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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cocaine Smuggling Grows on Euro's Back

AMSTERDAM -- It's Saturday night and thrill-seekers from around the world crowd the streets of Amsterdam's red-light district ready to binge on sex, drugs and alcohol.

"Hey, mister, do you want some cocaine?" a man mutters from a dark corner while a blonde prostitute removes her bra in a shop window to lure in customers.

It's no accident the dealer was offering cocaine before he moved on to other drugs. Cocaine use has almost tripled in Europe over the past decade, while U.S. consumption has stabilized, according to United Nations figures released in June.

"There is a certain glamour to cocaine in the media, which has become very appealing to all sectors of European society," said Peter Thomas, a spokesman for European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. in Lisbon.

Portuguese police say a stronger euro is also attracting cocaine smugglers into European cities like Amsterdam, London and Madrid, where partygoers can easily pay up to 60 euros ($83) to get high on a few lines of the white powder.

Wholesale, the drug in Europe fetches up to $77,000 per kilogram, almost twice the amount it sells for in the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Dealers focus their trade in cities with money," said Jose Braz, the director of the Department of Narcotics in Portugal, which has become a significant entry point for cocaine into Europe. "There is more and more dirty money in euros."

"There was a lot of euphoria with love drugs like ecstasy 10 years ago, but that is going away now," said an employee of the Magic Mushroom Smartshop near Amsterdam's nightclub scene.

"Coke is cold and ego-boosting and allows people to forget about their insecurities. I suppose the world is becoming a colder place these days," he added.

Europe's demand for cocaine may be growing but the real test for the Latin American cartels is breaking into Europe's sophisticated external borders and airports. The solution normally comes in the form of bribes.

The UN says cartels increasingly rely on corrupt officials in poor West African nations like Guinea Bissau, a tiny former Portuguese colony, to store the cocaine before it is smuggled into Europe's booming market.

"These criminals are entrepreneurs. They see a window of opportunity and immediately jump in," said Braz, who worked with Bissau police recently to help fight cocaine smuggling.

In April, Guinea Bissau's police were commended by the UN for seizing over 600 kilograms of cocaine -- worth more than 30 million euros ($41 million) -- but it was later discovered that the traffickers had still managed to escape with about 2.5 tons of the drug.

The cocaine that eludes authorities is normally split among hundreds of smugglers willing to risk hefty jail sentences to enter Europe through countries like Portugal and Spain.

Last year, police in both countries, which have strong geographical and cultural ties with Africa and historical links with Latin America, seized a combined 70 tons of cocaine, about the same amount that was seized in all of Europe in 2004.

"We are now a key entry point of drugs into Europe," said Braz.