Belgian port city struggling with cocaine flood

ANTWERP, Belgium – A teenager in the 1980s, Norbert Somers roamed the port of Antwerp, where his father worked as a customs officer. Cycling the docks and gazing at ships undisturbed was a favorite pastime.

Since then, the port has grown into a sprawling high-security complex spanning some 47 square miles, with trucks and cranes handling millions of containers a year. And given the size of the port, Mr Somers, now head of the Belgian customs anti-drug unit in Antwerp, expressed concern: the port is now at the center of a huge intercontinental drug trafficking operation.

“A cocaine tsunami explodes and spreads in Antwerp and across Europe,” Somers said in an interview near the first docks built in the city in the 19th century.

Europe is plagued by a growing cocaine problem, officials say: quantities seized are skyrocketing in major ports like Antwerp, drug-related violence and corruption are on the rise in countries like Belgium and the United States. Netherlands, and cocaine use and deaths have increased on the continent.

Belgian law enforcement authorities say they are overwhelmed as more and more criminal groups are involved in drug trafficking, with violence increasing alongside ever-increasing amounts of cocaine. Antwerp customs officials are on track to intercept 100 tonnes of cocaine this year, up from 66 tonnes in 2020, roughly double the volume seized across the European Union 10 years ago.

Part of the surge in foreclosures is the result of the coronavirus pandemic, shipping experts have said. In the first months of closure, container transport declined, as did the number of customs and police officers in Latin American ports, giving criminal groups carte blanche and pushing them to ship increasingly large loads. of cocaine.

But the pandemic has only reinforced a trend that has continued for several years, according to law enforcement and researchers. In Colombia, coca production has increased despite the peace agreement signed by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. And Colombian drug cartels have turned to Europe as the main destination market for cocaine, according to researchers and law enforcement officials.

Europe has also become a major transit point for shipping drugs east to Russia and to countries in Asia and the Middle East, according to the European Union’s drug agency.

Public health experts and academics say cocaine largely circulates uncontrollably in Europe and has become more available and accepted in social circles where it would once have been taboo, including among young users.

“This corresponds to the trends of our societies,” said Tom Decorte, professor of criminology at the University of Ghent. “It’s a stimulus that allows us to work harder, to be more focused and to face things,” he added, describing the views of many users in European cities.

Four million adults use cocaine in the European Union, and the use of crack and powdered cocaine is on the rise, said João Matias, analyst at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the European agency drugs. The same is true of cocaine-related hospitalizations and deaths.

But another source of concern has been the rampant penetration of drug money into local governments and the economies of cities like Antwerp. Bart De Wever, the city’s right-wing mayor, said criminals involved in cocaine trafficking were increasingly laundering money in real estate or using legitimate businesses as fronts.

“Before you know it, they own part of your town,” Mr De Wever said.

Antwerp is just a logistics hub from which cocaine is shipped across Europe via the Netherlands – the “staging post for cocaine trafficking on the continent”, according to Europol.

But the trade has led to an upsurge in violence in the Netherlands, including the July murder of a prominent criminal journalist on an Amsterdam street. And Antwerp has been rocked by shootings and grenade explosions linked to drug gangs. Europol and the United Nations said in a report this year that an increase in shootings, bombings, torture and killings on the continent were the direct consequences of a “booming cocaine market” .

“We are facing a violence bordering on savagery,” Eric Jacobs, head of the judicial police in Brussels, told a press conference last month.

This prompted Mr De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp, to launch a war on drugs in his city and to call for stricter policies across Belgium, although such an approach in the United States has left a trail. of violence over the past 50 years. , has not curbed drug use and is widely regarded as a failure.

Mr Decorte, the professor of criminology, said the strengthening of the police force pushed lower-level criminals out of the market and replaced them with organized criminal gangs, which were often more violent.

“We are creating incredibly powerful gangs that have money and assets, and they are able to bribe whoever they want, where they want,” said Mr. Decorte, who is part of an organization in Belgium that has done so. pressure for an approach to solve the drug problem rather than relying on rigorous enforcement tactics.

Despite the skyrocketing number of seizures in Antwerp, experts are divided as to whether this reflects an improvement in the tracking of cocaine shipments – or whether the volumes shipped are so much larger.

Customs officials estimate that they seize around 10% of the cocaine smuggled into Europe, with Antwerp and Rotterdam being the main destinations. Kristian Vanderwaeren, the head of Belgian customs, said as much cocaine bound for Antwerp was seized in Latin American ports before departure this year as in the Belgian port itself.

“We grab a lot of them, but does it hurt criminals?” Said Mr Vanderwaeren. “So much cocaine escapes us.

Cocaine is often smuggled in containers with items such as bananas, orange juice or coffee. Jeans and animal skins can also be impregnated with cocaine and then extracted in the laboratory. Sometimes smugglers hide for days in containers stored on the docks to pick up drugs, using a tactic that customs officials call Trojan horses. “

Bob Van den Berghe, senior law enforcement official at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said the port of Antwerp was convenient for smuggling as containers are processed quickly in automated terminals , limiting the options for customs and police to check them.

One recent afternoon at a port scanning outpost, two dozen trucks lined up for inspection. Sitting in front of a large screen, an officer searched for x-ray images for suspicious products in containers. Officials said they expected a further rise in seizures of cocaine shipped for the holidays – a “white Christmas” as the phenomenon is known.

Most of the traffickers in Antwerp are lower-ranking gang members, with leaders based in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco or southern Europe, said Manolo Tersago, head of the anti-drug service of the federal police in Antwerp. .

Authorities have also discovered a large criminal network operating across Belgium. The interception this year of one million messages on the secure platform Sky ECC by the Belgian and Dutch police led to the dismantling of a cocaine trafficking network in Brussels, to the discovery of drug laboratories, and to dozens arrests across the country.

At the port of Antwerp, Mr Somers, the customs investigator, said it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the networks involved in drug trafficking.

Corruption affected all levels of the supply chain: Dockworkers and crane operators, as well as customs and civil servants, were paid to look the other way, he said. More than 64,000 people work at the Port of Antwerp, and another 80,000 depend on its activities.

“If you look at the number of people involved in the business,” Mr. Somers said, it sometimes feels like “everyone is involved”.


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