Narcotics: Focus on the new dynamics of global trafficking

Globalization has reshaped the landscape of drug trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has announced a 22% increase in new psychoactive substances, proof of the relentless adaptability of the illicit market.1 The emergence of West Africa, no longer as a mere transit zone, but as a major player, is now attracting particular attention. How do international organizations adapt to these changing dynamics?

By Myriam Boumahdi

Traffic Insights: Trends Shaping the Landscape

UNODC’s « World Drug Report 2023 » highlights the fluctuation in cocaine production. In 2022, Colombia, the world’s leading producer, set a new record for coca crop production, with an increase of almost 13% compared to the previous year. Just like the Netherlands, Belgium also plays a central role in the world’s cocaine production. In 2021, 89.5 tons were seized in the port of Antwerp.2

However, cocaine is far from being the only drug whose popularity is on the rise; we are witnessing the emergence of new psychoactive substances (NPS).In 70 out of the 80 surveyed countries and territories, 88% saw the emergence of NPS. Easier to produce and conceal, they make the fight against their trafficking even more complex.3 An even more dangerous drugs, the fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It has become the deadliest drug in the United States and the leading cause of death among 18- to 49-year-olds, dethroning heroin.4 In 2022, fentanyl was linked to more than two-thirds of the country’s 110,000 overdose deaths. In the same year, fentanyl seizures were enough to cause the death of the entire U.S. population. « Synthetic drugs are growing in popularity, facilitated by increased access to information on the darknet. Chemists in the underground sector are more proficient, making it more difficult to track down production. The increasing use of UAV systems and the continued use of submarine traffic show the ingenuity of traffickers. In the face of these threats, the adaptation of current legislation is essential. «  says Thomas Pietschmann, Research Officer at UNODC. « In 2023, 368 molecules were identified according to the French Observatory for Drugs and Addictive Trends (OFDT). Currently, the three categories of new synthetic products calling for increased vigilance are: synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones and synthetic opioids. » states the Office anti-stupéfiants (OFAST), the French anti-narcotics office.

West Africa, once considered a transit zone, is also receiving increased attention as a major hub. A report by the International Crisis Group in 2022 5 showed a significant increase in drug seizures in the region and an increase in coca cultivation that soared by 35% between 2020 and 2021.6 Countries such as Senegal and Guinea-Bissau have become hubs, the modus operandi of transatlantic traffic has changed. Prior to 2019, drug traffickers favored South American submarines. Since then, they have been using adapted fishing boats to transport 1 to 1.5 tons of cocaine per trip to transport their goods to Europe and other markets.7 « Faced with the observation of the increase in drug trafficking transiting through West Africa, we have begun to reflect on anti-drug cooperation with the countries in the area, in particular the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea, like Senegal, due to its strategic position and its ability to act as a relay in the region, » emphasizes OFAST.

Inter-agency cooperation and contemporary challenges

International cooperation is on the agenda. « The high degree of collaboration of OFAST with the European agency at a strategic level is constantly being renewed. OFAST participates in the annual « Drug Conference » conducted by Europol, the meetings of the « Program Board. » We are the point of contact for specialized projects and programs. The dismantling of an encrypted communication network has made it possible to adapt the strategy of fighting the traffic of drugs in France; significantly improving the understanding of international traffic. » emphasizes OFAST. Regular collaborations with Interpol and the National Operational Intelligence Units on Narcotics (CROSS) are also carried out, leading to numerous seizures, such as in Haute-Garonne where the equivalent of 15 million euros of cannabis resin were intercepted. Or with the seizure of nearly 2 tons of cannabis, the result of the collaboration and investigation of the gendarmes of the Marseille research section and the Vaucluse departmental gendarmerie group, which stopped international drug trafficking. Yet, despite this dynamic, the war on drugs continues to be in full swing on the national territory, as is the case in Marseille. Since the beginning of 2023, 42 people have been killed in connection with drug trafficking. That is nine more deaths than last year. Olivier Leurent, president of the Marseille court, observes that « law firms manage 40 to 60 cases on organized crime, whereas they should have a maximum of 30. »8 « In 2022, the number of defendants at the national level was 264,529 (compared to 234,511 in 2021). This increase also indicates « the result of the strong activity of the services and the policy implemented to fight more intensively against drug trafficking. » OFAST said.

Towards a renewed approach

In 2023, blockchain analysis indicates an increase in drug-related activity. « Despite the anonymity that the darkweb offers, it is marred by frequent scams that have undermined users’ trust. Today, we are seeing a new trend: the shift of transactions from darkweb to social networks, which are favored by young people. » Thomas Pietschmann emphasizes. Web 3.0 introduces new forms of crime, including decentralized metaverses and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The « Spec Tor » operation coordinated by Europol saw nine countries dismantle the « Monopoly Market » on the dark web, arresting 288 suspects. The seizures include more than € 50.8 million, 850 kilos of drugs, and 117 firearms. These arrests took place mainly in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands.9

In the relentless fight against drug trafficking, port control remains another major issue. « With only 2% of shipped containers submitted to inspections, the crucial imperative is in the development of targeted intelligence to detect suspicious containers. Thanks to the container control program, the collaboration between different entities makes it difficult for criminals to bribe multiple actors instead of just one. The UNODC-WCO Container Control Program (CCP), conducted in partnership with the World Customs Organization, is hailed as one of UNODC’s most effective programs. » ThomasPietschmann explains. In 2022, thanks to a collaboration between Bolivia and Chile, the latter led to the seizure of 690 tons of chemical substances intended for the manufacture of cocaine. « It is imperative that international law enforcement agencies remain united, innovative and proactive in order to anticipate and thwart new forms of crime, » concludes Thomas Pietschmann.


2 large part of the traffic, Belgium therefore assumes its responsibilities.

3 Ibid