Latin American drug cartels in lucrative tie-up with ’Ndrangheta

 He had spent years on the run as a suspected cocaine trafficker for one of Europe’s most powerful organised crime groups. But Marc Feren Claude Biart could not resist showing off his cooking skills in YouTube videos.

Biart, 53, hid his face in the clips he uploaded from a resort in the Dominican Republic but he failed to hide the tattoos on his arms — and Italian anti-mafia police tracked him down.

The case of Biart, who was extradited after being arrested in the town of Boca Chica in March, was a reminder of the presence of Italian gangsters in the transatlantic cocaine trade.

Biart was held on charges of being a cocaine broker for the ’Ndrangheta, a crime network from Calabria, the “toe” of Italy, which over 20 years has become the dominant mafia.

While the Cosa Nostra, Italy’s famous mafia from Sicily, has declined since the 1990s, the ’Ndrangheta’s notoriety has only grown.

The scale of ’Ndrangheta activity is impossible to know but, in 2013, Europol estimated its turnover was as high as £44bn — larger than that of McDonald’s restaurants and Deutsche Bank combined.

Like other mafia groups, the ’Ndrangheta — which is a loose network of family clans — engages in extortion, fraud and arms trafficking. 

By far its most profitable criminal activity has been its movement of vast quantities of cocaine from Latin America to Europe. 

Italian police and crime experts say ’Ndrangheta clans have stolen the lead from cocaine rivals by being able to “move upstream” and build relationships with Latin American cartels.

This has allowed them to acquire cocaine far more cheaply and then to sell it in Europe with a greater mark-up.

Chart showing that cocaine production has soared in recent years

’Ndrangheta families typically have a network of brokers in countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and the Dominican Republic, where Biart was found last month.

For drug cartels in Latin America, doing business with ’Ndrangheta clans has various attractions. 

First, these clans have endured for decades, meaning they are stable and solvent business partners. Second, decades of trafficking experience mean that the largest clans have expertise in managing the complexities of transatlantic shipments. Third, there are economic reasons for drug traffickers to target Europe rather than the US. The American border is heavily policed and any shipment would require collaboration with Mexican cartels, so sending cocaine to Europe is far more profitable.

“From a business perspective, trafficking cocaine to Europe is a far more attractive prospect than targeting the US,” noted a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. “Prices are significantly higher and the risks of interdiction, extradition and seizure of assets significantly lower”.

The research noted that the wholesale price of a kilogramme of cocaine in the United States is as much as $28,000, while in Europe it is $40,000 on average and can be as much as $80,000, depending on location. And this is despite global cocaine supply soaring over the past five years, rising from about 1,000 metric tonnes of potential production in 2014 to about 1,800 metric tonnes in 2019, according to estimates by the US Office of National Drug Control Policy. 

Europe represents an ever more important market for Latin American cartels, and the ’Ndrangheta clans can be important partners, and serve as a gateway to the continent. 

An Italian law enforcement operation in 2016, against an attempt by an ’Ndrangheta clan to import 8 tonnes of cocaine from Colombia, revealed that the Latin American cartel was intending to keep control of part of the shipment once it reached Italy, according to Italian state prosecution documents.

The plan was for the cartel both to sell cocaine wholesale to the Italian criminals, but also to utilise their expertise in retrieving the cargo from the port of Livorno. Once the cartel had the cocaine safely in Europe, it could then take advantage of the far higher price it could achieve there than at home.

Yet ’Ndrangheta clans are not the only criminals in Europe who have realised the business potential of forging strong ties with cartels in Latin America to move further up the drugs trafficking value chain.

Investigations have revealed the growing presence of Balkan organised crime in countries such as Colombia. This competition, as well as law enforcement activity targeting Italian organised crime, may reduce the weight of the ’Ndrangheta in the transatlantic cocaine trade over time. But, for now, these clans remain a resilient presence in the world of international drugs trafficking.



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