Beaten and tortured: the north African children paying a bloody price for Europe’s insatiable appetite for cocaine

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Cocaine Boy
Cocaine Boy Illustration: Carl Godfrey/The Guardian

Maddalena Chiarenza ne'er rather knows what authorities nan children will beryllium successful erstwhile they get astatine her door. She has seen unspeakable injuries. Black eyes, missing teeth. A surgery jaw.

“They suffer specified regular violence,” says Chiarenza, whose Brussels-based NGO, SOS Jeune, cares for unaccompanied Moroccan and Algerian children.

A short locomotion from nan NGO’s agency adjacent nan Eurostar terminal, ragged groups of northbound African children are a communal sight. Some locomotion done nan streets for illustration zombies, aft being fed Rivotril, a potent benzodiazepine.

Chiarenza says that different than a fistful of NGOs specified arsenic SOS Jeune, these children person fewer friends. Nobody wants to return work for their care.

Number 332

Some of nan children nan NGO has cared for person since died; done sickness, execution aliases suicide; Chiarenza says astatine slightest 5 successful nan past 3 years. Another 23 children it has had interaction pinch are successful prison, immoderate connected supplier offences.

On nan surface, nan plight of these unaccompanied kid migrants, and hundreds of others for illustration them passim Europe, is simply a testament to nan nonaccomplishment of governments crossed nan continent to supply thief and assistance to nan astir susceptible victims of nan world migration crisis.

Dig deeper and these children show a different story, an untold communicative of Europe’s increasing addiction to chemic look C17H21NO4 – cocaine.

A Guardian investigation has found that hundreds, if not thousands, of African children person been trafficked into Europe’s booming cocaine trade, mini cogs successful a £10bn criminal manufacture that is transporting immense quantities of nan supplier from nan Andean rainforests to expanding numbers of customers crossed nan continent.

Police intelligence identifies an “unlimited” proviso of susceptible kid labour trafficked from northbound Africa to activity for Europe’s top-tier cocaine networks.

In March, elder constabulary officers convened a concealed gathering successful Brussels. Present were officers from 25 EU countries on pinch nan UK, Europol, nan EU separator force, Frontex, nan UN exile agency and nan European Commission.


On nan agenda: nan exploitation of unaccompanied African children by powerful international supplier syndicates based successful occidental Europe.

“We person grounds that these overseas minors are exploited successful ample numbers successful nan EU by OCGs [organised crime groups] progressive successful supplier trafficking,” says a constabulary root who was present.

The phenomenon, constabulary say, is connected an business scale. Investigators looking into nan wide recruitment of minors by cocaine networks successful Belgium quickly realised their modus operandi was being replicated passim Europe.

A Belgian constabulary archive chronicles a caller briefing by European officers investigating organised crime and human trafficking: “Belgium, nan Netherlands, Spain and France presented respective actual cases of nan exploitation of hundreds of northbound African minors, recruited by supplier trafficking networks to waste narcotics.”

The cocaine networks are peculiarly brutal, opportunity police. Children are told to waste a group quota of narcotics aliases consequence being pack raped. Videos corroborate nan threat is real. Others are forced to person activity pinch adults to unafraid a spot successful a squat. A study for Dutch justness officials recovered specified “networks” ruled by savagery. It says: “The [networks] unit them to do things; galore of nan boys person been raped and filmed erstwhile being raped.”

Retribution is guaranteed. One kid caught by Brussels constabulary trading narcotics was recovered 2 days later covered successful bruises. A reward beating.

Some person fled Belgium; terrified they will beryllium killed because they owed money from dealing.

A number are converted into child soldiers: proxies ordered to onslaught rival supplier gangs, usually pinch knives.

“We find them pinch horrific injuries, heavy leaf wounds that they effort to dainty themselves,” says a Brussels societal worker.

The latest Europol intelligence confirms nan “abusive” hiring of children by specified networks to target rivals. It says: “They enlistee minors for nan committee of convulsive attacks to intimidate non-collaborative actors.”

One of Europe’s astir elder officers investigating nan exploitation of specified children warns that nan threat is astir pronounced for minors from 2 African countries.


A seasoned of 30 years experience, Belgian judicial commissioner Eric Garbar says: “Moroccan and Algerian minors are peculiarly susceptible and are astir commonly exploited by OCGs progressive successful criminal activities for illustration supplier trafficking.”

Concern has precocious surfaced successful London. Meetings involving constabulary and kid protection officials are attempting to found nan criminal web down a number of Moroccan and Algerian children recovered horribly disfigured. The youngsters, opportunity sources, were tortured.

Youssef knew it would beryllium different, but arriving successful Europe was for illustration landing connected different planet. “You don’t cognize nan language, nan values​, nan customs – aliases anybody. It’s a large shock.” Having fled nan Moroccan metropolis of Salé and an abusive father, Youssef was susceptible when, aged 15, he reached Spain and headed to Brussels.

Belgium’s children’s authorities commissioner Caroline Vrijens describes boys specified arsenic Youssef arsenic “the astir vulnerable” minors connected nan continent.


Drug gangs would concur. Criminals successful Europe approached maine but I ever refused,” says Youssef. Others were little resolute. Some of Youssef’s friends person simply disappeared.

“They are astatine nan mercy of organised crime groups,” states a Belgian constabulary archive sent to Europol past December, adding: “… to whom they move for illustration shipwrecked sailors drawn by nan reassuring ray of a lighthouse”.

The brightest, biggest, lighthouse belongs to a Moroccan cocaine web colloquially known arsenic nan “Mocro Maffia”. It controls overmuch of nan turf astir nan Brussels Eurostar terminal. More germane is its power of Europe’s 2nd largest instrumentality port, 30 miles north.

Antwerp has go nan continent’s main gateway for cocaine shipped from South America, hidden among nan 12m containers passing done each year.

Last year, authorities seized a record 116 tonnes of cocaine astatine nan port. A batch still gets through: according to reports, conscionable 1% aliases 2% of containers coming into Antwerp are searched by officials. And each tonne that does make it past nan authorities, tightens nan Mocro Maffia’s grip and furthers its task to meet Europe’s increasing request for nan drug.

Analysts opportunity that Europe’s progressively powerful cocaine gangs, specified arsenic nan Mocro Maffia, are now moving straight pinch nan South American cartels to promote cocaine accumulation to reach grounds levels.

The sheer measurement of nan cocaine pipeline from South America to Europe is keeping prices debased and value high. Compared pinch nan 1990s, nan thoroughfare value of cocaine is balanced to £20 a gram.

“It’s a much affordable, purer merchandise than 20, 30 years ago,” said Tim Surmont, an expert astatine nan European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Consumers person responded accordingly: four times much Europeans usage cocaine than 2 decades ago.

But marketplace maturation besides needs manpower. The Mocro Maffia were not sluggish to admit that undocumented, unaccompanied children specified arsenic Youssef make ideal, inexpensive and disposable street-drug sellers.

A caller Belgian constabulary report, shared pinch Europol, cites nan “Mokkro [sic] Maffia” arsenic a system criminal web that “no longer hesitates to utilization minors to enrich themselves”.

The excavation of labour is significant. Last twelvemonth constabulary referred 623 unaccompanied children from Morocco and Algeria to Brussels’ safeguarding service. Others melt away, ne'er to beryllium found.

Tijana Popovic of Child Focus successful Brussels recorded 332 “worrying” disappearances of unaccompanied minors successful Brussels past year, including a cohort aged 11 and 12.

Garbar, successful a constabulary report, states that thousands of unaccompanied children participate Europe each twelvemonth and “disappear without immoderate traceable trail”.

He adds: “Many of them are ‘captured’ by criminal circles.”


Aside from Brussels, galore vanish successful Paris. Last year, constabulary disrupted a large-scale supplier web successful nan Barbès area that exploited Algerian children.

More recently, London has emerged arsenic a root of concern, pinch constabulary and kid protection experts gathering to talk an alarming caller trend. Highly susceptible Moroccan children, seemingly controlled by criminals, person been recovered successful astatine slightest 4 northbound London boroughs.

During February and March, British Transport Police recovered 9 Moroccan aliases Algerian children who required urgent safeguarding. Five were recovered connected London’s obstruction aliases underground network.

Det Supt Arlene Wilson says: “We identified children and susceptible group connected nan railway web who we see to beryllium victims of exploitation and modern-day slavery.”

Police investigating nan rumor have, opportunity sources, raided an reside successful Finsbury Park, northbound London. The authorities were forced to move quickly. Not only were nan children vulnerable: they were being abused.

“The young group identified successful nan UK seemed to person rather terrible wounds; indicators they’ve been subjected to precocious levels of violence,” says a kid protection source. “Violent battle arsenic a method of control.”

Amin turns, squinting in nan sun, his look crisscrossed pinch scars he refuses to discuss. Behind him, a six-metre obstruction separates Morocco from nan Spanish enclave of Melilla. For 3 years, for illustration hundreds of different unaccompanied minors, Amin has survived by trading tissues to dock-workers successful nan larboard of Beni Ansar, playing feline and rodent while evading authorities keen to eject him.

Over nan obstruction lies Europe. Freedom. Soon, surely, he will standard nan fence?

“I want to thief my family, spell to Europe. I want to alteration my life,” says nan 13-year-old, who near location to hunt for activity aft his begetter died.

Youssef passed done this measurement too, climbing nan fence, lying debased successful a rescue vessel bound for Spain. Most hide successful trucks, often exploiting nan chaos of events specified arsenic nan Paris-Dakar rally. A number are trafficked nonstop to cocaine networks based successful cities specified arsenic Brussels, opportunity police.

Criminal syndicates are adept astatine utilizing societal media to lure children specified arsenic Youssef and Amin. Platforms big harraga channels linked to supplier networks promising a amended life successful Europe.

Harraga intends “to burn” successful Arabic, a motion to nan demolition of individual documents to debar recognition erstwhile successful Europe. Children specified arsenic Amin telephone themselves harragas – burners.

Police opportunity nan Mocro Maffia is successful nary threat of moving retired of burners.

“The Mocro Maffia understand that successful their state of root they person astatine their disposal unlimited quality resources. What we person successful nan EU is an unstoppable low-cost quality assets from Africa,” says Garbar.

At immoderate stage, officers expect nan root of young, inexpensive labour from Africa to widen further, progressively exploiting children from states specified arsenic Sudan. Cocaine networks person been speedy to capitalise connected nan tumult successful Afghanistan. During nan Brussels gathering successful March, constabulary shared grounds of Afghan children arsenic young arsenic 12 being trafficked en masse into Europe’s cocaine capital, Antwerp.

Back successful Brussels, armed constabulary are herding young Moroccans distant from nan Eurostar terminal. June’s European elections are close: semi comatose children peddling coke is not a awesome look for nan superior of EU politics.

A abstracted constabulary cognition will soon beryllium announced to tackle nan trafficking of African children into Europe’s cocaine cartels.

More broadly, a alteration successful policing mindset is required, says Garbar. Arresting nan kid thoroughfare dealers makes zero difference. The territory surrounding nan Eurostar has seen 2,000 drug-related arrests complete nan past six months without immoderate evident effect connected cocaine supply.

Youssef urges a humane solution, 1 that harnesses nan children’s durability.

“To unrecorded and past life connected nan thoroughfare you person to beryllium strong. They request to beryllium seen arsenic human, fixed a chance distant from crime.”

Youssef is impervious they tin prosper. Now 25, he has lived successful Belgium for six years and useful for nan Red Cross.

Garbar warns that nonaccomplishment to assimilate specified susceptible children will extremity pinch Europe paying a precocious price. Today’s 12-year-old thoroughfare dealers are tomorrow’s narco-bosses.

“Once they are adults, these young group will beryllium a threat to our societies. They are ill-adapted to our lifestyles and person been incapable to use from protection and due attraction by our states.

“These young group will proceed their criminal activities and turn successful power. If we don’t enactment against this arena then, successful 10, 15, 20 years, we are going to look 1 of our astir important problems.”

*Some names person been changed

Source theguardian