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)
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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
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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.”


Migrants and homeless people are cleared out of Paris during the Olympics

Updated 4 sec ago
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Migrants and homeless people are cleared out of Paris during the Olympics

  • group of largely African migrants headed for the fringes of the city in buses paid for by the French government and into temporary lodging until at least the end of the Games
  • Activist groups and migrants have called the practice – long used in other Olympic host cities like Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – a form of ‘social cleansing’
PARIS: Carrying backpacks and small children, hundreds of people sleeping on the streets of Paris climbed aboard buses surrounded by armed police Thursday, the latest group of migrants and homeless people to be driven out of the city ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2024 Olympics.
The group of largely African migrants headed for the fringes of the city in buses paid for by the French government and into temporary lodging until at least the end of the Games. While some living on the streets were happy to have a roof over their head for the night, few knew what laid ahead once the world’s eyes were off Paris.
“It’s like poker. I don’t know where I will go, or how much time I will stay,” said Nikki, a 47-year-old homeless Parisian who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy.
French authorities have been clearing out migrant and homeless encampments for months leading up to the massive global sports event, which is an important moment for President Emmanuel Macron at a time of political turmoil. But the Games also have faced criticism as Parisians have complained about everything from elevated public transit fees to government spending on cleaning up the Seine River for swimming instead of investing in the social safety net.
Authorities also have been sharply criticized as they have bused camping migrants from the city center where the Olympics are taking place to the fringes of Paris or other areas. Activist groups and migrants have called the practice – long used in other Olympic host cities like Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – a form of “social cleansing.”
“They want to clean the city for the Olympic Games, for the tourists,” said Nathan Lequeux, an organizer for the activist group Utopia 56. “As treatment of migrants is becoming more horrible and infamous, people are being chased off the streets. ... Since the Olympics, this aggressiveness, this policy of hunting has become more pronounced.”
Christophe Noël Du Payrat, chief of staff of the regional government of Île-de-France that surrounds Paris, firmly denied those accusations and said the government has relocated migrants from the city for years.
“We are taking care of them,” he said. ”We don’t really understand the criticism because we are very much determined to offer places for these people.”
He spoke as dozens of police rounded up migrants, blocking them from walking on the streets and putting up caution tape. When asked why there were so many armed police officers for a group largely made up of families, Noël Du Payrat said it was to maintain “peace and calm.”
The buses Thursday came after three days of protest by hundreds of migrants and other homeless people like Nikki, who slept in front of a local government office as athletes and tourists flooded into Paris. They railed against authorities breaking up homeless encampments and demanded better access to temporary housing.
Among them was Natacha Louise Gbetie, a 36-year-old migrant from Burkina Faso, and her 1-year-old son she carried on her back. Gbetie, who once worked as an accountant in her country, migrated to the southern French city of Montpellier with family members five years ago.
Many of the families relocated by French authorities are like Gbetie — from African countries once colonized by the French, including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
After an abusive situation, she moved to Paris. She was able to make ends meet working as a baby-sitter and sleeping in public housing. That ended during the lead up to the Olympics, when she said access to social housing was slashed and prices of lodging in hostels soared. She said most employers in France don’t want to hire her because she’s an immigrant without legal status and has felt rejected as an anti-immigrant far-right party has gained greater power in France.
“I think France is saturated. They’re tired of migrants, they want us to leave their country,” Gbetie said.
The protest group agreed that families would board buses to a province near Paris and families would remain together in shelters.
Despite the agreement, protest leaders expressed concern that the move would isolate migrants and said it was still unclear what would happen to the city’s homeless people.
Others like Gbetie worried for the future of her 1-year-old son, Richard. Despite being born in France, Gbetie said he was among those who had been forgotten.
“We have children who are French,” she said. “They will be the future engineers and executives of this country. Think of them first and, for now, forget about the Olympics.”

Humanity suffering from ‘extreme heat epidemic,’ UN chief warns

Updated 41 min 8 sec ago
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Humanity suffering from ‘extreme heat epidemic,’ UN chief warns

  • UN chief repeats call for humanity to fight “addiction” to fossil fuels amid global warming 
  • UN estimates economic losses from heat stress at work will reach $2.4 trillion by 2030

United Nations, United States: Humanity is suffering from an “extreme heat epidemic,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Thursday, calling for action to limit the impacts of heat waves intensified by climate change.
“Billions of people are facing an extreme heat epidemic — wilting under increasingly deadly heat waves, with temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius around the world,” he said. “That’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit. And halfway to boiling.”
According to the European Copernicus network, July 21, 22 and 23 were the three hottest days ever recorded worldwide, with July 22 holding the absolute record of 17.16 degrees Celsius (62.9 degrees Fahrenheit).
Guterres repeated his call for humanity to fight its “addiction” to fossil fuels.
“Today, our focus is on the impact of extreme heat. But let’s not forget that there are many other devastating symptoms of the climate crisis: ever-more fierce hurricanes. Floods. Droughts. Wildfires. Rising sea levels. And the list goes on,” he said.
“To tackle all these symptoms, we need to fight the disease. And the disease is the madness of incinerating our only home. The disease is the addiction to fossil fuels. The disease is climate inaction,” he stressed, calling in particular on G20 countries to take action.
While 2023 was the hottest year on record, and 2024 could set a new record, temperatures well above 40C (104F) are increasingly common.
In the space of a year, the 50C threshold has even been exceeded in at least 10 places, from Death Valley in the United States (53.9C on July 7) to Agadir in Morocco, and also in China and India.
The intense heat, often less visible than other devastating impacts of climate change such as storms or floods, is nonetheless more deadly.
This “silent killer” is responsible for around 489,000 deaths per year between 2000 and 2019, compared with 16,000 deaths per year from cyclones, according to the UN’s “Call to Action” document published on Thursday.
Extremely high temperatures also have an economic impact, with the UN estimating economic losses from heat stress at work will reach $2.4 trillion in 2030.
According to a report by the International Labor Organization published on Thursday, more than 70 percent of workers were exposed to excessive heat in 2020, 8.8 percent more than in 2000.
“The good news is that we can save lives and we can limit its impact,” Guterres said Thursday.
The UN has called for the world community to first act to protect “the most vulnerable” — including young children, the elderly and also humanity’s poorest.
In this context, early warning systems should include extreme heat, warning populations of the arrival of heat waves and informing them of the precautions to take, the document says.
The call to action also recommends an “increase (to) equitable access to and scale up (of) low-carbon cooling.”
This would involve investing in passive cooling systems — which include climate-sensitive urban design measures, reflective surfaces and natural cooling systems — and the phase-out of climate-warming gases that are used in many cooling systems.
 


UK Afghanistan war crimes probe lifts jail threat on former minister

Updated 25 July 2024
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UK Afghanistan war crimes probe lifts jail threat on former minister

  • Johnny Mercer said “multiple officers” told him about alleged murders and subsequent cover-up during Afghan conflict

LONDON: Britain’s former minister for veterans has “provided further information” to a public inquiry into claims of war crimes by special forces in Afghanistan, a spokeswoman said Thursday, after he was threatened with jail.
Johnny Mercer has said that “multiple officers” told him about alleged murders and a subsequent cover-up during the Afghan conflict, but he refused to divulge their identities.
The Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan, which is examining the claims, gave him until 4:00 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Thursday to provide the names, insisting the information would be in confidence.
The judge-led inquiry had previously issued Mercer with an order under Britain’s Inquiries Act 2005 warning him he could be fined, imprisoned or both if he did not comply.
“Mr Mercer has provided further information in response to the Section 21 notice and agreed to assist the inquiry further,” an inquiry spokeswoman said.
“The inquiry team will be taking this forward. For the time being, the chair will not be taking further action in relation to the Section 21 notice or making further comment.”
Mercer, a former British Army officer who served three tours of Afghanistan, repeatedly refused to disclose the names when he gave evidence at the inquiry in February.
The inquiry is examining claims that between 2010 and 2013 a British special forces unit executed Afghan males of “fighting age” who posed no threat.
The former minister, who lost his seat at this month’s general election, said in response to the latest development: “My position remains unchanged from the beginning of the year.”
“I will always do all I can to assist this important inquiry. I will not betray those I served who have confided in me, whatever the cost,” he wrote on social media.


UN demands action on extreme heat as world registers warmest day

Updated 25 July 2024
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UN demands action on extreme heat as world registers warmest day

  • “Extreme heat is the new abnormal,” Guterres said
  • “The world must rise to the challenge of rising temperatures”

LONDON: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Thursday for countries to address the urgency of the extreme heat epidemic, fueled by climate change — days after the world registered its hottest day on record.
“Extreme heat is the new abnormal,” Guterres said. “The world must rise to the challenge of rising temperatures,” he said.
Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent, more intense and longer lasting across the world.
Already this year, scorching conditions have killed 1,300 Hajj pilgrims, closed schools for some 80 million children in Africa and Asia, and led to a spike in hospitalizations and deaths in the Sahel.
Every month since June 2023 has now ranked as the planet’s warmest since records began in 1940, compared with the corresponding month in previous years, according the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.
The UN called on governments to not only tamp down fossil fuel emissions — the driver of climate change — but to bolster protections for the most vulnerable, including the elderly, pregnant women and children, and step up safeguards for workers.
Over 70 percent of the global workforce — 2.4 billion people — are now at high risk of extreme heat, according to a report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) published Thursday.
In Africa, nearly 93 percent of the workforce is exposed to excessive heat, and 84 percent of the Arab States’ workforce, the ILO report found.
Excessive heat has been blamed for causing almost 23 million workplace injuries worldwide, and some 19,000 deaths annually.
“We need measures to protect workers, grounded in human rights,” Guterres said.
He also called for governments to “heatproof” their economies, critical sectors such as health care, and the built environment.
Cities are warming at twice the worldwide average rate due to rapid urbanization and the urban heat island effect.
By 2050, some researchers estimate a 700 percent global increase in the number of urban poor living in extreme heat conditions.
This is the first time the UN has put out a global call for action on extreme heat.
“We need a policy signal and this is it,” said Kathy Baughman Mcleod, CEO of Climate Resilience for All, a nonprofit focused on extreme heat.
“It’s recognition of how big it is and how urgent it is. It’s also recognition that everybody doesn’t feel in the same way and pay the same price for it.”


Israel warns France of Iranian threats at Olympics Games

Updated 25 July 2024
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Israel warns France of Iranian threats at Olympics Games

  • “There are those who seek to harm the festivities of this joyous event,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told his French counterpart
  • “We currently have assessments of potential threats from Iranian terror affiliates“

JERUSALEM: Israel warned France on Thursday of potential threats from Iran-backed groups against Israeli athletes and tourists in Paris during the Olympic Games.
“There are those who seek to harm the festivities of this joyous event,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told his French counterpart in a letter, copies of which were released to the media.
“We currently have assessments of potential threats from Iranian terror affiliates and other terrorist organizations aiming to carry out terror attacks against members of the Israeli delegation and Israeli tourists during the Olympics.”
France has mounted a vast security operation to ensure the Olympics are safe. Around 18,000 French troops have been deployed to secure the Games in addition to regular police.
All Israeli athletes at the Paris Games, which start officially on Friday, will have round-the-clock personal security provided by elite French police, both inside the Olympic village and every time they leave the compound in northern Paris.
In an address to the US Congress on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a global alliance against the Iranian “axis of terror.”
He argued that the United States and Israel “must stand together” against Iran and its proxies.
Iran had hailed the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel but said it was not involved in it.
Tensions have soared during the war sparked by the attack, drawing in Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Yemen’s Houthis, along with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon and former Iran-backed paramilitaries in the Iraqi armed forces, are part of a Tehran-aligned “axis of resistance” that supports Hamas against Israel and its allies.
Iran has reiterated support for the groups but insisted they are independent in their decision-making and actions.
On April 13-14, Iran carried out an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel, days after an air strike widely attributed to Israel levelled Iran’s consulate in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards, two of them generals.