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Southern Spain Experiences Surge in Drug Smuggling

Several operations against drug trafficking networks in Andalusia, Spain, and an increase in cocaine seizures there have confirmed the growing role of southern Spain as a gateway for Latin American cocaine to Europe.

Spanish National Police arrested 63 people in April as part of an investigation against drug trafficking along the Andalusian coasts and the Guadalquivir River, both in the south of the country. The operation, which is still ongoing, has so far seized 13 drug boats, 12.3 tons of hashish, and 634 kilograms of cocaine.

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Multiple crackdowns on drug smuggling operations in Andalusia, Spain, and a rise in cocaine seizures have confirmed the increasing role of southern Spain as a pathway for Latin American cocaine to Europe.

Spanish National Police arrested 63 individuals in April as part of a probe into drug trafficking along the Andalusian coasts and the Guadalquivir River, both located in the southern region of the country. The operation, still ongoing, has so far confiscated 13 drug boats, 12.3 tons of hashish, and 634 kilograms of cocaine.

On April 16, Spanish and Portuguese authorities conducted a joint operation against a network of hashish and cocaine transporters based in the coastal area of Cadiz, Andalusia. Authorities arrested 31 people accused of collaborating with a transnational drug smuggling network to move a shipment of 628 kilos of cocaine that police seized in the neighboring province of Huelva in early April.

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The Province of Cádiz has witnessed a significant rise in cocaine seizures in recent years. Between 2021 and 2022, seizures grew by 78.4%, from 9 tons of cocaine to around 16 tons.

April’s inquiry began in May 2023, when authorities discovered that this criminal organization unsuccessfully attempted to retrieve a 6-ton cocaine shipment from a semi-submersible vessel arriving from South America.

“The network had an average of between eight and 10 high-speed crafts in the water at all times … to carry out the transports of goods for other national or international organizations,” the Spanish National Police explained in a press release.

Drug-related violence has also recently increased in the area. At the beginning of 2024, a narco-boat hit and killed two police officers in Barbate, Cádiz during a police chase.

“In four years, five Civil Guard officers have died as a result of being run over, rammed, or assassinated,” Miguel Ángel Ramos León, representative of the Unified Association of Civil Guards (Asociación Unificada de Guardias Civiles – AUGC) of Cadiz, told InSight Crime.

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Southern Spain has been used as a port of entry by cocaine trafficking networks before, but a number of factors have converged to see a sharp expansion of the route in recent years.

Firstly, record levels of coca leaf cultivation and cocaine production in South America has led to an increase in cocaine seizures in Spain overall. Last year, authorities seized nearly 142 tons of cocaine, an increase of 142% compared to 2022. Included in last year’s seizure figures was a record 9.5-ton cocaine seizure, which arrived at the port from Ecuador.

The Port of Algeciras in Cadiz is currently one of the busiest ports on the continent, making it attractive to organized crime groups shipping cocaine in contaminated containers. Generally speaking, the more containers move through a port, the harder it is for port authorities to detect drugs concealed in them.

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“A large part of the cocaine [shipped] to Spain and Europe is entering or residing in that port [Algeciras],” Ángel Bodoque Agredano, a special anti-drug prosecutor for the Spain’s National Court, told InSight Crime.

In addition to direct shipments from countries in Latin America, more and more contaminated containers arriving in southern Spain are either stopping at or going to ports in West Africa and North Africa on their way to Europe to avoid checks, Ramos León explained. Earlier this year, Moroccan authorities seized 1.4 tons of cocaine hidden in a shipment of bananas in the port of Tangier, Morocco, which were supposedly going to Turkey.

Large amounts of cocaine are sent to West Africa and moved to North Africa by land, as shown by an increasing number of seizures in countries across the Sahel belt, a region located south of the Sahara Desert.

Between 2015 and 2020, the average yearly amount of cocaine confiscated in the region was 13 kilos. In 2022, it was 1.5 tons and 2 tons in 2023, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Once drugs are in North Africa, traffickers use boats to take them to countries like Spain.

The use of narcotic boats in southern Spain has traditionally been linked to the trafficking of hashish and small amounts of cocaine. Now, seizures of large quantities of cocaine in the south of the country from these vessels are becoming more and more common, authorities told InSight Crime.

Inquiries into these shipments have enabled Spanish authorities to identify new partnerships between Spanish clans that traditionally trafficked hashish from Morocco and national and transnational criminal organizations focused on cocaine trafficking.

According to Ramos León, several Latin American drug trafficking networks have sent representatives to the area to reach out to these transportation networks. “They come, they check the networks, the logistics, they meet and see if it is viable to transport cocaine in narco-boats,” he explained.

Featured image: The Spanish Civil Guard pursues a drug boat transporting cocaine on the coast of Huelva at the beginning of April. Credit: Asociación Unificada de Guardias Civiles

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