This is the fourth in a blog series based on the findings of the 2015 annual European Drugs Report published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. In it, I explore opioid trafficking routes from Asia to Europe.
Changes in opioid supply routes
Imported heroin has historically been available in Europe in two forms, the most common being brown heroin (its chemical base form), originating mainly in Afghanistan and other countries in south-west Asia. Less common is white heroin (a salt form), which historically came from south-east Asia but is now also produced in Afghanistan and probably in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. This region, known as the Golden Crescent, dominates production for the European market.
There has been a decrease in the use of heroin in many European countries with longer-established heroin use problems, but, at the same time, there appears to be an increased diversity of opioids appearing on the market.
There has also been a marked increase in opium production in Afghanistan, and there is evidence to suggest diversification of heroin and morphine production and innovation in trafficking methods and routes.
The European heroin market
Since 2010 there has been a shortage of heroin in many European countries at the same time as there appears to have been a reduction in heroin use. Trends for heroin prices and heroin supply offences in Europe have also been decreasing, although in the most recent data (2013) heroin purity shows an overall increase and some countries report the growing availability of the drug.
There is also evidence of a wider range of opioids being used and seized. In a number of countries opioids other than heroin, such as methadone, buprenorphine or fentanyl, are reported by significant numbers of treatment clients and have been seized by law enforcement agencies.
In addition, 14 new synthetic opioids have been reported to the European Union (EU) Early Warning System since 2005.
Opium production in Afghanistan
Most of the heroin trafficked to Europe originates in Afghanistan, where the rise in opium poppy cultivation can be traced back to the 1980s, when conflict engulfed the country. Production has increased steadily over the last 30 years, with an estimated 6,400 tonnes of opium in 2014 – approximately 80% of the global total.
The three main routes to Europe
Historically, most of the heroin trafficked to Europe from Afghanistan came overland via what has become known as the Balkan route. Now, although the Balkan route probably remains the main heroin trafficking route into the EU, there is evidence of an increase in the diversity of routes and modes of transport being used.
1. The traditional Balkan route
A route linking Afghanistan to Iran then passing through Turkey represents the shortest distance and most direct land route to European consumer markets. This route has been used to traffic heroin into the EU since the 1980s or earlier, and is well established. Turkey is crucial to the Balkan route, owing to its extensive trade and travel links with Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Istanbul is a key location used by organised crime groups to arrange heroin transports with Turkish facilitators storing heroin for transport to the EU. From Turkey there are multiple possibilities to ship heroin either overland or by sea.
2. The Southern route
In recent years large heroin consignments shipped from ports in Iran and Pakistan on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, especially from a region of Baluchistan known as the Makran Coast, have attracted international attention. Some of this heroin is destined for Europe. This ‘Southern route’ to Europe entails several modes of transportation and trans-shipment points that may be combined in different ways.
Initially, heroin consignments depart Iranian and Pakistani container terminals and fishing ports bound for countries in the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa. A proportion of this heroin supplies local consumer markets in Africa and the Middle East, but a significant and growing amount is trafficked onward to destinations including Europe. Large amounts are sent by ship with smaller amounts by air and post.
3. The Northern route
The heroin trafficked on the ‘Northern route’ is exported by land from Afghanistan’s northern borders, destined for the very large consumer markets in Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. A small proportion of heroin shipped on the Northern route eventually enters the EU’s eastern borders in Poland and the Baltic countries.
Recent drug seizures suggest that there may be a newly emerging Caucasus route. On this route, opiates produced in the Golden Crescent are trafficked from Iran to Turkey via Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Conclusion: factors influencing trafficking routes
The EMCDDA concludes that trafficking routes are increasingly flexible and fluid, adapting to three factors in particular:
- Instability and armed conflict may push traffickers to avoid specific areas or countries and seek alternative routes if the conflict is such that the safety of drug consignments cannot be guaranteed. Conversely, areas of conflict may attract drug flows because they often imply a suspension of the rule of law and the emergence of local or regional powers (for example, ‘warlords’) whose control over strategic locations like ports and border crossing points may be ‘rented out’ to drug traffickers. Importantly, armed conflicts create a need for funds, especially in order to buy weapons, and trafficking drugs may become a source of finance for one or several of the factions.
- Changes in law enforcement activities and positioning, or the introduction of new equipment (e.g. scanners) or methodologies (e.g. searching all passengers and luggage on specific flights or vessels) may cause traffickers to alter their route or change their modus operandi if the seizure rate is too high for the profitability of the business. (Of course sometimes changes in law enforcement result in the ‘discovery’ of trafficking routes that may have been in existence for some time.)
- Globalisation has facilitated rapid connection and transportation between drug production and drug consumer markets. Recent international developments in transport infrastructure, courier services and containerised shipping have offered a range of new opportunities to traffickers to conceal drug consignments while hampering the efforts of law enforcement to intercept them.