Eva Vilà

The killing of two police officers by suspected drug traffickers in Cádiz, Spain, in February 2024 has highlighted the growing vulnerability of the country as one of the main entry points for drugs into Europe.

On 9 February 2024, in the Spanish port of Barbate, Cádiz, a ‘narco-boat’ (a type of vessel used by drug traffickers to smuggle drugs into ports around the world) deliberately rammed into the police boat chasing it. The collision resulted in the deaths of the two officers on board and calls for the resignation of Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska. Since 2016, more than 20 deaths have been recorded as a result of drug trafficking in the Strait of Gibraltar. The rise in drug trafficking-related violence in southern Spain is partly linked to the increase in the illegal possession of weapons by criminal groups and inadequate police resources to curb the drug and arms trades. Insecurity and violence have intensified in recent months, amid a perception that drug criminals enjoy impunity and freedom of movement.  

Spain ranks fifth out of 44 European countries in terms of criminality, according to the 2023 Global Organized Crime Index. With a criminality score of 5.90 out of 10 (an increase of 0.13 points since the last iteration of the Index in 2021), it is surpassed only by Serbia, Italy, Ukraine and Russia. Spain scores particularly high in the drug markets measured by the Index, especially in the cannabis and cocaine trades (7.50), both of which have increased by 0.50 points since 2021. Although the synthetic drug trade has a lower score (5.50), that market has increased substantially – by 1.50 points – since 2021. Heroin trafficking has remained stable, with a score of 6.50.  

Spain continues to be a strategic point of entry for drugs into Europe. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a record 303 tonnes of cocaine were seized by EU member states in 2021, with Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain accounting for 75% of this. Pending the latest data on total cocaine seizures in Spain in 2023, police sources believe that the country has doubled its cocaine seizures compared with 2022. In December 2023, Spanish authorities seized 11 tonnes of cocaine in Valencia and Vigo (Galicia), the country’s largest seizures to date. The drug, hidden among a shipment of frozen tuna and false bottoms of shipping containers, came from South America and was destined for consumer markets in Europe. Twenty people suspected of belonging to an organized crime group from the Western Balkans were arrested in connection with the seizures. 

With direct maritime links to South America and Africa, Spain is a transit point for drugs heading to other countries in Europe via Valencia, Andalusia, Galicia and Catalonia. It is also a consumer destination market. Most drugs that arrive in Spain are hidden in shipping containers used to transport legal goods, making it difficult to detect illicit cargoes that evade security and surveillance controls, or they are smuggled in specially designed narco-boats. 

Cocaine trafficking routes and methods in Europe. Source: The cocaine pipeline to Europe, GI-TOC and InSight Crime, February 2021
Cocaine trafficking routes and methods in Europe. Source: The cocaine pipeline to Europe, GI-TOC and InSight Crime, February 2021


To stem the flow of drugs into Europe, in January 2024, the European Commission launched a publicprivate partnership between ports, national authorities, European agencies, customs and police authorities to control and process the millions of containers entering the continent each year. ‘We cannot succeed if we focus only on the national level,’ said Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden. ‘That is why six countries – the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium – decided to join forces to fight organized crime.’ The initiative aims to strengthen targeted controls and extend support for police operations through Europol, Eurojust and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. 

The Spanish interior ministry has allocated €36.9 million to bolster policing, improve technological resources and support intelligence activities to combat drug trafficking in Andalusia, the region where most South American cocaine arrives. However, more needs to be done to ensure a holistic response. As Spain’s chief anti-narcotics prosecutor, Rosa Ana Morán, said in response to the February 2024 incident, other departments, such as justice, transport and defence, should support the interior ministry in combating drug trafficking. ‘We are not only talking about narco-boats,’ said Morán. ‘The problem of cocaine entering through ports remains. A very broad strategy is needed.’ Corruption is another problem, she added, having stated in past remarks that ‘it is difficult to smuggle so many drugs into the ports without insider collaboration.’  

Drug trafficking is not going away; it is a continually developing economy, and public institutions often do not have adequate instruments to combat it. Dismantling the criminal networks involved can therefore be a Herculean task. Relations between European and Latin American criminal groups are becoming stronger and more coordinated, as they seek new trafficking routes, resources and more sophisticated materials to keep ahead of the state’s responses. International cooperation should be a key component in the response, including the exchange of police information between agencies from different continents, a package of public policies adapted to each country and better anti-corruption policies. 

The deaths of the two Spanish police officers in February are just the tip of the iceberg. Although Spain ranks with a high score for resilience in the Global Organized Crime Index – particularly in the areas of international cooperation, national policies and laws, and law enforcement – it needs to improve its control over its ports to weaken the cartels’ stranglehold.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.