From The Times
March 28, 2009
Europe rivals US as largest market for Colombian cocaine
Hannah Strange in Bogota
Britain is the world's fastest-growing consumer of Colombian cocaine, the man in charge of fighting the country's drug cartels has warned.
Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian Defence Minister, told The Times that Europe was now rivalling the US as the largest market for cocaine. Trafficking and consumption were booming as the trade with America declined, he said, and Britain - along with Spain, which is the main entry point for cocaine shipments to the Continent - was the country in which use of the drug was increasing most sharply.
"The drugs enter through Spain and Portugal mostly," Mr Santos explained. "England is very important as a final destination." The Russian mafia was using its criminal networks to control much of the trafficking and distribution in Europe, while Spain was an important staging post because of its cultural and language links to Latin America.
In addition several African countries were rapidly establishing themselves as important bridges between Colombia - which produces 50 per cent of the world's cocaine - and Europe, he added.
Mr Santos, responsible for Colombia's fight against the paramilitary groups and cartels who control the drug trade, said the extent of cocaine trafficking networks meant no country could ignore the threat. While Colombia was making progress in interrupting cultivation and production at home, it could not break the entire chain alone.
"This is a very big fight, very globalised, and because of this it is a fight in which all the world must be present," he said.
Colombia has accused neighbouring Venezuela of impeding the fight against smuggling, claiming that President Chavez's Government turns a blind eye to traffickers operating within its borders and provides sanctuary to the FARC guerrilla movement, which draws much of its financing from the trade.
This month Mr Chavez sent troops to the border after Mr Santos warned that Colombia was prepared to strike beyond its frontiers in its fight against FARC; the Venezuelan leader said he would not hesitate to send his jets and tanks into Colombia if his country's sovereignty was threatened.
Anti-drug officials estimate that 50 per cent of all cocaine consumed in Britain travels via Venezuela, which officially ended all co-operation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) amid poisonous relations with the Bush Administration. While Mr Chavez himself has denounced the drugs trade as evil and has recently stepped up domestic efforts to confront the traffickers, corrupt security officials are believed to tolerate or even assist the trade.
The US State Department's latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report says Colombian traffickers are "often facilitated and protected by members of the Venezuelan military". While some shipments are said to leave from airstrips on the Venezuelan mainland - last week the Colombian Army arrested two suspected FARC cocaine brokers for allegedly attempting to smuggle 1,000 kilograms in this way - the Venezuelan Caribbean island of Margarita has also emerged as a key staging post.
In February a British couple, Paul and Laura Makin, were arrested at the island's airport as they tried to board a flight back to Britain with 24 kilograms of the drug hidden inside their suitcases. Mr Makin told The Times shortly after his arrest that the deal - which he claims he believed was to smuggle diamonds - was arranged by British contacts who told him that members of the Venezuelan national guard would facilitate his passage.
The latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identifies Britain as Europe's largest cocaine market in absolute terms, with consumption having risen fourfold in the past decade.
Iran 'hangs 20 drug traffickers'
Iran has executed 20 people for drug trafficking, official media says.
The group - all convicted of buying, selling and possessing drugs - were hanged in a prison in Karaj, west of Tehran.
Over 700kg (1,540lb) of drugs including heroin, cocaine and opium had been seized from the group, all arrested in the last five years, the reports said.
Human rights groups say Iran executes more people than every country in the world apart from China.
It executed at least 346 people in 2008, Amnesty International said.
The Supreme Court had rejected appeals for clemency from the group executed on Saturday, who were aged between 35 and 48, Iranian news agencies said.