Drug Taxis and Impotent Police The Avalanche of Cocaine Hitting Europe

Drug syndicates are flooding Europe with very pure cocaine. Consumers need only send an encrypted text and a dealer will show up at their doorstep. And the authorities are all but powerless to stop them. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Armed police officers stand guard next to cocaine seized at the Port of Hamburg.
Daniel Reinhardt/ DPA

Armed police officers stand guard next to cocaine seized at the Port of Hamburg.


March 4 is shaping up to be another gray and dreary winter day in Herzfelde, Germany. All is silent and still. The temperature is close to freezing and the town has just received a dusting of fresh snow.

A sound in the distance grows louder and materializes into a line of vehicles speeding down Rüdersdorfer Street. Police officers spill out. They bust down doors, canvas the area with sniffer dogs and begin tearing apart a VW bus and a Chevy Camaro.

It was the snow that drew them -- not the stuff of snowball fights and slippery walkways, but a pure, white powder that goes for 70,000 euros ($77,149) a kilo in Europe.

The authorities find 12.8 grams of cocaine stashed over a third-floor stairwell and another 214.3 grams in a garage. There are also micro scales, plastic vials and a shoebox full of cash. All an hour's drive east of Berlin.

At a gas station near the edge of town, they apprehend the man behind the illicit operation. He is identified as René F., 42, a car salesman-turned-drug-dealer.

F. didn't work alone. He employed his son Mike, his ex-wife Natalia and his new girlfriend's son, Otto. It was a flourishing family business that offered same-day delivery. One phone call was all it took for customers to place an order. In the Berlin nightlife scene, it's known as the "cocaine taxi."

Everything was going smoothly until March 4.

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More Cocaine Than Ever Before

Cocaine. Coke. Charlie. An intoxicant for those with disposable income. A party drug. Not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Herzfelde, an otherwise sleepy town, population 1,750, in eastern Germany. The closest thing to nightlife here is a condom dispenser on Main Street.

If the raid earlier this year showed anything, it was how far-reaching cocaine's global supply chain has grown -- and how insatiable demand for the drug has become.

Never before has there been so much cocaine on the market in Germany, in Europe or around the world, investigators say. And the stuff that is available has never been purer. Some estimates put the average level of purity at 70 percent or higher.

It's never been easier to procure the drug, either. Consequently, more people are sniffing it. The question of what cocaine can do to a society already afflicted by a compulsive urge for self-improvement has never been more pressing.

In Lisbon, where the headquarters of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction is located, there is talk of a "big boom." Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has also recorded a "dramatic increase" since 2016. One Interpol investigator says in his 14 years on the job, he's never experienced anything like this.

Things aren't likely to slow down anytime soon. "The global cocaine glut has yet to reach its peak," warns Kevin Scully, the chief drug hunter at the European headquarters of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Quantities will "go up again compared to 2018," he says. That goes for Germany as well.

That kind of forecast doesn't require complicated math, just simple logic. In Colombia, the world's No. 1 producer of cocaine, the amount of land used for cultivating coca has skyrocketed, according to the United Nations. The same is true for Peru, No. 2, and Bolivia, No. 3.

And all that cocaine has to go somewhere. In Germany, demand for cocaine has "risen sharply," as Niema Movassat, the Left Party's drug policy spokesman in parliament, points out. What's more: There is hardly a business more worthwhile for criminals. In South America, a kilo of coke goes for $1,000 (906.50 euros). By the time it gets to dealers in Europe, they're paying $25,000 to get it across the Atlantic. On the street here, that same kilo can fetch as much as $70,000. There are few other areas of business that are more lucrative for criminals.

A Well-Oiled Machine

The cocaine trade has become a well-oiled machine. It's almost as if the drug dealers had brought in professional business consultants to analyze their operations. Sure, there's still the usual violence, such as the recent murder of a lawyer in Amsterdam. But the industry has also grown more efficient. It relies on economies of scale and bulk purchases, precise divisions of labor and just-in-time supply chains. And, of course, it's constantly innovating -- on the lookout for the next, even more sophisticated smuggling method. In the end, the cartels can sit back and rely on the sheer power of the masses. The bigger the avalanche, the less important the things are that get in the way.

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News reports of customs agents seizing multiple tons of cocaine in a single bust -- 4.5 tons in July in Hamburg, 1.5 tons a few days later -- are merely symbolic victories. In truth, investigators know little about the perpetrators or their operations.

What they do know is that the record amount of cocaine they found in 2018 was a reliable indication of the record amount of the drug they did not find. Interpol estimates that for all its efforts, 95 percent of shipments slip through undetected.

As the volume of cocaine flowing into Europe grows, so do the concerns of politicians, who have long lost sight of the drug problem, of investigators, who openly admit they are powerless, and of doctors, who know just how dangerous cocaine can be.

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For this report, DER SPIEGEL and its partners at the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network spoke to coca farmers in Colombia and consumers in Germany about the reasons behind and consequences of the boom. Documents provided insights into how large-scale drug dealers set up their billion-dollar, B2B-like businesses -- and how small-scale dealers organize their local, B2C operations, distributing product in baggies and tiny vials.

Joao Matias, an analyst with the EU's anti-drug agency, estimates that snorting cocaine will increasingly seem normal. People's inhibition thresholds will become lower and consumption will increase. The effect this will have on Germany cannot be known for another few years. "The effects of the cocaine glut are on the way," warns Karl Lauterbach, a health expert with Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). But he can say this much: "Cocaine is cheaper, better and therefore much more dangerous than before. In the future, we can expect more deaths."

In party cities like Berlin, less than a gram of cocaine goes for 50 euros.
Fotos: Dedmityay/ Getty Images / iStockphoto; Ziviani/ Getty Images/ iStockphoto

In party cities like Berlin, less than a gram of cocaine goes for 50 euros.

The Consumers

Lisbon is a perfect microcosm of the cocaine trade. During the day, down near the Tagus River, the EU's drug officials pore over the numbers. Come closing time, cocaine can be purchased with ease higher up in the city, in the Bairro Alto bar district -- however much you want, wherever you want.

Europe's anti-drug officials work downtown in a modern office building made of glass and white stone. There, they attempt to understand and explain the cocaine wave. According to the statistics, some 3.9 million Europeans took cocaine in 2017. By last year, that number had jumped to 4 million. That's not a dramatic increase, but the trend is clear.

Just over 2 percent of young people between the ages of 15 and 34 -- the most susceptible age group when it comes to taking drugs -- snorted cocaine in 2017. On a country level, the figures varied slightly. Only 1.2 percent of German youths do coke, for instance. That's considerably less than in Holland (4.5 percent), Denmark (3.9 percent) or France (3.2 percent). At first glance, these figures seem to suggest cocaine is a major problem in other countries but not in Germany. But the German figure is from 2015, before consumption really took off.

One thing alarming EU officials across Europe are waste water samples. "Water doesn't lie," says Laurent Laniel, the anti-drug authority's chief analyst. Of the 38 countries that had their waste water tested in 2017 and 2018, 22 reported increases in traceable levels of cocaine, which enters the water through people's urine. In Berlin, those levels were almost twice as high in 2018 as they were in 2014. In Dortmund too. Spikes were recorded on weekends in particular.

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The Berlin police say this is because more people are taking cocaine, but European drug officials aren't so sure. It could also be attributable to the same repeat offenders simply doing more drugs or the fact that the cocaine on the street today is more pure. But one thing is certain: No other drug puts more people in the hospital in Europe. In Berlin, cocaine has overtaken heroin as the drug with the highest death rate. In all of 2018, 35 people died from using cocaine. By the end of July 2019, that number had already hit 25.

Everything Under Control

Back in Bairro Alto, street dealers stand amid throngs of party tourists, tapping their noses and asking unabashedly, "Cocaine, cocaine?" One puts his arm around passers-by, introduces himself as "Pablo Escobar," and boasts about having "the best stuff in town." It's all very casual. A gram costs 50 to 60 euros and you can even test it because, as "Escobar" and the others promise, it's "no shit" that they're selling here.

Bairro Alto was where DER SPEIGEL ran into Lukas, a 27-year-old PhD student who uses an alias to cover up the fact that he does drugs.

He first took cocaine two years ago with some friends from college. Ever since, he has done it around 10 to 15 times a year, and only when there's something to celebrate: a birthday, their friendship -- sometimes just life in general. They do it when they want to feel prosperous and decadent. They only do 0.2 or 0.3 grams each, never more. Lukas describes his high: "You feel clear-headed. You know exactly what you need to say or do. You let it all out. You feel like you have everything under control."

Lukas says he has no trouble keeping his cocaine consumption under control. He doesn't think he could ever become addicted. He's also aware that the drug doesn't actually make him smarter, that it only feels that way. He has everything under control, so he doesn't understand why cocaine is so much more stigmatized than alcohol or nicotine. People get downright "hysterical," when they talk about cocaine, he says.

Lukas could be the kind of person who can use cocaine recreationally his entire life without becoming addicted. Or maybe not. A lot of a person's susceptibility to addiction has to do with their psyche. The phrase doctors use is "addictive personality."

Lukas might one day be 50-years-old and just fine. Or he might keel over and die. Heart attacks are one of the potential long-term effects of cocaine use. Unlike marijuana or hash, cocaine doesn't calm a person down. It pumps them up. It gets a person's heart racing and it attacks the heart and brain vessels.

Officially, only 93 people died in 2018 in Germany from cocaine use. Their deaths were seldom caused by an overdose but by a collapse of their cardiovascular system. In many cases, no one suspected it was cocaine use that had come back to haunt its victims so many years later.

Everybody Does It

For experts like the drug critic Rainer Thomasius from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, this is what makes cocaine such a mixed bag: everyone can react to it differently. Thomasius says the drug has a "high potential for psychological dependence." For anyone who wants to escape their dreary everyday life and live in a world in which everything seems to be working for them, cocaine can be a seductive respite. It offers a soothing, get-me-out-of-here experience that a person could crave again, again and again.

Nevertheless, no more than 10 percent of people who do cocaine are considered hardcore users -- the ones who snort the drug more than 50 times a year. Most are recreational users, people who have lives, jobs or families. They are managers, politicians, professors, creatives. You wouldn't notice at first glance that they use cocaine. In fact, you wouldn't even notice at second glance. To be sure, you'd have to examine their nasal septum for holes.

That these people appear to have their cocaine use under control, and not vice versa, may also be due to the fact that cocaine is expensive. Many people can't afford it until they start making money. For some, this isn't until they're 20, maybe as late as 25. By that point, according to Thomasius, a person's personality is more fully developed and their risk of addiction is lower. And yet, time and again, there are new users who become delusional after doing coke for only a short amount of time. People who, after a few years, can't concentrate on anything except the next line of blow.

A Life Under the Influence

It wouldn't take much for Florian, a student from Berlin, to become one of these lost souls. Florian isn't his real name, but he did begin taking drugs when he was 20 and got sucked in by the club scene in Berlin, where dealers often stand in front of the bathroom stalls. For three years, Florian was an intense coke user. Today, he realizes his habit isn't sustainable. Not unless he wants to become a junkie.

"This stuff makes me more self-confident the more I take. I can make me start acting pretty smug," he says. Once he was sitting with friends at a bar in Hamburg. The next table over was occupied by several Englishmen who wanted to talk. Florian kept giving them the runaround and felt better about himself with every rude remark.

"I enjoyed making a show of my arrogance. I was this cool guy who did the cool drug. And I increasingly acted this way even when I wasn't high," Florian says. He was impatient, aloof, contemptuous. "I could hardly stand my own friends sometimes. And strangers? Forget it."

Similar to Lukas, Florian considered himself to be a "fairly circumspect consumer" too at first. Then he noticed how his life gradually began to revolve more and more around cocaine. He remembers the time he was at a family get-together, sitting at a table outside with good food, drinks, good company, a nice atmosphere, "and then I caught myself thinking how nice a line of coke would be right now."

Florian hates the moments in which cocaine takes control of his thoughts and won't let go. He wants to take back control. He's only done coke once since January, he says. But quitting altogether? Why should he? Half the people in his philosophy department do cocaine, he says. Then there's his friend who works in a cafe and says he wouldn't be able to stand in the kitchen so long without a line every now and then. And the mother of one of his friends, who works at a casting agency. And an acquaintance of his father's, a businessman. There's even the young woman who he recently met while playing ping-pong and who seemed so inconspicuous -- even she does coke. Everyone does it, Florian says, and the quality is good. Plus, it's easy to get.

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