangers of handling addicted individuals. The associated mental health risks (depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders) are another item to add to the list of potential threats.
Perhaps the most impactful part of enabling criminal expansion is support provided by “progressive” candidates who blame the system, not the criminals, for expanding substance addiction and criminality. This will be compounded by the injection of billions of dollars of profit into legitimate businesses through money laundering, compromising the integrity of the business world and the safety and well-being of communities worldwide via their indirect influence on civil society.
Disrespect for law enforcement seems the norm in some US cities today, which only increases when considering the potential for more violence from those desperate for drugs. All these factors will converge and contribute to increased pressure on an already overwhelmed system and the people responsible for its operation.
Change of perception
To overcome the consequences of criminal cartel expansion, we need a new approach to the problem. More officers on the ground and tougher laws will have a limited impact if the perception and understanding of the issue among the leadership of law enforcement services, city and state governments, and the federal administration does not change.
Leaders in all public and private enterprise spheres must understand that the threat posed by the expanding cartel operations is not limited to South America or Eastern Europe. The United States, historically the cartels' largest market, is also at risk. The cartels are likely to reinvest their European profits into the US by manufacturing more narcotics, especially fentanyl, for this arena, which will increase drug trafficking, market expansion, and the attraction of new “customers”. The increase in American drug profits is then reinvested into EU expansion to continue and augment the cycle. This, in turn, will result in a rise in drug-related crimes and put more pressure on law enforcement officers.
The first step needed to address this challenge is to refocus law enforcement on the “bad guys” and stop the normalization of substance use supported by progressive policies. Policies of appeasement unwittingly enable cartels and TCO actors across the globe to emerge from operating in the shadows to working in the light of day. If we fail to perceive the reality of the NARCO evolution, we are inviting havoc and chaos as the new normal.Mexican cartels and TCO actors and their proxies are well on the way to undermining the three pillars humanity relies on for sustainability: the economy, society (which includes law and order), and the environment. Humanity could be at risk if just one of these crucial pillars is broken. A refusal to imagine the unimaginable led to the success of the 9/11 terrorist attack and enormous loss of life in the following years; America can't give narcotics cartels the same opportunities.
About Michael W. Brown
Michael W. Brown is the global director for counter-narcotics technology at Rigaku Analytical Devices. He has a distinguished career spanning more than 32 years as a Special Agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Most recently he was the DEA Headquarters staff coordinator for the Office of Foreign Operations for the Middle East-Europe-Afghanistan-India. Prior to that he served as the country attaché in India and Myanmar providing foreign advisory support for counter narcotic enforcement. He also spent 10 years in Pakistan as a special advisor to the US Embassy on various law enforcement issues. Michael is a graduate of the United States Ranger Training Battalion and has a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Technology and Management from the University of Eastern Michigan. Contact him at [email protected].