AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Saturday night and thrill-seekers from around the world crowd the streets of Amsterdam’s red-light district ready to binge on sex, drugs and alcohol.
“Hey, mister, do you want some cocaine?” a man mutters from a dark corner while a blonde prostitute removes her bra in a shop window, to lure customers into her room.
It’s no accident the dealer was offering cocaine before he moved on to other drugs. Cocaine use has almost tripled in Europe over the past decade, while U.S. consumption has stabilized, according to U.N. figures released in June.
“There is a certain glamour to cocaine in the media which has become very appealing to all sectors of European society,” said Peter Thomas, a spokesman for European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in Lisbon.
Portuguese police say a stronger euro is also attracting cocaine smugglers into European cities like Amsterdam, London and Madrid where party-goers can easily pay up to 60 euros ($82.78) to get high on a few lines of the white powder.
Wholesale, the drug in Europe fetches up to $77,000 per kg, almost twice the amount it sells for in the U.S., according to the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Dealers focus their trade in cities with money,” Jose Braz, the director of the Department of Narcotics in Portugal, which has become a significant entry-point for cocaine into Europe, told Reuters. “There is more and more dirty money in euros.”
“There was a lot of euphoria with love-drugs like ecstasy 10 years ago but that is going away now,” said an employee of the Magic Mushroom Smartshop near Amsterdam’s night club scene in Rembrandtplein square. He identified himself simply as AR.
“Coke is cold and ego-boosting and allows people to forget about their insecurities. I suppose the world is becoming a colder place these days,” he added.
Europe’s demand for cocaine may be growing but the real test for the Latin American cartels is breaking into Europe’s sophisticated external borders and airports.
The solution normally comes in the form of bribes.
According to the United Nations, cartels increasingly rely on corrupt officials in poor West African nations like Guinea Bissau, a tiny former Portuguese colony, to store the cocaine before it is smuggled into Europe’s booming market.
“These criminals are entrepreneurs. They see a window of opportunity and immediately jump in,” said Braz, who worked with Bissau police recently to help fight cocaine smuggling.
In April, Guinea Bissau’s police was commended by the United Nations for seizing over 600 kg of cocaine -- worth more than 30 million euros -- but it was later discovered the traffickers had still managed to escape with about 2.5 tonnes of the drug.
“It is regrettable that the rest of the consignment was not intercepted, but hardly surprising as the police were woefully ill-equipped and often do not have enough gasoline to operate their vehicles,” said Antonio Costa, the Executive Director of the U.N.’s Office of Drugs and Crime.
In a statement to authorities in Bissau, Costa urged them to ensure that the seized cocaine would not “disappear” like previous drug busts.
The cocaine that eludes authorities is normally split among hundreds of smugglers willing to risk hefty jail sentences to enter Europe through countries like Portugal and Spain.
Last year, police in both countries, which have strong geographical and cultural ties with Africa and historic links with Latin America, seized a combined 70 tonnes of cocaine, about the same amount that was seized in all of Europe in 2004.
“We are now a key entry point of drugs into Europe,” said Braz.
But record drug busts in 2006 and 2007 in Europe have prompted cartels to turn to people who are willing to fly to Europe with cocaine hidden in bags or inside their bodies for up to 5,000 euros -- a small sum considering the risks involved.
“What we have found is that drug mules have increasingly been used to smuggle the drug through airports,” said Peter Thomas from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Last week, two British teenage girls were arrested at Accra airport in Ghana, allegedly carrying 300,000 pounds ($609,500) worth of cocaine in laptop bags.
But unlike the movie Maria Full of Grace, which portrays a teenage women as a drug mule, most of the mules are still young men like Jackson, a 27-year-old architect from Venezuela, who was caught in Lisbon trying to bring the drug into Europe.
Trapped in a downward spiral of debt and with a family to provide for, Jackson boarded a flight from Caracas to Amsterdam via Lisbon in June last year with one kg of cocaine inside his stomach and two kg strapped around his body.
“The deal was to deliver 3 kilos of cocaine in Amsterdam but I couldn’t swallow all the capsules and was afraid to die. So I hid some of the drugs on my body,” Jackson told a Lisbon-based judge at his first hearing after being arrested.
He now faces at least five years in prison and fears reprisals against his family back home from the drug cartel which hired him to do the job, but he is lucky to be alive.
For Europeans, like the group of men waiting outside the bathroom of a popular club in Amsterdam to snort another line, the party goes on. Or so they hope.
“They may forget about their problems when they’re high but reality will eventually sink in. I just hope most of them are able to cope with it,” said AR.
Additional reporting by Sofia Van Holle in Lisbon