By Axel Bugge
LISBON (Reuters) - New gangs are muscling into cocaine markets in Europe, setting up smuggling networks straight from producers in Latin America to consumers, a business which used to be dominated by the mafia, the Lisbon-based EU drugs agency said on Thursday.
In a study, which aimed to identify the causes of surging amounts of cocaine smuggled into Europe, the agency found that new gangs from the Balkans, Morocco and elsewhere were joining Italy's mafia to supply Europe's most popular stimulant drug.
Rising supplies of purer cocaine to Europe is mainly the result of growing production in Latin America, especially by the biggest producer, Colombia.
That has led to growing numbers of gangs setting up their own smuggling lines straight from producers, which has kept cocaine prices lower. New gangs now include Moroccans, who use their established smuggling routes for cannabis.
"The fragmentation of the cocaine trade in Europe appears to have resulted in increased competition among crime gangs for national and cross-border territories in cocaine supply and retail," the report said. "One of the consequences has been an increase in violence and drug-related homicides."
The emergence of more gangs has led to new marketing and transport methods, such as by couriers who dispatch the cocaine to consumers who contact special, dedicated call centres.
Such courier services exist in Britain, France and Belgium, where buyers get in touch with call centres located in Spain or the western Balkans, the report said.
"These new methods, reflecting an 'Uberisation' of the cocaine trade, are clear signs of a competitive market in which sellers have to promote additional services beyond the product itself, such as fast delivery anywhere at any time," it said.
The increasing supply of cocaine in Europe has coincided in the past few years with changes in traditional smuggling routes from Iberia to large ports in Belgium, France and Germany.
The port of Antwerp is now the single, biggest entry point for cocaine into Europe, with 41 tonnes seized in 2017. In 2016 70.9 tonnes of the drug was seized in all in Europe.
The report warned that the new smuggling routes through ports "may represent only the tip of the iceberg, as other routes and trafficking modes, such as private aviation, may simply go undetected."
(Reporting By Axel Bugge; Editing by Richard Balmforth)