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Cocaine capital: Antwerp fears drug-related attacks may rise

Teri Schultz in Antwerp
February 4, 2023

Europe's second-biggest port of Antwerp is its No.1 cocaine hub. Teri Schultz looks at how a looming crackdown on the booming trade may affect levels of violence.

The port of Antwerp in Belgium has become the number-one gateway for Europe-bound cocaine.
Bullet holes and condolences mark the garage where a young girl was shot dead in Antwerp in an accidental escalation between drug gangsImage: Jonas Roosens/BELGA/AFP/Getty Images

Concern in Belgium over cocaine smuggling

Teun Voeten lightly touches one of several round holes in a garage door on a quiet street on the northeast side of Antwerp. "Looks like a Kalashnikov to me," he says, assessing what kind of gun killed an 11-year-old girl inside her home in early January. 

Though the death is believed to be the accidental outcome of a warning signal from a drug gang gone awry, Voeten, a Dutch cultural anthropologist who's researched Antwerp's drug culture, says there's a risk it may set off a "cycle of revenge … a whole new level of violence with unpredictable dynamics."

The murder happened the same day Belgian authorities revealed a record seizure for 2022 of 110 tons of cocaine in Antwerp, estimated to be only about 10% of what passes through the port. This puts it far ahead of Rotterdam, where 52.5 tons were intercepted last year, a decline from 2021’s total of 77 tons.

The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, together with Europol, estimated that the European Union's retail market for cocaine was worth a minimum of €12.8 billion ($13.9 billion) in 2020, a figure the agencies said was likely below the actual value given that seizures have grown dramatically since then.

Dutch drug kings dealt a blow 

Until now, Voeten told DW, despite the "incredible amount" of cocaine flooding into Antwerp, the city has never seen the gang-related brutality of Rotterdam or Amsterdam, where he noted a severed head had been left outside a cafe in 2016. But the authorities' recent success in taking down some powerful players in the Netherlands means more unwelcome activities may be shifting to Antwerp.

"It was basically the Dutch calling the shots and using the Belgians for the dirty work, to recuperate cocaine out of the containers," Voeten explained. "But Belgians have jumped in position because many Dutch big shots were arrested. The whole organizational structures are shaken  up a little bit. So there will be a lot of more tough action from the authorities and I expect there will be more violence."

A Dutch customs officer and a sniffer dog give a demonstration on detecting illegal goods in Rotterdam port.
Rotterdam port has seen a decline in the amount of cocaine seized over the last year. It's the largest harbor in Europe. Image: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP/Getty Images

Antwerp's mayor, Bart de Wever, has called for the national army to be deployed at the port, and while that idea hasn't received wide political support, the government has announced there will be at least 100 additional police assigned to the port along with additional scanning equipment to increase inspections beyond the estimated 1% of cargo currently possible. 

Gangs getting more aggressive

While port workers will welcome the back-up, they're also bracing for its effects on traffickers' behavior. The situation is already bad enough, says Stephan Vanfraechem, managing director of Alfaport Voka, which represents some 300 companies involved in operating the facility. 

Vanfraechem told DW that in years past, dockworkers on-site were the main target for gang recruitment, but as scrutiny mounts, so does pressure on a wider range of employees. He waved his arm at the dock-front neighborhood, noting there are very specific cafes where drug-gang members physically shadow workers to gain personal information. 

Alfapoart Voka's Stephan Vanfraechem stands at Antwerp harbor
Alfapoart Voka's Stephan Vanfraechem says the port workers are being targeted by drug traffickers Image: Teri Schultz/DW

"[Smugglers] are becoming more and more aggressive. They need information and they need guys who can physically help them," Vanfraechem explained. He said cartels are increasingly trying to draw in white-collar workers who may have access to logistics and other technical information, and trying to hook students who can be steered toward academic careers that would benefit the trafficking trade. 

"What they do now is they they approach you very directly to show pictures of your family, of your kids, of friends. And this is a not a very subtle way of working. It's a real threat," he added.

Taking the gangs on publicly like this is a threat to himself as well, he acknowledged, but one he feels is necessary. "I realize that this is a danger, maybe also for myself and my family, my wife and kids," he said. "I think there's no alternative than being open about this problem. If you stay silent I consider us to be cooperating with these guys. I think we need to stop them."

Stopping them is not something Europe can do alone, which is why Europol, the EU police agency, is increasingly working with those countries where the drug originates and those outside EU jurisdiction where some of the key players have based themselves, aiming to avoid extradition. 

The criminals are so well connected, says Jan Op Gen Oorth, head of Europol's Corporate Communications, that "we've seen messages with somebody ordering a contract killing from Europe to Latin America expecting that it will be carried out in the next hour."

International rollback slow but steady

Law enforcement is working on its own international dragnet. "You have to have a network to crack a network," Op Gen Oorth said. "But the global coalition of law enforcement also needs to be strategically smart because it's not good enough to just take out the small soldiers on the low level … the people who are getting the cocaine out of the container. You need to go after what we call 'high-value targets.'"

Cooperation ranges from the highly-sophisticated utilization of a fake encrypted-communication platform which busted 800 criminals in 2021 to more legal agreements signed with countries such as Dubai, where key arrests have been made, to simply working to improve oversight at loading docks in Latin America where most of the cocaine originates. With more and more countries joining the effort, Op Gen Oorth says, "I am confident that we will be able to take out the big players, but it will take time."

In the meantime, however, Belgium has another problem. Authorities have expressed concern that the massive piles of seized cocaine awaiting incineration create a lucrative lure for traffickers. 

Cocaine and the power of the Dutch drugs mafia

Edited by: Rob Mudge