Brexit, Bananas and the UK Drug Market

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Much has been discussed, in recent months, regarding the implications of Brexit for UK law enforcement and how we will continue to conduct the international aspects of intelligence and operations with EU partners. However, little has been said about the impact Brexit will have on drug trafficking organised crime groups (OCGs) operating within and upon the UK.

With the largest drugs market in Europe, the UK demand for cocaine (alone) has an estimated annual wholesale value of at least £1 billion to those British and international OCGs who control the trafficking, importation and distribution of in excess of 30 tonnes of cocaine a year. The basic principles of drug trafficking are well established:

  1. Drug trafficking requires a chain of logistics from source to wholesale market.
  2. The closer to source drugs are acquired, the cheaper they tend to be.
  3. The closer to market they are sold, the wider the profit margins.
  4. Smuggling most commonly aligns to legitimate and high-volume activity.
  5. Concealment success often demands the ability to infiltrate or mimic legitimate trade.
  6. Drug routes and transit hubs therefore tend to replicate those used for industry.
  7. It is increasingly common for corruption to play a part in ‘easing the way’ through trafficking routes and hubs, either by placing or recruiting port staff or bribing those with control of security.
  8. Senior figures within OCGs often strategically place themselves (or their lieutenants) close to important nexus points, such as ports and distribution hubs.

There are, of course, numerous examples that do not comply with these principles, such as the use of yachts during the trans-Atlantic sailing season, ‘little and often’ luggage concealments with air passenger couriers, and private aircraft for ‘under the radar’ shorter-haul ventures. These examples do not require a commodity for cover and hence are less associated with trade and industry. They do, however, mimic normality in other ways.

Little has been said about the impact Brexit will have on drug trafficking OCGs operating within and upon the UK

As the cocaine trade is closely associated with wider organised crime and high-volume money laundering/cash smuggling, it provides the best opportunity to examine the potential impact of Brexit.

Cocaine consumed in the UK is produced in Latin America, primarily Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. It is transported to the UK in different ways. Maritime vessels (usually large commercial ships) are most frequently used for consignments of hundreds of kilograms and upwards of a tonne. The most common cocaine routes to the UK are via near-continent Europe: The Netherlands (Rotterdam port), Belgium (Antwerp port) and various entry points through Spain. This is not a coincidence. While Spain affords a common language between OCGs in Europe and Latin America, Rotterdam and Antwerp receive the highest volumes of commercial shipments from the region. They are all Atlantic facing and facilitate massive trade from the Americas to the EU.

There are various reasons why these points of entry are so favoured by cocaine traffickers, not least the high demand within the UK for other goods that are making a similar journey. For example, Britain is the largest consumer of bananas in the EU (about 1.15 million tonnes a year), equating to 20% of EU consumption. These are most commonly acquired from Central America (usually Costa Rica and Panama) and the Andean Pact countries (Ecuador, Colombia and Peru). Using fruit, particularly bananas and pineapples, to conceal cocaine has long been a favoured method of traffickers trying to get the drug to the EU and beyond, or direct to the UK. This method entails high volume and high frequency opportunities to ‘hide in clear site’ and ensures swift clearance through controls, at a greater pace than non-perishable goods.

Using fruit, particularly bananas and pineapples, to conceal cocaine has long been a favoured method of traffickers trying to get the drug to the EU

The UK is currently signed into the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) tariff for bananas and, as such, commonly receives shipments via the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. This would likely change if Brexit demands that the UK make unilateral tariff changes under a new WTO agreement with supply countries – the very same countries where cocaine is produced or from where it is most commonly transited.

Similar discussions are ongoing in relation to pineapples, with the same implications. As these goods (and others like them) could be rerouted direct to the UK in the future (in higher volume and frequency than currently experienced), this will impact upon OCG strategies and tactics if they choose to continue to use them as cover or concealment. ‘Cover’ relates to creating a business venture to legitimise a hidden cocaine consignment, while ‘concealment’ will often take advantage of an entirely legitimate load by hiding the cocaine within the load and then removing it before the load is delivered. The process of inserting and then removing drugs is commonly done after security checks at port entry and before clearance at destination. This requires the placement or manipulation of corrupted port workers at both ends of the journey and is known as ‘rip on – rip off’ or ‘rip in – rip out’.

Cocaine purchased in South and Central America is likely to cost US$4000 to US$8000 per kilogram; in the Caribbean US$7000 to US$10,000; and in The Netherlands or Spain €20,000 to €25,000. The most successful and influential traffickers (impacting upon the UK) are acquiring their shipments at the cheaper US$ prices. They then often control consignments through the EU, under the cover of legitimate trade. And it is this that is most likely to be affected by Brexit.

In 2017, Antwerp seaport reported a tenfold increase in cocaine seizures

For example, in 2017, Antwerp seaport reported a tenfold increase in cocaine seizures (4 tonnes in 2013, to 40 tonnes in 2017) and cited pineapples and bananas as a key method for concealment. In 2018, the Antwerp figure rose to 50 tonnes seized, with The Netherlands also reporting increases. It is rarely possible to determine exactly how much of the cocaine from a seizure was UK bound, but e the scale of the UK market and its close proximity all support the assessment that a sizeable proportion was likely heading to the UK.

If it becomes less likely for UK bound consignments to pass through the EU (due to tariffs, taxes or fees), this will have considerable implications for OCG logistics, control and presence. After Brexit, it seems unlikely that OCGs targeting the UK will have the same opportunities to cover for or conceal their cocaine consignments via the EU. While the Latin America-EU-UK trade routes will inevitably continue, fruit is a probable casualty. This being the case, it is likely that fruit will be directly routed to the UK, together with the cocaine it conceals.

However, the implications of Brexit on organised crime (and the UK’s response) are not solely about routing. In the Antwerp and Rotterdam seaports and their surrounding urban sprawls, the effects of organised crime include high levels of corruption, security breaches, violent crime, murders and a concentration of multi-national crime bosses and logistics controllers. They are there because their drugs and transport are there, which in turn creates a nexus for cash smuggling, money laundering and the criminal use of firearms.

After Brexit, in addition to increased corruption and violence in and around our ports, significant non-EU crime figures may also re-establish in the UK

If Brexit changes the routings and logistics for a range of legitimate goods destined for the UK (which are typically used as cover or concealment for drugs), we can not only expect the drugs to increasingly arrive direct in the UK, but to be followed by the kind of corruption and violence suffered for decades by The Netherlands and, more recently, Belgium. It is feasible to conclude that in addition to increased corruption and violence in and around our ports, significant non-EU crime figures may also re-establish in the UK – securing control of their consignments in proximity to points of arrival. For cocaine, this will likely mean an increase in the presence of Western Balkan and Latin American OCGs, the primary controllers of the large shipments of cocaine destined for the UK. If the tensions experienced in Antwerp and Rotterdam are replicated around UK seaports, this will generate increased violence and incidents of crime related murder.

Increased OCG activity within the UK will place increased demand upon UK law enforcement (particularly the National Crime Agency and Border Force), requiring fluid and rapid access to intelligence and an ability to transmit and receive at pace with international partners, in addition to being able to mobilise operationally in collaboration. Criminal networks, of course, will swiftly adapt to the outcomes of Brexit. Law enforcement and intelligence communities must be able to do likewise to keep up with change.

Brexit will also have other implications for OCGs involved in cocaine trafficking. The first relates to Ireland. The Common Travel Area (CTA) between Ireland and Northern Ireland has already been exploited by OCGs accessing the UK via the soft entry point the CTA affords. It will potentially become even more important for organised crime, as will the location of Ireland in the context of trans-Atlantic cocaine trafficking, if the transit hubs in Belgium and The Netherlands become less important for the UK. It remains feasible that traffickers will land cocaine along the shoreline of Ireland and enter it into the UK via Northern Ireland.

It remains feasible that traffickers will land cocaine along the shoreline of Ireland and enter it into the UK via Northern Ireland

Second, in response to the changes in shipping mentioned earlier, it is possible that OCGs will increase their use of the modus operandi known as ‘coopering’. This entails off-loading well sealed and buoyant consignments of cocaine from the ‘mother vessel’ (passing the UK on route to the EU) either into the water for collection by smaller UK-based vessels (often using GPS), or directly to such vessels waiting in the sea for the consignment. This method puts greater strain on off-shore patrol resources and places greater emphasis on intelligence gathering at smaller ports and harbours.

Finally, there is likely to be an economic implication of Brexit to UK drug markets. If Brexit adversely impacts upon the value of the pound against the US dollar and/or euro, traffickers will feel the impact. This has happened before: in June 2008, £1 exchanged for US$1.97; in November 2008 it dropped to US$1.6. The international price of cocaine remained unchanged. For British-based traffickers, this impacted heavily on the price of cocaine, which was further compounded by the pound’s crash against the euro (1.34 to 1.03). As a result, £1,000,000 of investable drug money was slashed in terms of its spending potential in upstream drug markets – by US$370,000 and €310,000 respectively. In 2009, the UK representative price of cocaine increased from £37,000 (2008) to £45,000 per kilogram – the greatest upward price trend since detailed records commenced in the 1990s.

If this is repeated, there are two obvious implications (both of which were seen from 2009 to 2011): the first is that the purity of cocaine in the UK would be reduced. Wholesalers of powder drugs do not pass on price increases to consumers. The price for a gram of cocaine (marketed as standard quality) has been £40 for 15 years. Purity has ranged from average figures of 10% to 45% during the same period. For domestic profit margins to remain viable (when wholesale prices increase), cocaine is bulked in quantity (commonly with benzocaine) and sold to consumers at lower purity for the same price.

The price for a gram of cocaine has been £40 for 15 years

The second implication is that the money launderer gets richer. When the value of the pound crashes, the cost to an OCG (accessing the same quantity of cocaine in US$ or Euro markets) increases. In such instances, the money launderer benefits. Their commission percentage will be charged against a higher amount of GB£. Ironically, for OCGs who cash smuggle their funds into Europe (EU or otherwise), they too will likely be exporting greater volumes of UK generated cash, for reinvestment into foreign criminal ventures, corruption and drug stock replenishment.

Brexit will not just have implications for UK law enforcement and our ability to work seamlessly with our foreign partners, it will also have various and diverse implications for organised crime. The way that organised crime is forced to adapt will create a domino effect, likely changing the way we need to respond.

Tony Saggers is a Threat, Risk and Harm consultant. With 30 years of experience in law enforcement and intelligence, his final role was as Head of Drugs Threat and Intelligence with the National Crime Agency, working closely with the NPCC, Home Office and Border Force. Between 2006 and 2014 he managed the UK drug market assessment (receiving thousands of price data items per year) and represented the UK for a similar period within Europe, as the delegate to EMCDDA (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) forums. He has extensive experience with UNODC working groups and was on their review panel for the ‘World Drug Report’ restructure. As SOCA (Serious Organised Crime Agency) Head of Expert Evidence, he was exposed to insight from over 1,000 drug trafficking cases and was an expert witness for some of the UK’s most complex drug trafficking investigations and court cases. In his final role he was also the Chair of the UK Drug Forensic Intelligence Group, co-ordinator of the National Drugs Threat Group and senior manager of the collaborative response to high risk OCGs impacting upon the UK, primarily with links to drug trafficking. His roles within national organisations involved official visits to over 40 countries.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.

Written by

Tony Saggers

SHOC Network Member - Practitioner / Researcher

Organised Crime and Policing

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