A European branch of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel has formed an alliance with a Romanian criminal group in order to smuggle narcotics into the UK, The Times of London reports, citing Britain's National Crime Agency.
According to The Times, the Sinaloa branch has linked up with a Romanian gang that operates heavy goods vehicles — cargo vehicles with a total weight over 7,700 pounds — and has the ability to bring significant quantities of cocaine in Britain each week.
"In collaboration with international partners [we] identified a Romanian OCG [organised crime group] with the capability to import large amounts of cocaine into the UK on a weekly basis using HGV transport," a NCA spokeswoman told The Times.
"Intelligence indicates that the Romanian OCG are still being supplied by a Mexican OCG linked to the Sinaloa cartel. It is assessed that this network of OCGs will continue to supply large volumes of class A drugs into the UK," the spokeswoman added. "Previous significant interdictions of their supply has not deterred the group from continuing their criminal activity aimed at the UK market."
There have been reports that the Sinaloa cartel and other Mexican organized-crime groups are active in Europe — Spain in particular — for some time.
Mexican investigative outlet Contralinea described Mexican criminal groups making connections with criminal groups around the world, including Europe and the UK, in early 2011. European police agency Europol warned Mexican groups were trying to set up trade routes to the continent in 2013 — but no member state has contacted the agency for assistance, The Times reports.
According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Addiction's 2016 report, larger Mexican and Colombian criminal groups in Europe have adopted the franchise model — allowing smaller, local partners to use the group's "brand name" and providing them with drugs, contacts, and transportation — in order to navigate the criminal landscape in Europe.
"This is the new commercial model in Europe and we think that the Mexican and Colombian groups are adapting to it, seeking out established collaborators in Europe," Europol Director Rob Wainwright said in spring 2016.
The Sinaloa cartel in particular is believed to have sought out a larger share of the European market, trying to replace Colombian groups as the continent's main provider.
While the NCA said there was a lack of information on Mexican cartels shipping cocaine to the UK market, the agency suspects "they have proactively sought a position due to the high prices for cocaine in the UK and an opportunity to maximise profits."
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has estimated that cocaine can typically sell for just under $58,000 a kilogram at the wholesale level. At the retail level, a gram of cocaine can sell for about $59, according to the UNODC, though the price can vary considerably based on factors like purity and location.
While the Sinaloa cartel is considered one of the most powerful criminal groups in the Western Hemisphere and the world, the cartel itself operates more like a federation of allied factions than like a traditional hierarchical cartel with a top-down leadership structure. Cartel leaders like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman have typically worked in oversight roles, referring disputes.
Guzman's arrest in January 2016 and extradition to the US this January appear to have set off a fight for control of the organization by internal and external factions.
The cartel's reputation for violence will raise worry about its effect on Britain's drug trade, which is already a driver of violence, The Times notes.
An alliance with a Romanian gang involved in the movement of heavy goods vehicles is also likely to draw scrutiny to the Channel tunnel and ferry routes into the country, which see considerable freight traffic.
Central American groups, as well as the Sinaloa cartel and other Mexican groups, have previously formed arrangements with gangs in the port city of Liverpool to bring in drugs by sea, typically from Venezuela and Ecuador, according to The Times. Local gangs would handle distribution from there.
The Netherlands and Spain are the principal transit hubs for cocaine moving to the UK. The UK also had Europe's highest prevalence of use among people 15 to 34 years old, at 4%, followed by the Netherlands and Spain. Those three countries, plus Ireland, are the only ones in Europe to report prevalence levels above 2.5%.
According to The Times, up to 100 metric tons of cocaine is shipped to the UK each year, and the NCA has intercepted almost 70 metric tons in a single year. In 2015, the most recent year for which there is data, authorities in the UK seized 4,228 kilograms of cocaine, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Addiction.
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