Latin American cocaine cartels bring violence to Europe

Latin American cocaine cartels bring violence to Europe
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In this file photo taken on January 7, 2022, Belgian customs officers search for drugs in a container at the port in Antwerp. (Photo by François Walschaerts / AFP)
Latin American cocaine cartels bring violence to Europe
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A Belgian officer checks a box of bananas during a customs control for drugs in the hangar of a fruit company at the port in Antwerp. (Valeria Mongelli / AFP)
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Updated 16 January 2023

Latin American cocaine cartels bring violence to Europe

Latin American cocaine cartels bring violence to Europe

PARIS: “Seventy euros for one, 120 for two,” said the cocaine dealer as the young woman opened her door on Paris’ chic Left Bank.
“I’m like all the delivery riders speeding around Paris dropping off sushi and groceries,” he smiled. “I get orders and I deliver them.”
Getting cocaine in many of Europe’s big cities is now as easy as ordering a pizza.
Twenty or so minutes after you place your order by WhatsApp or Signal, a dealer can be at your door.
“Consumers prefer to go on a platform and have their drugs delivered by a guy who looks like a Deliveroo rider,” said police commissioner Virginie Lahaye, the head of the Paris drugs squad. “It is much easier than having to go to some grim place in the suburbs.”
Some 3.5 million Europeans took cocaine in 2021, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) — four times more than 20 years ago.
The continent has been hit by a “tsunami” of cocaine, said the head of the Belgian federal police, Eric Snoeck, with 240 tons seized in 2021, according to Europol, nearly five times more than a decade ago.

Lucrative market
Europe has become one of the most lucrative markets for the big drug cartels, who have not hesitated about using the corruption and extreme violence that has served them so well in South America.
“Kidnappings, torture and hits: there is so much money at stake that the criminal organizations have brought the cartels’ methods to our shores,” said Stephanie Cherbonnier of the French anti-drug office.
Northern Europe’s big ports like Antwerp and Rotterdam have been so riven by drug violence that democracy itself has been threatened, with gangs even daring to plot to kidnap Belgium’s justice minister.
With gunbattles in the streets of Antwerp, the country could soon “be regarded as a narco state” warned Brussels’ chief prosecutor Johan Delmulle.
The cocaine flooding Europe begins its journey in the high mountain plateaus of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where the coca leaves from which the drug is extracted are grown.
In Catatumbo in northeast Colombia, Jose del Carmen Abril relies on coca to feed his eight children.
“Coca... has replaced the government which was never very present here,” said the 53-year-old. “It has helped us build schools, health centers, roads and houses.”

In a country where many earn no more than $7 (6.5 euros) a day, a coca grower can earn five times that.
But Del Carmen Abril chafes at being called a “narco,” saying farmers like him “don’t even make the minimum wage.”
Despite the billions spent over the decades by Washington and Bogota in their “war on drugs,” peasants continue to grow more and more coca, with harvests up 14 percent in 2021 to an all-time high of 1,400 tons, according to the United Nations.
“Chemists” mix the chopped leaves with petrol, lime, cement and ammonium sulphate to make a white paste that is then turned into powder in the drug laboratories.
In Catatumbo the paste sells for $370 a kilo. Once mixed with a cocktail of acids and solvents it becomes “coke,” worth more than $1,000 a kilo.

Mexican cartels
Colombia supplies two-thirds of the world’s cocaine. But the fall of the Cali and Medellin cartels in the 1990s, and the peace deal signed in 2016 with the Marxist FARC guerrillas, turned the trade upside down.
Once mere middlemen, the Mexican cartels have since taken almost total control of the market, from financing production to supervising cocaine smuggling.
The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels at first concentrated on their “natural” market, the United States, before switching their focus to Europe, where cocaine consumption has exploded.
Europol estimates that Europe’s cocaine market is now worth between 7.6 and 10.5 billion euros at street level.
“The US market is saturated and coke sells in Europe at prices 50 to 100 percent higher,” said the head of French customs’ intelligence unit, Florian Colas. “Another advantage for the traffickers is the less dissuasive prison sentences and the multiple logistic options.”

Most of the cocaine that crosses the Atlantic is carried in containers, hidden in perfectly legal shipments of bananas, sugar or tinned food.
The rest comes in by air hidden in suitcases or in the stomachs of drug “mules.” Some even comes by sea in remote-controlled submersibles, like the ones seized by Spanish police in July.
The Mexican cartels established their European bridgehead on Spain’s Costa del Sol in the early 2000s, which was already the main hub for the transport of Moroccan cannabis.
But the arrest of several major smugglers and above all the explosion in maritime traffic, persuaded them to redirect smuggling through northern Europe’s giant container ports like Antwerp, Hamburg, Le Havre and Rotterdam.
“Some cargos go through Caribbean ports” on their way from South America, while others “pass via the Balkans or West Africa before entering Europe,” said Corinne Cleostrate, deputy head of French customs.

Enormous profits
The traffickers follow a well-trodden “business plan,” with Mexican cartels selling to European multinational crime syndicates, sometimes via fixers who divide up the cargos to spread the costs and risks.
Some of the “crime groups (who are part of these deals) can be competitors,” said Cherbonnier.
“But they also create alliances to pool their strengths and their know-hows to get the drugs in.”
The Moroccan “Mocro maffia” in Belgium and the Netherlands, Albanian, Serb or Kosovan mafia and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta divide up the market according to their territories and specialities.
But they pilot drugs through the ports using local criminals, with a strict division of roles.
A kilo of cocaine bought for $1,000 in South America can be sold for 35,000 euros ($37,600) in Europe. Once out of the port and cut with other substances, it will then be sold on to customers for 70 euros a gram, its value having gone up close to 100-fold by the time it hits the street.
Such enormous profits allow a huge war chest to buy off dockers, cargo agents, truckers, and sometimes customs and police officers, to get cocaine out of the ports.
Several French dockers have been jailed for working with drug gangs in Le Havre, with police saying some have been forced into helping the traffickers.
One described to his lawyer how he was sucked in. “Before I used to make 200 or 300 euros a month from selling (stolen) perfume or cartons of cigarettes. One day some guys asked me to take some bags out (of the port) for 1,000 euros a bag,” he said.
The gangs are willing to pay up to 100,000 euros to get a container out of Le Havre, where “we are only able to check one percent of the containers because we haven’t the resources to do any more,” a customs officer admitted.
Some dock workers are paid to authorize the exit of containers or move ones full of drugs out of range of security cameras. Others loan their security badges to the gangs.
In Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest port, police and customers officers surprised a group of the traffickers’ local foot soldiers holed up in a “container hotel” with food and bedding waiting for the arrival of a shipment of cocaine.

In this file photograph taken on November 7, 2022, a French customs officer tests a package suspected to be cocaine at Orly Airport, south of Paris. (AFP)

Royals targeted
As well as buying complicity and silence, the huge sums to be made have fueled extreme violence in northern Europe’s port cities.
Antwerp — the main gateway of illegal drugs into Europe — has recorded more than 200 drug-linked violent incidents in the last five years, with an 11-year-old girl killed last week after bullets were fired into a house in the Merksem residential district.
In May the home of a family known to be involved in drugs in nearby Deurne was bombed while their neighbors were celebrating a marriage in their garden.
In the Netherlands, the gangs have gone even further.
On July 6, 2021, the celebrated investigative journalist Peter R. de Vries was shot several times in an underground car park moments after appearing on a television talk show. He died nine days later.
A crime specialist, one of his sources was the main witness against drug baron Ridouan Taghi, the suspected head of the “Mocro maffia” arrested in Dubai in 2019.
“We have gone to another level of violence entirely,” said Belgian police chief Snoeck. “They have no qualms about torturing someone for information or simply executing someone who has not kept to a contract... it sends shivers down your spine.”
In 2020, Dutch police discovered containers converted into a cell and torture chamber, and last year the cracking of the encrypted Sky ECC secure messaging app used by the gangs gave a further insight into their ruthlessness, with people put through meat grinders or executed live on video.
The cocaine mafia will do anything to protect their business. And no one is safe. Belgian police uncovered a plot to kidnap the country’s justice minister in September, and in the Netherlands Crown Princess Amalia and Prime Minister Mark Rutte were said to have been targeted late last year.

Only a tenth seized

But the authorities have been hitting back hard with better port security, intelligence cooperation and “targeting” of the top dogs that have led to record seizures, with 109.9 tons of cocaine intercepted in Antwerp last year.
“It shows our methods are now more efficient but also that the flow of drugs is increasing,” admitted French customs chief Cleostrate.
As a rule of thumb, experts suspect only a tenth of the cocaine shipped to Europe is ever seized.
But Ger Scheringa, who heads Dutch customs investigations in Rotterdam, said more and more “automization of cargo terminals is making it difficult” for traffickers.
They are already switching shipments to smaller, less guarded ports like Montoir-de-Bretagne in northwestern France, however, where more than 600 kilos of “coke” was seized in 2022.
Europe police forces have also had major successes, claiming to have decapitated the “super cartel” responsible for smuggling a third of the continent’s cocaine, with 49 suspects held in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and most of all, Dubai, one of the drug lords’ favored haunts.
But on the front line in the Caribbean, French customs officers in Martinque monitoring vessels heading north from South America are far from complacent.
“The traffickers know our methods... we do our best but you have recognize that we cannot get them all,” admitted the island’s customs chief Jean-Charles Metivier. “We are often one step behind.”
Meanwhile in Paris, business and competition are brisk. “Flash sale!” declares a message sent out by a dealer on WhatsApp. “Fifty euros a gram.”

Malaysia moves to abolish mandatory death penalties

Malaysia moves to abolish mandatory death penalties
Updated 9 sec ago

Malaysia moves to abolish mandatory death penalties

Malaysia moves to abolish mandatory death penalties
  • New bill to also replace life sentences with 30 to 40-year prison terms 
  • Activists hail reforms as timely and progressive

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s government has taken its first step to abolish the mandatory death penalty for 11 offenses including drug trafficking, illegal firearms possession and kidnap.

Its parliamentary bill, introduced on Monday, will also replace life sentences with prison terms between 30 and 40 years and whipping of more than 12 lashes.

“The abolition of the mandatory death penalty aims to value and respect the life of every individual … The policies proposed through this bill are a middle ground to ensure justice is preserved for all,” Law Minister Azalina Othman S, who tabled the bill, said in a statement.

“I am very grateful that the unity government has taken concrete steps in abolishing the mandatory death penalty.”

The move championed by the unity government of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who took office in November, is expected to affect hundreds of prisoners who have yet to complete their appeals in court.  Those cases will instead be reviewed by the Federal Court.

While the new bill does not completely remove capital punishment, it allows judges the discretion to pass alternatives.

“The effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent is questionable at best,” Dobby Chew, executive director of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, said in a statement.

“There are significant indicators that demonstrate that the death penalty is counterproductive in that it supports or enables crime syndicates, especially for drug offenses,” he said.

He called Malaysia’s move “a progressive step towards significant reform of the criminal justice system.”

A moratorium on the death penalty has been in effect since 2018 in Malaysia, where more than 1,300 prisoners are on death row, representing a disproportionately high number compared to other countries in the region.

“It is timely and I am pleased with the decision by the government,” Malaysian politician and anti-death penalty activist Kasthuri Patto told Arab News.

“Let’s not forget that the death penalty is a colonial law but even colonial masters have removed them from their country, take for example the UK,” Patto said.

“This alternative is worth exploring now. I hope with this announcement, the government will seriously look into prison reforms as well.”

Philippines arrests suspected Sikh separatists in first Khalistan detection 

Philippines arrests suspected Sikh separatists in first Khalistan detection 
Updated 17 min 27 sec ago

Philippines arrests suspected Sikh separatists in first Khalistan detection 

Philippines arrests suspected Sikh separatists in first Khalistan detection 
  • In the 1980s, the violent separatist movement called for an independent Sikh state 
  • Though banned in India, Khalistan has support from some in Sikh diaspora community 

MANILA/NEW DELHI: Philippine authorities have arrested suspected members of a Sikh separatist group banned in India, a government agency announced on Monday, as demands for an independent Sikh homeland are rising abroad. 

Officers from the Philippine Bureau of Immigration, the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center and the Military Intelligence Group arrested three suspected members of the Khalistan Tiger Force in the central Philippine city of Iloilo on March 7, the CICC said in a statement issued Monday. 

“It is out of the ordinary, their presence here,” CICC Executive Director Alexander K. Ramos told Arab News. 

The three suspects are all Indian nationals in their 20s, who were named in a red notice issued by the global police agency Interpol, Ramos said. They are currently in the custody of the Philippine military. 

“It appears they are a group. In fact, there may be more that we are still trying to track down. This is the first time that the Khalistanis were detected here,” he added. 

Their group KTF supports a movement banned in India known as Khalistan, which calls for an independent Sikh homeland and was known as a violent separatist movement in the 1980s and early 1990s, then prompting a controversial military operation by the Indian government that killed thousands of people. 

The Philippine development follows Indian police launching on March 21 a manhunt in Punjab province for Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh, who has captured national attention and revived talks of Khalistan. 

The crackdown has triggered fresh demands abroad for an independent Sikh state, including protesters gathering in front of Indian missions in Canada and the UK this month, which has sparked concerns from Indian authorities. 

Though recent developments are stoking fears of a return to the violence that occurred decades ago, the Khalistan movement does not have much support within India, said Delhi-based counterterrorism expert Ajai Sahni. 

Sahni said Khalistan supporters are most active in Canada and the UK, but they also have a presence in the US, across Europe, and even in Malaysia and the Philippines. 

“At present, the overwhelming support is from outside, from Sikh extremist diaspora communities,” Sahni told Arab News. “The movement is not securing very much traction on the ground in India.” 

Asylum seekers in UK face being moved into camps and ferries, reports say

Asylum seekers in UK face being moved into camps and ferries, reports say
Updated 27 March 2023

Asylum seekers in UK face being moved into camps and ferries, reports say

Asylum seekers in UK face being moved into camps and ferries, reports say
  • Temporary structures on old military bases and disused ferries to be used for new arrivals, sources tell media

LONDON: Asylum seekers in the UK face being held in camps on abandoned military bases and on disused ferries under government plans, reports say.

Sources told the BBC that former bases in Lincolnshire and Essex are to be confirmed next week and the first people will be moved in within weeks. An announcement on old ferries is also due in the same time frame, the sources said.

The plans come as the government pushes the “Illegal Migration Bill” through parliament, which will ban people arriving in small boats from across the Channel from ever applying for asylum, and confirm plans to send some of them to Rwanda with no chance of return. The law has been condemned by rights groups and international bodies alike.

According to reports, the planned camps on military bases would house between 1,500 to 2,000 migrants. They would be used initially for new arrivals rather than relocating the nearly 51,000 asylum seekers being housed in hundreds of hotels at a reported cost of £6.8 million a day.

The proposals, first reported by the Daily Telegraph, have not been denied by government sources. 

A Home Office spokesperson told the BBC that the government had been “upfront about the unprecedented pressure being placed on our asylum system, brought about by a significant increase in dangerous and illegal journeys into the country.”

In 2018, 300 people reached Britain via the channel. The number rose to 45,000 last year. 

The spokesperson added: “We continue to work across government and with local authorities to identify a range of accommodation options.”

Hotels housing asylum seekers have been targeted for protests by far-right groups, including in Knowsley, Merseyside, where a crowd fought police and set fire to a police van last month. 

Last week residents near the former RAF Scampton base in Lincolnshire, heard that the site could house about 1,500 people, including in temporary cabins on the former runway.

Meanwhile, Europe’s top human rights body wrote to British MPs on Monday urging them to prevent the passing of the “Illegal Migration Bill”, saying it was “incompatible with the UK’s international obligations.” 

The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, said in the letter that the bill created a “clear and direct tension with well-established and fundamental human rights standards.”

Female shooter kills 3 children, 3 adults in Nashville school attack

Female shooter kills 3 children, 3 adults in Nashville school attack
Updated 27 March 2023

Female shooter kills 3 children, 3 adults in Nashville school attack

Female shooter kills 3 children, 3 adults in Nashville school attack
  • Deadly mass shootings have become commonplace in the United States, but a female attacker is highly unusual
  • There have been 89 school shootings — defined as anytime a gun is discharged on school property — in the US so far in 2023

At least three children and three adults were killed in a shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, on Monday before police shot dead the shooter, who appeared to be a teenage girl.
Police began receiving calls of a shooter at The Covenant School at 10:13 a.m.. Officers could hear gunfire coming from the school’s second floor, Don Aaron, a spokesperson for Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, told reporters.
The shooter had at least two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun, Aaron said. Two officers from a five-member team shot at her in what Aaron described as a lobby area and she was dead by 10:27 a.m..
“We do not know who she is at this juncture,” Aaron said.
Deadly mass shootings have become commonplace in the United States, but a female attacker is highly unusual. Only four of the 191 mass shootings since 1966 catalogued by The Violence Project, a nonprofit research center, were carried out by a female attacker.
There have been 89 school shootings — defined as anytime a gun is discharged on school property — in the US so far in 2023, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, a website founded by researcher David Riedman. Last year saw 303 such incidents, the highest of any year in the database, which goes back to 1970.
Three students were pronounced dead after arriving at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt with gunshot wounds, John Howser, a hospital spokesperson, said in a statement. Three adult staff members were killed by the shooter, police said.
Besides the deceased, no one else was shot, Aaron said.
Students’ parents were told to gather at a nearby church.
The Covenant School, founded in 2001, is a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville with about 200 students, according to the school’s website. The school serves preschool through 6th graders and held an active shooter training program in 2022, WTVF-TV reported.

UK travel agent makes millions off migrant accommodation crisis

UK travel agent makes millions off migrant accommodation crisis
Updated 27 March 2023

UK travel agent makes millions off migrant accommodation crisis

UK travel agent makes millions off migrant accommodation crisis
  • Hoban’s company made over £6m in 2022 primarily by finding bridging hotels for Afghan refugees

LONDON: A former travel agent made £2.19 million ($2.7 million) in 2022 from winning UK government contracts to house migrants in hotels, the Daily Mail reported on Monday.

Debbie Hoban is one of the most prominent private-sector chiefs profiting from the UK’s crippling refugee crisis.

Her Leeds-based company, Calder Conferences, made more than £6 million last year, primarily by finding bridging hotels for Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban’s takeover in 2021.

The company is now among many being paid to house small-boat arrivals and other asylum seekers in nearly 400 hotels throughout the UK, the Daily Mail reported.

Hoban lives in a £3 million country farmhouse with four bedrooms, a triple garage, swimming pool, jacuzzi, and basement wine cellar. Social media shows on her lavish trips to India’s Taj Mahal and attending the F1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi.

The BBC revealed that due to a severe scarcity of official accommodation a total of 395 hotels in the UK are being used to house 51,000 asylum seekers. This costs taxpayers more than £6.8 million per day.

“The number of people arriving in the UK who require accommodation has reached record levels and has put our asylum system under incredible strain,” a British Home Office spokesperson told the Daily Mail.

“The Home Office is committed to making every effort to reduce hotel use and limit the burden on the taxpayer,” they added.

In early 2020, Calder was reported to have had secret talks on behalf of the Ministry of Justice to support housing up to 2,000 prisoners in a Butlin’s holiday camp in the English east-coast town of Skegness to alleviate the jails crisis during the coronavirus pandemic, the Daily Mail reported.

Calder’s representatives met with Butlin’s executives and discussed a £10 million scheme to place low-risk prisoners in leisure facilities. However, senior government officials halted the plan before it could be implemented.

The Daily Mail approached Calder Conferences for a comment, but were told, “we decline to comment.”