Inside the 'Balkan Cartel': How Smugglers Dominated Europe's Drug Trade

Cocaine seizures in Europe reached a record 315 metric tons in 2021 – according to the latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which is more than the United States, where 250 metric tons were seized at the time

by Sededin Dedovic
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Inside the 'Balkan Cartel': How Smugglers Dominated Europe's Drug Trade
© Mark Renders / Getty Images

Balkan smugglers have achieved impressive success in taking control of the logistics of cocaine trafficking from South America to Europe, authorities claim. Police, both on land and at sea, are struggling to keep pace with their activities, according to extensive and detailed analysis by the British news agency Reuters.

The central figure in this narrative is convicted cocaine trafficker Slobodan Kostovski (70), a citizen of Serbia, who escaped from prison in Brazil in 2018 and returned to Europe. In August last year, as part of a major international operation, he was arrested in Belgrade for a shipment of 2.7 metric tons of cocaine from Brazil, which was seized in the Atlantic Ocean near the Spanish Canary Islands.

Kostovski's return to Europe in 2018 coincided with a favorable moment for cocaine trade on that continent. According to Reuters, production in South America has increased over the past decade, and Balkan traders were in an ideal position to stimulate European demand.

They now dominate the complex logistics of transporting cocaine from production laboratories in the Andes to street dealers in cities like Paris, London, and Berlin, contributing to making Europe the main cocaine market in the world.

Slobodan Kostovski© WTPsmugDR/ YOutube channel

This achievement has been accomplished by establishing contacts with criminals in Balkan diasporas on both sides of the Atlantic, infiltrating the maritime transport system that handles 90% of the world's commodity trade, claim American, European, and Latin American agents fighting drug trafficking.

"Ivo Silva, a detective with the Brazilian Federal Police who investigated Kostovski in the early 2000s as part of the first major investigation into Balkan cocaine traders operating from Brazil, said: 'The main group supplying the European continent with large shipments is from the Balkans'" Balkan smuggling groups avoid the territorial structure of cartels from Mexico and Colombia, organized "top-down," and instead operate in small cells of individuals with multiple identities and passports.

These cells are highly mobile, secretive, and capable of transporting large quantities of cocaine, say officials from drug enforcement agencies. Although these gangs are not monolithic and often clash with each other, authorities collectively refer to them as the "Balkan cartel." "Balkan fingerprints" can now be found on most cocaine entering Europe, claim American and European drug enforcement officials.

The European Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre on Narcotics (MAOCN) reported that a record 9.11 metric tons of cocaine associated with Balkan criminals were seized at sea last year, a 300% increase compared to 2015.

Recent seizure data indicate a continued rise in the amount of cocaine in Europe, as well as an increase in the number of Balkan smugglers managing this process. In the Belgian port of Antwerp, the main European gateway for South American cocaine, authorities seized a record 116 metric tons last year.

Dutch customs seized nearly 60 metric tons in 2023, nearly a fifth more than in 2022. Reuters writes that this article is based on thousands of pages of police and intelligence reports, court documents from Europe, the United States, and Latin America, as well as interviews with over twenty officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

The material portrays Balkan smugglers as an entrepreneurial group of logistics experts who have infiltrated every link in the cocaine supply chain, making them indispensable compared to other cartels trafficking drugs from South America.

"Balkan criminals are 'more than happy' to collaborate with Israelis, Dutch, Swedes, Dominicans, Chinese triads," said a former official of the U.S. DEA. "They will, indeed, work with anyone," he added. However, Balkans mostly steer clear of the United States, discouraged by the dominance of Mexican cartels and stricter police surveillance in the U.S.

The rise of Balkan gangs to the upper echelons of global cocaine trade is forcing police to keep pace. Cocaine seizures in Western and Central Europe reached a record 315 metric tons in 2021, according to the latest data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), surpassing those in the United States, where 250 metric tons were seized at the time.

The purity of European cocaine has been steadily increasing over the past decade, UNODC reported. Greek authorities dismantled a entrenched Balkan gang in March this year, allegedly responsible for over 60 murders across Europe in the last decade.

In the same month, the streets of Brussels were shaken by battles allegedly involving the Albanian mafia. In Latin America, Balkan presence is now stronger than ever, according to an investigator with the Balkans operational group at Europol.

He said that over 50 large smuggling cells from the Western Balkans are operating throughout Latin America, with hundreds of gangsters scattered across the region. Authorities claim that the dominance of Balkan criminals in global cocaine trade is the result of their two-decade investment in people and connections on both sides of the Atlantic.

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