The growing presence of Mexican cartels on European soil has become a cause of concern for the European Police Office (Europol). Los Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel and other Mexican organized crime groups have expanded their drug trafficking operations in Europe, and have reportedly opened new criminal business ventures in territories that used to be controlled by local mafias.
"[G]roups such as the powerful and violent criminal syndicate, Los Zetas, are reportedly involved in trafficking human beings for sexual exploitation from North East Europe to Mexico," Europol said in a statement released last Friday. "Mexican criminal groups are also trafficking firearms from South East Europe to barter with criminals involved in the cocaine trade in Central South America," the agency added. While the presence of Latin American crime groups into Europe may be growing, it is hardly a novel phenomenon. "The cartels are international, and that has been going on for several years," George W. Grayson, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has written various books about the Mexican cartels, told Univision News. "Europe seems to be an increasingly important destination for them."
For several decades, Colombian criminal organizations were Europe's major cocaine suppliers. Colombian kingpins and groups like FARC and ELN used to control the drug routes that led from South America to Africa, Spain and ultimately most of the European Union. Today, according to Europol and various researchers, the Mexican cartels have forged direct agreements with Colombian producers like FARC, Central American transporters such as the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13), African criminal organizations in countries like Nigeria and European distributors such as the 'Ndrangheta and the Cosa Nostra, the Calabrese and Sicilian mafias.
In the past few years, Mexican cartels have shipped increasingly greater amounts of cocaine towards Spain and Portugal, according to Europol. They have also sent operatives to these countries to expand their European networks. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that the Sinaloa cartel had sent cartel members to Spain to monitor the drug shipments and "to establish a market for cocaine in Europe."
In turn, European criminal organizations have sent their own representatives to Mexico to form partnerships with the cartels. Members from the Cosa Nostra, the 'Ndrangheta and the Camorra, which previously worked with Colombian drug-trafficking groups, reportedly moved to Mexico, where they promptly started working with the cartels, according to a 10-year U.S.-Italian investigation.
Europe is an appealing market, Grayson says, where groups like the Sinaloa cartel are seeing various possibilities to expand. Cocaine prices, for starters, are nearly twice as high as in the U.S., according to the security firm Stratfor. Moreover, in Europe the cartels won't face the same kind of pressure they might face at home if Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto decides to pursue them as aggressively as his predecessor did, according to Grayson.
"Right now, la moneda está en el aire [the coin is in the air]," Grayson said in reference to the Peña Nieto administration's security policies. "But if the government comes up with an effective counterdrug initiative, then that would certainly encourage the cartels to expand their interests in Europe."
European authorities, meanwhile, are already concerned about the current levels of criminal participation of the cartels, especially given the Mexican criminal groups' ruthless execution and takeover methods.
"We do not want the level of violence and brutality which we see in Mexico mirrored in Europe. Together with our law enforcement partners we will continue our efforts to tackle the criminals who are active within the illegal drug markets and ensure that Mexican organized crime groups cannot gain a foothold in Europe," Rob Wainwright, Director of Europol, said.