On 6 and 7 December 2017, 130 delegates from 40 countries and 6 international organizations gathered at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague to increase their understanding of the latest trends in illicit drugs trafficking and to agree on bold law enforcement responses to protect the public from the threats posed by illicit drugs.
The delegates took note of Europol’s report “Business Fundamentals: How illegal drugs sustain organised crime in Europe” which was presented at the conference. Although other security threats have received greater media and political attention in recent years, delegates noted that drugs trafficking remained the most prevalent and almost certainly most profitable form of serious organised crime in the EU. Meanwhile, a mid-term review of the EU Drugs Strategy had shown that increasing levels of cooperation had not had a meaningful impact on the scale of the problem.
Of particular concern are:
- The growing markets for, and rapid evolution of, new psychoactive substances (NPS);
- The huge number of deaths caused by fentanyl and other opioids in the US, and indications that the markets for these drugs are growing in Europe;
- The massive increase in cocaine production in Colombia in the last two years and the consequent increase in seizures of cocaine smuggled via container shipments during the same time period;
- Reports of a dramatic increase in poppy crop yields in Afghanistan, which is expected to result in an increase in the quantities of heroin produced and smuggled into Europe.
The delegates appreciated the presentations by the US DEA, emphasising the common challenges shared by the world’s main consumer markets – with a specific focus on the current opioid epidemic in the US – and the opportunities for law enforcement cooperation; and from the UNODC, highlighting the trends of drug production worldwide, and the related issues faced by source and transit countries, together with the continued need for effective ‘upstream’ enforcement measures.
The delegates took note of the presentation by the European Commission on the developments on drugs policy on EU level, in particular on the new EU legislative package on new psychoactive substances adopted in November 2017, and by the EMCDDA, demonstrating scientific rigour in the research and analysis of the situation from a public health perspective and thereby highlighting the risks associated with illicit drug consumption.
The delegates appreciated the presentation by the Swedish authorities, put into context by the recent report published by the EMCDDA and Europol (Drugs and the Darknet: Perspectives for enforcement, research and policy), highlighting the rapid growth and dynamic nature of drugs trafficking via the darknet. Although the quantities traded online remained modest compared to overall quantities being trafficked, the phenomenon had the potential to radically change patterns of consumption and trafficking. Law enforcement agencies therefore urgently need to ensure they have the tools, knowledge and skills to investigate such cases effectively.
The delegates welcomed the French presentation regarding the importance of focusing on illicit profits from drugs trafficking. While tracing criminal assets remained very challenging, there was a clear consensus that more needed to be done at national and international levels to use financial intelligence in a more systematic way and ultimately to improve significantly on current levels of asset recovery.
The delegates welcomed the presentation by the United Kingdom and took note of Europol’s proposals to increase the operational impact of multilateral law enforcement cooperation through the adoption of a task force approach and a new methodology to focus on high value targets of interest in multiple jurisdictions. Since the resources available to law enforcement agencies were unlikely to grow significantly, it was vital to pool resources and prioritise intelligence-led operations.
Further country presentations by Belgium, Netherlands, Croatia, Germany and Spain had brought to light to emerging threats such as the nexus between South-American and Balkan Organised Crime Groups, and to the importance of private partnerships for successful detection of drug trafficking in hotspots like the port of Antwerp. Traditional law enforcement methods shall be further developed in order to effectively fight cocaine trafficking into Europe, and the delegates were briefed about the changing modus operandi in synthetic drug production and the impact of using targeted EU Operational Action Plans to join efforts against new substances appearing in the illegal drug market.
The conference participants agreed that drug trafficking via the Darknet and other platforms should be a focus and that Europol should take responsibility for monitoring the flow of money (especially cryptocurrencies) and the illegal drugs markets. There should be a team of experts from areas such as the Darknet, cryptocurrency and drug commodities (e.g. fentanyl), and relations with China need to be improved in a multinational approach.
The conference participants confirmed that legislation is in place for asset tracing/recovery and efforts are being made to bring to pace the harmonisation of the different legal systems. There needs to be an increase in training, awareness and sharing best practices which can be accomplished by using already existing networks for asset seizure and confiscation (e.g. CARIN). Additionally, further establishment of multidisciplinary teams consisting of counter narcotics investigators and specialised financial investigators would be a key success factor. There is a general acknowledgement that revenue from drugs crime contributes to financing terrorism and close international cooperation is an absolute key to success.
There was general support by conference participants for both High Value Targets (HVT) and Operational Task Forces (OTF) concepts, including the proposed selection criteria. Countries already have systems in place to map HVTs so it is important to standardise these mechanisms, and overcome differences in legislation of criminal procedures across countries. With OTF, specific HVTs and networks can then be targeted, with sustainable commitments and support from both Europol and the participating countries.
The delegates agreed that the two EMPACT projects focusing on drug supply reduction (‘Cannabis, Cocaine, Heroin’ and ‘New Psychoactive Substances and Synthetic Drugs’) should be the main mechanisms for the planning, execution and monitoring of multilateral operational enforcement efforts. They further agreed that Europol should be used as the preferred channel for the sharing of information regarding cross-border drugs cases, so that Europol could provide added value through operational analysis. More comprehensive information sharing would increase the relevance and impact of the high value targets process and of the EMPACT work.
The delegates welcomed the establishment, in October 2017, of a Programme Board as a mechanism through which senior national drugs enforcement experts could monitor Europol’s work and provide advice. The delegates encouraged the Programme Board to continue its work in line with its Terms of Reference.
The delegates endorsed the action plan presented by Europol during the conference and encouraged the Drugs Programme Board to meet regularly and supervise the implementation of the plan with the following actions:
- Design targeting mechanism and establish taskforces
- Map current projects of EU and other relevant organisations focusing on the supply and demand of drugs
- Establish a European Drugs Unit within Europol
- Enhance exchange of real-time operational information during the investigations supported by Europol
- Enhance Europol’s role in the development and production of forensic and surveillance services
- Prevent the use of anonymous and open networks used for marketing drugs
- Enhance Europol’s drug related awareness activities
- Enhance Europol’s drug crime related strategic analysis functions to support Member States’ intelligence-led investigations and other activities
- Ensure MS and Europol access to up-to-date intelligence through the development of public-private partnerships
- Establish a European Drug Enforcement Network to enhance intelligence and investigations
- Enhance the tracing and confiscation of proceeds of drug crimes
- Enhance efficiency of the EU Policy Cycle for organised and serious international crime.
The delegates welcomed Europol’s proposal to adjust its structure in order to establish a European Drugs Unit within the European Serious Organised Crime Centre (ESOCC), thereby giving greater visibility and focus to Europol’s drugs enforcement efforts.
The delegates looked forward to the important themes raised at this conference being further explored at the annual International Drug Enforcement Conference (IDEC) taking place in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in April 2018, and encouraged The Netherlands Police, Europol and the DEA to work together to ensure synergies.
Given the success of the conference and the rapid evolution of both crime trends and operational response measures, the delegates recommended that Europol host a similar drugs conference or experts meeting on an annual basis.