Spanish police captured a record 50 tons of cocaine last year, indicating that consumption of the drug across Europe is almost certainly on the increase as traffickers find new routes via Africa into the continent.
Last year's haul confirmed Spain's position among the top five countries in the world in cocaine seizures, with the rest all in the Americas.
Spain now accounts for 60 per cent of cocaine finds in Europe, according to El Pas newspaper, which published the figures on Sunday. El Pas said investigators believed the 2005 total may rise further as they had only counted major hauls and smaller finds had not yet been added.
Spanish police work on the assumption that they intercept some 20 per cent of the drug in Europe. That would suggest that 250 tons had got through, and that Europe as a whole consumed upwards of 410 tons of the drug during 2005.
The street value of the intercepted drugs was estimated at 6 billion euros (US$7 billion), while the amount supposed to have got through into Spain would have fetched 24 billion euros (US$29 billion) on the street. The European total, measured in Spanish street prices, would be around 40 billion euros (US$48 billion).
Collaboration with police forces and customs officials in the United States and Britain had led Spanish police to some of their biggest cocaine hauls during the year. They were now convinced, however, that the Colombian cartels behind the trafficking were setting up half-way houses in west African countries.
"We are increasingly sure that Colombian traffickers have cocaine stores in African countries to the south of Mauritania where we have great problems investigating or getting help from local authorities," Eloy Quirs, head of the Spanish police's central drugs brigade, told El Pas.
From there the drugs are loaded into cargo ships working routes along the Atlantic coast of Africa and Europe particularly into the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia, where traffickers are already well established.
The cocaine is often unloaded on to trawlers and, from them, to fast speedboats that take it on to the isolated beaches of Galicia's rugged Atlantic coastline.
Spanish police have also detected attempts to fly cocaine into Europe from African airfields. One light aircraft discovered at a Spanish airfield recently had carried the drug from west Africa.
A global increase in cocaine availability was due to new plantations in Peru and Bolivia and the fact that some Colombian paramilitary groups were releasing cocaine they had stored, Spanish police said.
The increase in cocaine seizures did not coincide, however, with a fall in the drug's availability in Spain.
Street cocaine became both purer and cheaper over 2005, suggesting that the quantities reaching the market were also increasing.
One of the results of the cocaine boom is that Spain now has the highest rate of consumption of the drug in the world, according to a recent report from Spanish state prosecutors. Spain has overtaken the United States, and left Britain and Ireland behind, with the proportion of people who use the drug rising to more than one in 40.
"Spain occupies the top place in the world," the report said, citing United Nations figures.
Source: China Daily