Antwerp now cocaine’s ‘gateway to Europe’

BRUSSELS, 22 Jan 2023:

The port of Antwerp, one of the largest in the world, has become the “gateway for cocaine in Europe” – which has led to rising levels of violence by criminal drug trafficking organisations that is without precedent in the country.

Despite the worrying trend, experts insist that Belgium is still far from becoming a “narco-state”.

“To say that (Belgium) is a narco-state is to say that the entire political, judicial and police apparatus would be infiltrated by traffickers. I think we are very far from that,” said Christian De Valkeneer, president of the trial court of Namur.

“There may be problems in some services, but what is happening now is something very rare and limited.”

Prosecutor General of Brussels Johan Delmulle was the first to use the term, saying in September that the country could soon be described as a “narco-state”.

Even Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo has acknowledged in several interviews with the national media that the situation is “critical”.

Two recent events have drawn particular attention to the level of violence used by drug trafficking networks, starting with the death this month in Antwerp of an 11-year-old girl in a shooting at her family’s home.

The mayor of Antwerp, Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever, attributed the attack to a settling of scores between rival drug trafficking gangs.

Threats to the Belgian justice minister, the Flemish liberal Vincent Van Quickenborne – who has had to go into hiding with his family twice – have also caused concern.

The Namur trial court president said he is unaware if other magistrates have received similar warnings, although he does not rule out the possibility.

“When we look at other neighbours, such as the Netherlands (…) we observe that there are people threatened, journalists, lawyers, there have even been deaths.

“There is a lot of money at stake in this cocaine trafficking (…) that sharpens the appetite and rivalry between criminal groups that live off cocaine trafficking (…) Those who are in these activities are capable of resorting to extreme means to keep their positions,” De Valkeneer says.

The volume of drugs seized in the port of Antwerp has risen to a record 110 million tonnes of cocaine last year, something that is related to the “increase in cocaine production in the world”.

In Antwerp there are also several factors that have made the port a favourite of criminal gangs in Europe.

On the one hand, it is a large port that moves an enormous number of containers and “controlling them is complicated”.

At the same time, Antwerp is probably “suffering from the effectiveness of the controls” in the port of Rotterdam, De Valkeneer says.

“We have found that when controls are reinforced at a port, there is a displacement of the arrival points of cocaine (…) There is always a knock-on effect.”

In recent weeks there has been much talk about how to tackle the drug trafficking problem in the country.

The request to deploy the army in the port of Antwerp has been gaining support among Belgian politicians, although it does not have the support of the federal government.

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo went so far as to say that sending the military to the port would be like “throwing dust in the eyes”, insisting that it is up to police to protect the population and fight crime.

Belgian justice minister Van Quickenborne, for his part, is in favour of cracking down on consumption, announcing this week the government is considering fines of €1,000 for people caught consuming cocaine or other hard drugs.

De Valkeneer is not convinced “the fact of sanctioning or imposing very severe penalties will have a dissuasive effect” because “the penalties are already heavy”.

He believes “there is no miracle solution” and that “a multitude of policies” must be implemented.

It is necessary to act, he says, in an “economic logic” to try to reduce the profitability of the business as much as possible and to act “at all levels”, starting with the international level, addressing with the exporting countries “what can be done with them to limit exports”.

Measures must also be taken, adds the same expert, “at the European level, and at the Belgian and local level” by tackling each of the links, from production to distribution, trying to “dissuade people from becoming traffickers”.

From the EU, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, announced this week that she plans to travel to Colombia and Ecuador to discuss how to cooperate with those countries in the fight against trafficking and will visit the port of Antwerp next month.