The port in Europe that became a ‘paradise’ for drug traffickers in Latin America

The port in Europe that became a ‘paradise’ for drug traffickers in Latin America

  • Paula Rosas @melibea20
  • BBC News World

January 18, 2023

Updated 8 hours ago

Customs agent in the port of Antwerp

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In 2022 alone, Belgian authorities found almost 110 tons of the narcotic in the port of Antwerp

The city of Antwerp, Belgium is very famous for the diamond trade.

But there’s another business less brilliant but at least as profitable that’s made its mark. And it’s an illegal trade.

The port of Antwerp is the second busiest in Europe and millions of containers pass through it every year. It eventually became the main gateway for cocaine on the European continent.

Antwerp overtook the coast of Galicia in northwest Spain, where most of the drug was smuggled until a few years ago.

For the past five years, cocaine busts have broken record after record.

In 2022 alone, Belgian authorities found almost 110 tonnes of the narcotic a 23% increase from the previous year, according to the latest data released by the Public Finance Service of Belgium, the customs watchdog.

This amount corresponds to 40% of all cocaine seized in Europe. The second largest port of entry, just behind Antwerp, is Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where 52.5 tons were found in 2022.

The amount of contraband is so great that in 2022 Belgian authorities warned that their incinerators were unable to destroy all the drugs intercepted.

It is estimated that this amount accounts for only 10% of all cocaine arriving in the port of Antwerp. Deliveries come mainly from Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia. And recently also from Panama and Costa Rica.

But what makes the port of Antwerp such a popular destination for drug traffickers? One of the reasons is its enormous size, according to Belgium Public Finance Service spokeswoman Florence Angelici. At 129 km², the port of Antwerp is larger than the entire French city of Paris.

Antwerp is smaller in tonnage than Rotterdam, but its area far exceeds that of the neighboring port. There are currently 160 km of piers, compared to 70 in the Dutch port.

“Roads and even cities that were located within the port, which had grown considerably, lead through it. It makes surveillance very difficult,” Angelici told BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanishlanguage service.

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Reefer containers sometimes transport goods other than bananas.

The difficulty of controlling entrances and exits in the metropolis makes it a haven for drug traffickers, who can gather all the information necessary to import and withdraw the drug at the port.

Paul Meyer knows the port of Antwerp like the back of his hand. Dutchman Meyer was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2007 for smuggling huge amounts of drugs into Europe. Remorsefully, he now devotes himself to the task of drawing attention to the ‘sieve’ he believes the port has become.

In the past, he and his group have attempted to smuggle the drug through ports in Hamburg, Germany, or Marseille, France. But he says it was always much easier in Antwerp.

“The port is open,” Meyer told BBC Europe correspondent Nick Beake. “You walk in and all the information you need to get started is right there. You have the truck drivers, the people who work in the port, you can see the name of the ship.”

Currently, only 350 customs agents monitor incoming goods. That number is clearly insufficient and, according to the Public Finance Service spokeswoman, will be augmented by an additional 108 staff “who will be dedicated exclusively to drug control.”

fruit path

Adding to the monitoring difficulties, according to Florence Angelici, the port of Antwerp is a “historic route for the transport of fruit from Latin America to Europe”. “The port has refrigerated terminals and everything necessary to receive these fruits.”

These consolidated routes transport millions of containers across the Atlantic every year. Criminal networks use the routes to introduce cocaine into containers to be consumed in Europe. In many cases, exporters are unaware that their cargo has been intercepted by drug traffickers.

Smugglers are creative. Belgian customs have already seen all sorts of strategies to hide the drug.

“They use all kinds of fruit, like bananas, and they put cocaine in the middle of the boxes,” Angelici said. “Or they use pineapple, make a hole in the fruit and put the drug in it.”

This type of container is refrigerated, “and in that refrigeration system there’s a hole that’s also used to hide the packages,” she says.

Packages of drugs have already been found in logs. Angelici recalls that there was even one case of “clothing soaked in liquid cocaine. When customs officers opened the crates, they only saw clothing, but upon closer inspection they found the drug was in the fabric.”

With all the difficulties involved in patrolling the port, one of the most common methods of cocaine smuggling, which is much more direct, is the socalled “rip on/rip off” or “blind hook”.

The method is to place packs of cocaine in the bins over the regular merchandise without hiding them. They are often kept in gym bags, which are easy to transport.

“When they arrive at the port, there are people in the terminals who quickly remove the bags from the containers,” says Angelici. “It can be 100 or 200 kg, but they are very flexible.”

Sometimes these people don’t collect the medicine from the port, but transfer it to other containers that they know are not controlled, either because they have already been controlled or because they do not need to be controlled, such as a container. B. those that transport products from one country to another within the European Union.

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Creativity is something drug dealers have in abundance when it comes to camouflaging drugs alongside other commodities

From Antwerp it is very easy to reach other countries where the drug is consumed, such as France or Germany.

But according to Europol (the European Union Agency for Police Cooperation), a large part of the drug is transported to the Netherlands and distributed from there by criminal groups across Europe.

increase in consumption

Even with the recording of seizures, the drug continues to flow. The European institutions are aware of the situation as the price of cocaine on the street has not increased and in some cases has even decreased.

“We have observed that harvesting methods have changed in Latin America. Now they have genetically engineered crops and they get two or three crops a year instead of just one,” says Angelici. By producing more, it is possible to provide more.

“And the more we arrest, the more they lose. So they need to generate more profits to make up for that loss,” she said. “That’s another reason more cocaine is coming in.”

Cocaine is one of the most commonly used drugs in Europe. According to the latest report on the cocaine market from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Addiction, prepared jointly with Europol, its use has increased significantly in recent years, partly due to falling prices.

In sales networks, consumers often find 2for1 offers and promotions, such as those seen in supermarkets. In many cases it is no longer necessary to walk through dark alleys. Just a message via apps like WhatsApp and the cocaine will be delivered to your home.

The report estimates that the cocaine trade in Europe exceeded US$11.3 billion (about BRL57.6 billion) in 2020, accounting for a third of the total drug trade.

And when there is movement of money on a large scale, so does organized crime.

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The first fatal victim of drug terrorism in Antwerp was an 11yearold girl

Antwerp has been a relatively quiet city until recently. But recent years have seen an explosion of violence directly linked to various drug trafficking groups, with shootings and even explosions that have terrified residents.

His first fatality was an 11yearold girl who died in a shooting on January 9. Up to 200 violent incidents have been recorded in recent years. It was common in neighboring Holland, but not in Antwerp.

The socalled MocroMaffia belongs to the marketdominating narcoterrorist groups. Originating from the Netherlands, the group is responsible for several murders, including that of Dutch investigative journalist Peter R. de Vries and lawyer Derk Wiersum, who represented a person who would testify against the group. Both crimes took place in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam.

Belgium’s Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne himself was forced to step up his security after the arrest of four Dutch suspects who appeared to be planning to kidnap him.