EU warns drug gangs who pose key threat of strong, coordinated fight

FILE PHOTO: EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson visits Athens

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) - Europe is building strong networks, including with Latin American countries, to fight organised drug criminal groups, one of the biggest threats facing society today, the European home affairs commissioner said on Wednesday.

"You have strong criminal networks (but) we are building even stronger networks to fight you," Ylva Johansson warned drug smuggling and trafficking groups at the launch of the new European Union Drugs Agency (EUDA). "This threat is as big as the terrorism threat."

The new drug agency, which replaces the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction set up in 1993, has a "stronger mandate" to gird the EU's fight against drugs.

Working with Latin America and other regions was crucial to tackle drug-related challenges, Johansson said.

The new agency has signed a cooperation pact with Ecuador, where much of the drugs entering Europe hail from.

In a report last month, the EUDA said almost 70% of drug seizures by EU customs occurred in the bloc's ports, with large quantities of cocaine detected in shipping containers.

Some associations were concerned countries in Europe could adopt more punitive strategies in their drug-policy approach as European politics tilts to the right.

"There is a real risk populist policies and securitisation agendas will negatively impact drug policies," said Marie Nougier, head of research at the global NGO network, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

Nougier said the new agency's mandate puts the focus on health and human rights.

Asked if she had similar concerns, Johansson said: "This agency is very well respected...and politicians are listening," adding she was confident this would continue to be the case.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Bernadette Baum)