The Baltics – alternative entry point for cocaine trafficking

Due to the profit-oriented nature of organized crime, drugs trafficking — a highly lucrative commercial activity— has always been one of the fundamental sources of income for criminal organizations

The Baltic Sea Region has traditionally attracted organized crime groups (OCGs) that have been taking advantage of the high volume of trade through the sea ports to smuggle various kinds of contraband, including drugs transiting from Russia to Western markets. Since the 2000s, however, there have been major changes in the course of drug trafficking routes and the composition of domestic drug markets.
One of the major trends in the past decade is the dynamic expansion of the European cocaine market and a corresponding contraction of cocaine consumption in the United States.

Despite considerable financial burden and criticism of the methods associated with the US led War on Drugs, the hard-hitting counter-narcotics operations at the US-Mexico border have forced cocaine producers and traffickers to seek access to other markets.

Since the late 2000s, the cocaine market has rapidly expanded throughout EU member states and in Russia.

The Baltic Sea Region serves as an alternative entry point for cocaine trafficking, whereby organized crime groups have reversed established westward trafficking routes.

Recent arrests and investigations have revealed the extent of the expansion of this drug trafficking trend. The emergence of the European cocaine market has thus created new opportunities for Baltic-based OCGs working in collaboration with Ecuadorian and Russian nationals.

In 2009, for instance, “Baltic Strike,” a joint DEA and Russian inter-agency operation against maritime trafficking of cocaine from Ecuador to Russia resulted in the seizure of circa 676 kg of cocaine and in 26 arrests of members affiliated with Vladimir Krasavchikov’s OCG, which used bananas to ship cocaine.

In March 2012, another joint operation disrupted Swedens “biggest ever” cocaine ring led by Jonas Oredsson, who was convicted to 18 years in prison for money laundering and trafficking cocaine from South America to the EU.

The interception of a consignment of a total of 116 kg of cocaine from Ecuador to Latvia by Klaipeda officers in December of 2014 is another illustration of the strategic importance of the Baltic Sea Region for drug trafficking.

The growing expansion of stimulants, mainly synthetic drugs and synthetic cannabinoids (e.g. fentanyls) in the Baltic Sea Region constitutes another major trend.

Europol intelligence suggests that Polish and Lithuanian OCGs have gained prominence in smuggling synthetic drugs from the Netherlands to Baltic States, the UK, and non-EU post-Soviet states. They have gained access to Russia’s drug market, for example, largely due to the close ties between Russian-speaking OCGs in different states of the Baltic Sea Region. Moreover, they have arranged to procure drug precursors for the production of synthetic drugs from Russia and China, having thus gained notoriety also for the production of ecstasy and amphetamine-type drugs for both a growing local market and export, predominantly to Nordic countries and Russia.

Synthetic drugs present a serious threat to consumers because they can be clandestinely produced, are relatively cheap, and pose serious health risks.

A sharp increase (by 38%) in fentanyl-induced deaths has been recorded in Estonia.

In Russia too, as reported by the FSKN, 25 deaths occurred and several hundred people were hospitalized in 2014. After the 2012 ban on codeine-containing medicines that are used to synthesize desomorphine — a skin-rotting opiate nicknamed “krokodil,” the Russian government has stumbled over an epidemic caused by synthetic marijuana (K2/Spice) that has recently replaced desomorphine.

The trafficking patterns for narcotics change very fast. Only joint and coordinated actions of states can efficiently respond to drug trafficking OCGs.

The anti-drug trafficking cooperation should focus on a targeted fight against transnational organized crime, undermining drug trafficking infrastructures and blocking transnational drug trafficking routes. In particular, national  governments should place emphasis on the mutual application of special investigative techniques, such as international controlled deliveries, electronic and other forms of surveillance, as well as undercover operations. A generic control approach should be used to target not only known precursors of narcotics but also the entire family of substances with similar chemical composition and qualities that may be used for the production of illicit drugs should a particular precursor be placed under control, restriction, or ban.

In order to achieve these objectives, it is important that the Baltic Sea states maintain friendly diplomatic relations. In light of the recent tensions between Russia and the EU-member states following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the conflict in the Donbas region, effective cooperation between the EU and Russia predicated on reciprocity, mutual legal assistance on criminal justice matters, and intelligence sharing would be a hard target to achieve.

Yuliya Zabyelina
Assistant Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, USA