Methamphetamine and criminal networks in Europe — flexible, adaptable and resilient

Criminal networks active in the production and trafficking of methamphetamine in the EU are adapting quickly to regulatory changes aimed at curbing the methamphetamine trade. This includes circumventing legislative controls and accommodating the availability of precursors or pre-precursors, making it difficult for law enforcement to intervene and disrupt methamphetamine production.

The high degree of adaptability of these criminal networks is reflected in the fluid and commercial nature of the relationships established between the actors involved in the different stages of the methamphetamine trade. The trade is fragmented and relies on the services of brokers facilitating connections between logistics providers, producers, transporters or distributors of methamphetamine. The specialization and outsourcing of tasks to brokers gives criminals greater flexibility to engage in more business ventures.

The large-scale production of methamphetamine in the EU is facilitated by a network of international connections providing access to logistics and transport infrastructure. European producers of methamphetamine are increasingly outsourcing services such as the supply of precursors and equipment, the disposal of waste generated during the production, transport and distribution of methamphetamine around the world, as well as the collecting and laundering drug money. Occasionally, the networks used by methamphetamine producers provide end-to-end services or span more than one stage of the drug trafficking cycle.

Logistics: a parallel business supporting the production of methamphetamine

Drug precursors and related chemicals used in the large-scale production of methamphetamine in Western Europe are largely brought into the EU from China. While some long-established methamphetamine production networks reportedly largely manage their own supply of precursors, other criminal networks appear to have taken on the role of independent logistics providers for synthetic drug producers in the EU. Some criminal groups have specialized in supplying methamphetamine producers across the EU with precursors, related chemicals and equipment needed to produce the drug. The Bulgarian and Polish networks operating across the EU are examples of this business fragmentation, as they serve several different networks dealing specifically with methamphetamine production. Sometimes these parallel networks provide the complete package (chemicals, equipment and expertise) needed to set up and operate meth production facilities.

Drugs containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine used for methamphetamine production in central Europe often seem to come in large quantities from outside the EU, with Turkey, the UK and the Western Balkan region being indicated as places of transit or sources. On a smaller scale, these drugs also come from the EU. In some cases, precursors are partially processed in transit countries and then transported to the final stages of methamphetamine production, which take place in Czechia, Poland or Slovakia.

Operational modes

Criminal networks active in drug trafficking often deal in multiple drugs, particularly at the mid-market and retail level, and use the same techniques to move illicit substances, including legal business structures, corrupt officials or port workers.

Shipments of methamphetamine seized in the EU arrive by different means of transport, such as couriers by air, in passenger cars or trucks, by train or by ferry, or by parcel and post services, the latter being often linked to methamphetamine sold online. Larger quantities of methamphetamine were transported to the EU in sea containers (see box Operation PONTOON) or by air freight.

Use of postal systems and parcel services

Postal systems and parcel delivery services are exploited by criminals engaged in the international trafficking of methamphetamine. Due to the extremely high volume of postal items and parcels dispatched daily, small shipments are not likely to be detected. Contactless payments for illicit drugs have increased, with the COVID-19 pandemic likely further accelerating the volumes of illicit products distributed by post and parcel services (Europol, 2021). In 2020, methamphetamine was one of the drugs most often seized in postal shipments (Pompidou Group, Council of Europe and WCO, 2021).

The use of postal systems and parcel services for the distribution of methamphetamine is reported in several EU Member States which were either destination countries or transit countries for parcels containing the drug. Similar to other types of drugs, methamphetamine remains available to consumers on the darknet; purchases made there are usually facilitated by courier and shipping services, with medicine packages often sent to anonymous office boxes for self-service collection (UNODC, 2021).

Concealment methods

Comprehensive information regarding the different concealment methods used for wholesale methamphetamine trafficking to the EU is not available. However, case-level information suggests that criminals demonstrate a high degree of creativity when hiding drugs. The large-scale smuggling of methamphetamine from Mexico to the EU (most likely in transit to non-European markets) is believed to rely largely on concealment in legitimate goods transported in shipping containers (see Operation PONTOON box). Several cases have demonstrated how far criminal networks will go to smuggle large quantities of methamphetamine. For example, in 2020, Spanish law enforcement recovered 752 kilograms of methamphetamine from two large blocks of marble imported from Mexico. The drugs had been placed in plastic pipes inserted in cylindrical cavities made in marble blocks weighing 25 tons, 28 of which were imported, 26 without concealment of drugs (Guardia Civil, 2020). The establishment of legal business structures is a key factor in enabling the concealment of drugs in such legitimate shipments.


See the list of references used in this resource.

Comments are closed.