In exchange for Afghan heroin, EU supplies Russia with ‘synthetics’ 

In exchange for Afghan heroin, EU supplies Russia with ‘synthetics’
Law enforcement authorities of various countries seize some 110 tons of heroin annually

Illegal turnover of controlled narcotics in the EU is estimated at €24 billion. One in four residents of the Old World aged 15-64 tried drugs at least once. This is over 88 million people – some 54 million males and 34 million females.

These are conclusions of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), which has published on May 31, 2016 a European Drug Report 2016: Trends and Developments. EMCDDA experts consider Russia an important component of the process. The researchers noted that the significance of so-called ‘northern drug trafficking route’, which goes, among others, through Russia, has increased considerably in the last years; therefore, Russia becomes increasingly important target for criminal groups, being the main transit corridor to EU countries.

"This relates primarily to heroin trafficking by land from Afghanistan via its northern borders. Drugs arrive to large markets of Central-Asian countries and then go to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Part of that heroin is shipped further along the ‘northern route’ and arrives to the EU via Poland and Baltic states," - Andrew Cunningham, head of EMCDDA Research Department, told the CrimeRussia.

Law enforcement authorities of various countries seize in total some 110 tons of heroin annually; while 340 tons of the white powder reach the consumers. Some 380 tons of drugs are produced worldwide from Afghan opium poppy; out of this amount, 60 to 100 tons are shipped to Europe. In the past, drugs used to be transported from Afghanistan mainly through the Balkan route – via Iran, Turkey and Balkan countries to Southern and Central Europe, - but recently the transportation routes have been diversified considerably.

- Today Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are among top 20 countries seizing maximal amounts of heroin annually. This confirms the increasing importance of the "northern route" in the EU drug trafficking, – Cunningham says.

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On the map: World illegal trafficking of Asian-made heroin

Afghan heroin is transported to Russia via Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The drug arrives to Astrakhan, then to Novorossiysk, from where it’s shipped to the EU by sea. Heroin is smuggled in regular luggage, in cars, by ferries. The drugs are also transported by air: via airports of Moscow, Novosibirsk and Samara. Total amount of drugs transported via the "northern route" is estimated at some €11.6 billion per year. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that Russian law enforcement authorities seize over 2.5 tons of heroin annually. Taking that some 40 tons of the drug enter the Russian territory each year, the remaining 27 tons are transported further to the west (Russia has the highest heroin consumption; some 40 thousand people die from it annually).

As a result, more than 1.3 million heroin users have been registered in Europe by 2014. 75% of them live in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. And while there was a decline in heroin usage in the early 2000s, since 2008 the situation is worsening again. This is confirmed by growing numbers of people seeking medical assistance in rehab centers and increasing death rate due to heroin overdose. Currently some 500 thousand Europeans receive treatment for heroin addition. 80% of fatalities among drug users are related to heroin; in Europe some 18 deaths per million are caused by drug use and/or overdose. Most fatalities are registered in Estonia (113), Sweden (93) and Ireland (71).

"Open borders between EU members and high corruption level resulted in disruption of systematic drug control on major railway lines, which is still the main venue of drug trafficking. Transparent boundaries have led to creation of new criminal micro-areas where various shadow economy sectors develop," - Jean-Charles Antoine, a police officer and Doctor of Political Sciences, says. 

According to Europol, the Netherlands are the main drug transportation, storage and production hub. 1.3% Netherlanders use legalized light psychotropic substances, like cannabis, on the almost daily basis. Over 700 cafes selling marijuana operate in the Netherlands. Due to open borders, cannabis is easily transported to neighboring countries. The Netherlands also supply raw material and equipment for marijuana production to poorer East-European countries, like the Czech Republic. The Netherlands serve as a "transit node" for Afghan heroin which is shipped from there to the UK, France, Germany, and Spain. Major storage hubs for Colombian cocaine which arrives to the EU via Spain and Portugal are also located there. Finally, hundreds of laboratories producing synthetic drugs operate in the Netherlands. The local laboratories are often parts of criminal networks covering several European countries and based on close collaboration between numerous criminal groups. For example, ecstasy powder is shipped from the Netherlands to Portugal for tabletting, while amphetamine powder goes to the UK for packaging.

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Photo: Coffee shop in Amsterdam 

Other important transit hubs are Germany (due to its convenient geographic location at the crossroads of main European routes) and France (which is a destination point for drugs from its former Middle-Eastern and African colonies). The role of the latter route is increasingly growing.

- Unstable situation in many Middle-Eastern and African countries has already resulted in increased drug trafficking to the EU from these regions, which is a serious threat for EU members, - Andrew Cunningham notes.

In addition to traditional transportation ways for controlled psychotropic substances, the criminals increasingly frequently use modern methods and technologies, including selling drugs in online stores. Many drug dealers create special web-sites which function for a short period of time, offering clients to choose products online and order delivery that covers the whole Europe. Depending on the life span, these hi-tech techniques can bring profits ranging from €900 to €90 thousand.

Combating trans-boundary drug trafficking is complicated due to a number or reasons. In addition to varying national policies and regulations with regards to narcotics, information exchange between different countries is poor. The drugs are transported through the EU by several criminal groups which often buy and sell the shipment to each other en route. And so-called "Russian mafia" plays an important role in this. Cunningham notes that in Latvia, for example, in addition to local criminal groups and organized crime from other EU countries, natives of Russia and former Soviet Republics are actively involved into drug dealing.

- Generally speaking, the Latvian drug traffic is currently controlled by multi-national gangs consisting of Latvians, Russians, Estonians, and other russophones. And their criminal activities often cover other spheres, – the expert says.

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Photo: Uwe Kranz

Uwe Kranz, former Deputy Director of Europol and independent consultant on security issues agrees:

- East-European mafia, including natives of the former USSR, specializes in all kinds of crimes that involve low risks and bring high profits; in addition to drug trafficking, this includes prostitution, extortion, contract killing, illegal gambling, and money laundering. Nowadays criminals are especially interested in economic crimes and create quasi-legal enterprises, - Uwe Kranz told the CrimeRussia.

The drug business itself is also diversified. While the Russian territory is primarily used for heroin transportation, in Europe "Russian mafia" deals a whole bunch of various psychotropic substances. Cannabis is most popular in the European Union (more than 80 million users). Also wide-spread are cocaine (over 17 million), ecstasy (over 13 million) and amphetamine (12 million). Overall, only the above-listed drugs bring more than €24 million to the organized crime in Europe.

"Russian mafia" often handles the reverse transit of psychotropic substances from the EU to Russia as well.

- According to law enforcement authorities from several EU states, Europe is a transit area for trafficking synthetic narcotics, cocaine and cannabis resin to the large Russian market, – Cunningham says. 

The Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation (FDCS) reports that the main drug transit route from the EU to Russia goes via Baltic states. Some 3-5 tons of cocaine are shipped from these countries to Russia annually, and this figure is growing. Russians also use synthetic drugs, mainly of Dutch and Polish origin, shipped via Ukraine and Belarus. The profits from drug trafficking reach dozens million dollars. In total, FDCS has seized more than 36 tons of drugs in 2015, including 21 ton of cannabis and 1.5 ton of cocaine. In 2010-2015 some 350 thousand people aged 15-34 died in Russia from using controlled psychotropic substances. In total, almost a million of people died in the last decade. Currently some 7.3 million Russians use drugs on the regular basis.

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