How the EU wants to help in the fight against drugs

How the EU wants to help in the fight against drugs

Nsomewhere in Europe last year was more cocaine confiscated than in the port of Antwerp. It was 110 tons, as reported by Belgian customs – another new record. The market value was around eight billion euros. Year after year, the amount increases by leaps and bounds, in 2013 it was 4.7 tons. The other major gateway for cocaine, Rotterdam, has long since overtaken the Belgian port, where it was 50 tons. Is Belgium losing the fight against organized crime – or are the finds the result of tougher action by the authorities?

Thomas Gutschker

Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.

On Tuesday, Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, made her own assessment of the situation in Antwerp, and she didn’t even try to downplay the problem. “The threat we face today from organized crime is as great as the threat from terrorism,” said the Swede. Corruption, the undermining of the economy, street crime and increasing insecurity – all of this is a “dangerous poison” for society. Johansson recalled the case of an 11-year-old girl who was accidentally shot dead in Antwerp in early January – the first in a long string of violent attacks between criminal gangs that have gripped the city for months.

Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden, who accompanied Johansson, emphasized the government’s efforts to combat drug-related crime. Currently, 40,000 containers arriving in Antwerp are checked for narcotics with special scanners every year. That’s 10 percent of high-risk shipments, based on origin: South America, particularly Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama, where most cocaine is produced or shipped. Belgian customs have purchased five more scanners, which are expected in the first half of 2024. This should then make it possible to control all high-risk containers.

Special “screening” at the port

The personnel in the port should also be subjected to a special “screening”. Organized gangs bribe staff, even at customs themselves, to exfiltrate the narcotics before containers are inspected or delivered to their final customers. Experts say that Antwerp is particularly vulnerable because – unlike in Rotterdam – automation is not as advanced. Interior Minister Verlinden said 135 people were arrested last year for helping the gangs in the port. Surveillance of the entire port area with cameras that can identify people biometrically is also to be improved. The site covers an area of ​​120 square kilometers, as large as the city of Kiel.

Belgian Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne believes that the mafia structures can be dismantled if 20 percent of the cocaine can be confiscated, according to his calculations 220 to 250 tons. The fact that the amount has almost doubled in the past two years is also related to the investigations into the crypto service SkyECC. In March 2021, international investigators took action against the provider after they had previously been able to watch live how messages were exchanged between criminals. 6000 users alone stayed in Belgium up, mostly around the port of Antwerp. The Belgian police have so far arrested 1,400 people and confiscated 110 million euros.

Johansson and Verlinden announced that they will be traveling together to Ecuador and Colombia at the end of February and will conclude agreements there on closer cooperation between the authorities. The Commissioner referred to the successful cooperation with the United Arab Emirates. At the end of November, investigators there and in four EU countries, including Belgium, smashed a “super cartel” that accounts for a third of the cocaine trade in Europe should have checked. Six people classified as “high value targets” were arrested in Dubai. However, Verlinden indicated that she still sees room for closer cooperation. What is the value of all the effort, she asked rhetorically, “when tons of cocaine are loaded into containers in South America and rich drug lords can continue to live their lives of luxury undisturbed in Dubai”.

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