Traffickers use Northeast ports to distribute cocaine

Santos is considered one of the main distribution points for cocaine, by sea, in the world. Located on the coast of São Paulo, the port appears on a list of four locations that stand out in the global maritime drug trade, along with Buenaventura and Cartagena, in Colombia, and with Guayaquil, in Ecuador.

The information is in the global report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), released this week.

The same document reveals, however, that smaller ports located in the northern part of the Brazilian territory are assuming an increasingly important role as entrepots for the transatlantic cocaine trade, mainly for shipments destined for Europe.

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The report does not indicate which ports they are, nor does it clarify in which North/Northeast states they are located, but informs that traffickers are resorting to these alternatives due to increased inspections at the port of Santos.

For researcher Thiago Moreira de Souza Rodrigues, from the Postgraduate Program in Strategic Studies in Defense and Security at the Fluminense Federal University (PPGEST/UFF), some ports in the Northeast have stood out as outposts.

“Brazil has an Atlantic projection towards Africa and Europe. The ports in the North and mainly in the Northeast – Recife, Maceió, Fortaleza – have a projection in relation to Europe. The Northeast is the part of South America that is closest to Europe and Africa,” says the researcher.

In April this year, the Federal Police (PF) carried out an operation against a criminal organization that used the port of Salvador to ship the drug to Europe. From 2019 to 2021, more than 3.5 tons of cocaine trafficked by the group were seized.

In December 2021, almost half a ton of cocaine was seized at the port of Mucuripe, in Fortaleza, by the Federal Revenue. The cargo, estimated at R$ 250 million, was destined for the port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.

In November of that year, 1.6 ton of the drug was found in the port of Natal (RN), camouflaged in a load of ginger. The previous month, at the port of Vila de Conde, in Barcarena (PA), a ton of cocaine was seized, mixed with a shipment of manganese. In both cases, the destination was the same Dutch port city.

“Drug trafficking is a very dynamic economy. The fact that it operates illegally makes the distribution channels very flexible. There is something called the ‘balloon effect’, that is, when you squeeze one end, the other inflates. If Santos is the main channel and repression operates there, this displaces drug trafficking to other regions. If it strangles on one side, it will find alternative routes”, explains Rodrigues.

The port of Santos, however, as the report itself highlights, has not lost its strategic importance for the illicit business. Last Thursday (30), for example, the Federal Police and the Federal Revenue Service seized 500 kilos of cocaine, hidden in a container, amid a legal load of sugar.

Two weeks earlier, a ton of the drug had been seized in the port of São Paulo, in two operations.

But it’s not just São Paulo and the Northeast. Similar seizures were carried out this year in ports such as Paranaguá (PR), Rio Grande (RS), at a private terminal in Vitória (ES) and in Aracruz (ES).


The same report shows that Brazil is cited as the main exporter of cocaine outside the American continent, ahead even of Colombia, one of the three largest cocaine producers in the world, along with Bolivia and Peru.

Without considering the three producing countries, Brazil is cited as one of the three most important countries in the world cocaine market, along with Ecuador and Mexico.

Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador are identified as the main points of departure for cocaine arriving in Europe.

From 2015 to 2021, 70% of the cocaine seized in Africa and 46% of the shipments seized in Asia left the American continent through Brazil. In 2020 and 2021, the country accounted for 72% of the cocaine found by Asian authorities.

“Brazil has already consolidated itself in this position. For more than ten years, the report has indicated Brazil as a key point for international trafficking towards Europe”, explains Thiago Rodrigues.

According to the researcher, there are several explanations for the phenomenon. The most obvious is Brazil’s geographic position. In addition to being the only country that borders the three producers, the country has an advantageous position in the South Atlantic, which allows easy maritime connections with Africa and Europe.

Other points highlighted by Rodrigues are the presence of international criminal organizations in Brazil, such as the Italian mafia, for several years, and the role of Brazilian criminal factions, such as those in Rio and São Paulo, in intercontinental trafficking.

The researcher also recalls that Brazil is an important cocaine consumer market, something that is also pointed out in the United Nations report. Between 2016 and 2021, 416 tons of cocaine were seized across the country, according to PF data.


The cocaine was hidden in a compartment under the floor of a truck.
Cocaine was hidden in a compartment under the floor of a truck – PRF Disclosure

In a statement, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security informed that it has around 1,000 security professionals on permanent surveillance along the country’s 16,900 kilometers of land border, through Operation Horus.

The Ministry also informed that it is investing in training and in the acquisition of various types of vessels to prevent the entry of drugs through the rivers.

“With the integrated action of state and federal security forces, from May 2019 to May 2022, it was possible to avoid a breach of R$801.2 million in public coffers and to embezzle R$6 billion from criminal organizations with the seizure of drugs (1,515 tons), weapons (4,400), vehicles (8,700), boats (659), smuggled products and the arrest of 15,300 people,” the note said.

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