CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – On January 9, 2020, some 400 kilograms of cocaine arrived in Catania, a small city on the eastern coast of Sicily.
The shipment was the work of José Ángel Rivera Zazueta, “El Flaco,” an alleged drug trafficker and second-in-command in the Sinaloa Cartel working under Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s orders.
The Italian police had been monitoring the shipment for at least a year, according to an Italian anti-drug investigation. This was the first time European authorities had gotten to see the Sinaloa Cartel’s massive European operations up close.
Although US remains the main destination for most of Mexican cartels’ drug smuggling, Europe’s more profitable and previously overlooked illegal drug market is becoming almost as common a destination for those cartels’ shipments.
Ports like Catania in Italy and Antwerp in Belgium are now part of well-established routes for cocaine smuggled by Mexican and Brazilian drug cartels, according to recent busts reported by European police.
Cocaine seizures at the port of Antwerp in 2021 were up more than 33% from 2020 and were twice what was seized was five years ago, officials from Belgium’s Customs and Excise Service said at a press conference in January.
Bart de Wever, Antwerp’s mayor since 2013, has watched the trend emerge. In 2018, de Wever said drug money was “going to permeate politics” and inevitably corrupt local authorities given the scale of cocaine trafficking through the port.
In February 2021, German officials in the town of Vlaardingen found almost 18 tons of cocaine in a load of containers arriving from Paraguay. That was the largest quantity of cocaine ever seized in Europe, according to authorities.
There is a big incentive for Mexican cartels to boost their operations to Europe: According to a mid-level Sinaloa Cartel operator, who spoke anonymously to discuss cartel operations, the price of a kilo of cocaine in Europe can be more than double its price in the US.
“A kilo delivered inside the US, let’s say Chicago, could be around $30,000 wholesale but in Europe could reach up to $60,000 or more. Of course the trip is longer, but the risk is the same, so for us its worth it,” the operator said.
To reach European consumers, Mexican, Brazilian and Colombian criminal organizations have allied with Europe’s most prominent mafia. The infamous ‘Ndrangheta has been linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, partnering with it to import cocaine into Europe and distribute it there.
In October 2021, authorities in northern Italy seized 19 kilos of cocaine with a value estimated at 3.2 million Euros in an operation called “Vida Loca.” The operation stemmed from 2019 arrest of a Mexican man with 9.2 kilos of the drug at the Milan airport.
After investigating the man’s network, police found the involvement of several Italian nationals belonging to the ‘Ndrangheta.
A recent indictment filed in the US against a Mexican man named Carlos Rubén Ramírez Monroy, also describes extensive operations in Romania by the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG).
The indictment accuses Ramírez Monroy of operating a network trafficking meth and cocaine from Mexico to Europe as well as a large-scale money-laundering scheme.
Ramírez Monroy was arrested in Romania in 2020 and extradited to the US in February 2021. During his arrest he was described as “a member of a large criminal network in Mexico involved in drug trafficking.”
The Sinaloa operative said that cocaine is not the only “merchandise” sent to Europe. More recently, he said, the cartel has been shipping methamphetamine and ecstasy produced in Mexico.
“They request, we provide. That’s how this business works. They learned we are very skilled to produce crystal [meth] and pastas [pills], so we sent some trials and established business with” the European mafia, he said.
A 2019 report by Europol and the European Monitoring Center for Drug Addiction details European investigations into Mexican cartels’ operations in the UK, Germany, France, Ireland, Belgium, Morocco, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Italy, and Albania.
“An additional development of some concern is the discovery in the Netherlands and Belgium, in the first half of 2019, of three large-scale methamphetamine production facilities, where Mexicans were working with local criminal groups,” the report states.
Investigations by the US DEA and Colombian government also indicate that Mexican organizations might be producing synthetic drugs in Europe, according to the report.
“The involvement of some Mexican nationals in methamphetamine production facilities dismantled in the Netherlands and Belgium in 2019 may be a sign” that those groups “have started producing the drug in Europe, potentially for sale on the European market,” according to a report by the the European Monitoring Center for Drug Addiction.
Inside several laboratories dismantled in February, May, and June 2019, substances commonly used in illegal drug labs in Mexico, such as BMK (benzyl methyl ketone) and tartaric acid, were found, also pointing to Mexican involvement in production in European countries.
From 2019 to late 2020, nearly 20 Mexican “cooks” have been arrested in Europe and accused of helping produce synthetic drugs, according to German media outlet Tagesschau.
“When Mexicans arrive here in Netherlands, they are not some cowboys working on their own. Something like this is always organized,” a Dutch police officer told Tagesschau.