11 July 2024

Belgian police seized a record haul of cocaine at the port of Antwerp last year, the customs service said Tuesday, amid mounting concern over the power of international gangs.

The annual figure was released one day after an 11-year-old girl was shot dead in a gun attack on an Antwerp home that the city’s mayor dubbed the latest outrage in an ongoing “drug war”.

Belgium’s main container terminal is now considered the main gateway for illegal drugs into Europe, with 109.9 tonnes seized in 2022 and an unknown but probably much larger quantity reaching the market.

Seizures in 2022 were up from 89.5 tonnes last year. Across the Netherlands border, in nearby Rotterdam and Vlissingen, Dutch police battling the same gangs intercepted a further 52.5 tonnes.

Belgium’s Finance Minister Vincent Van Peteghem, who oversees the customs service, and Dutch secretary of state Aukje de Vries, revealed the figures at an Antwerp news conference.

They hailed the “intense cooperation” between the neighbouring authorities and promised to hire 100 more Belgian customs officers while investing 70 million euros ($75 million) in high-tech tools.

“For the Netherlands, the next few years’ spending will relate in particular to artificial intelligence, chemical detection and tracking containers,” a joint statement said.

European police have made a number of high profile arrests after cracking an encrypted text message network used by the gangs, and several large-scale drug busts in recent weeks.

– ‘Drug war’ –

But the cocaine volumes found in Antwerp have only increased and there have been explosions and gun shots in city neighbourhoods as rival groups settle scores.

On Monday, an 11-year-old girl was killed after attackers opened fire on a home, in a shooting Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever called a suspected “settling of scores” between gangs.

“A drug war is under way,” De Wever told local TV.

Belgian prosecutors say that over the past five years they have recorded more than 200 incidents of drug-related violence — mainly assaults and explosives thrown at homes.

And the gangs, including the so-called “Mocro Maffia” drawn from Moroccan-origin communities in the Netherlands, have become more brazen in recent years.

In September last year, security was stepped up around Belgium’s Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne after four Dutch suspects were arrested for allegedly plotting to kidnap him.

Sniffer dogs and police frogmen have been deployed at the Antwerp and Rotterdam container terminals, but authorities fear they are only intercepting 10 percent of illegal cargoes.

At a separate announcement in the Netherlands, Dutch authorities revealed that drugs seized at their ports in 2022 had a street value of 3.5 billion euros.

Smugglers appear to be breaking their shipments into smaller packages, perhaps to spread the risk of interception, but the biggest seizure was a 2.8-tonne batch in a load of frozen fish from Ecuador.

European drug gangs work with Latin American suppliers to bring in cocaine, mainly from Panama, Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil and Ecuador. From the ports, it is trucked around Europe.

It is one of the organised crime’s biggest money earners.

The European drugs monitoring agency estimated in 2020 that the EU retail cocaine market was worth between 7.7 billion and 10.5 billion euros.