ANTWERP, Belgium — As a teenager in the 1980s, Norbert Somers roamed the port of Antwerp, where his father worked as a customs officer. Cycling through the docks and staring undisturbed at the ships was a favorite pastime.
The port of Antwerp has grown into a sprawling high-security complex of approximately 75 square kilometers, with trucks and cranes handling millions of containers a year. Mr Somers, now head of the drug division of Belgian customs in Antwerp, has become concerned about one point of concern: the port is now the center of a massive intercontinental drug smuggling operation.
“A cocaine tsunami is exploding and spreading in Antwerp and across Europe,” Mr Somers said in an interview in the 19th century near the first docks built in the city.
Europe is gripped by a growing cocaine problem, officials say: Seizures are skyrocketing in major ports like Antwerp, drug-related violence and corruption are on the rise in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, and cocaine use and deaths have increased across the continent .
Belgian law enforcement agencies say they are overwhelmed as more criminal groups have participated in the drug trade, with violence increasing along with ever-increasing amounts of cocaine. Customs officials in Antwerp are on track to intercept 100 tons of cocaine this year – up from 66 tons in 2020 – an amount equivalent to roughly double the amount seized across the European Union a decade ago.
Part of the increase in attacks is due to the coronavirus pandemic, shipping experts say. In the early months of lockdowns, container traffic declined, as did the number of customs and police officers in ports in Latin America, giving criminal groups a free hand and inciting them to carry ever larger loads of cocaine.
But the pandemic only reinforced a trend that has continued for several years, according to law enforcement officers and researchers. In Colombia, coca production has increased despite the peace agreement signed by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. And according to researchers and law enforcement, Colombian drug cartels have turned to Europe as their main destination market for cocaine.
According to the European Union Drugs Agency, Europe has also become an important transit point for the transport of drugs to Russia and to countries in Asia and the Middle East.
Public health experts and academics say that cocaine is circulating largely unchecked in Europe and has become more available and accepted in social circles where it would once have been taboo, including among younger users.
“It fits in with the trends in our societies,” says Tom Decorte, professor of criminology at Ghent University. “It is a stimulant that allows us to work harder, be more focused and face things,” he added, describing the views of many users in European cities.
Four million adults consume cocaine in the European Union, and use of both crack and powder cocaine is on the rise, said João Matias, an analyst at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the European Union’s drug agency. So are cocaine-related hospitalizations and deaths.
But another source of concern is the rampant penetration of drug money into the local governments and economies of cities like Antwerp. Bart De Wever, the city’s right-wing mayor, said criminals involved in the cocaine trade are increasingly laundering money in real estate or using legitimate businesses as a cover.
‘Before you know it, they own a part of your city,’ said Mr. De Wever.
Antwerp is just a logistics hub from which cocaine is shipped across Europe via the Netherlands – according to Europol the “stopping point for cocaine trafficking on the continent”.
But the trade has sparked a wave of violence in the Netherlands, including the July murder of a prominent crime reporter on a street in Amsterdam. And Antwerp has been rocked by shootings and grenade explosions linked to drug gangs. Europol and the United Nations said in a report this year that an increase in shootings, bombings, torture and murders across the continent were the direct consequences of a “growing cocaine market”.
“We are facing violence that borders on brutality,” Eric Jacobs, chief of the judicial police in Brussels, said at a news conference last month.
This has prompted Mr De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp, to launch a war on drugs in his city and to call for tougher policies throughout Belgium, even though such an approach has taken place in the United States for the past 50 years. left a trail of violence, has not curbed drug use and is widely regarded as a failure.
Mr Decorte, the criminology professor, said the souped-up police had driven out the lower-ranking criminals and replaced them with organized criminal gangs, who were often more violent.
“We are creating incredibly powerful gangs that have money and assets and are able to corrupt who they want, wherever they want,” said Mr. Decorte, who is part of an organization in Belgium that has pushed for a public health approach to solving the drug problem rather than relying on tough enforcement tactics.
Despite the skyrocketing number of seizures in Antwerp, experts are divided on whether this is an improvement in cocaine shipment tracking – or whether the volumes sent are just that much greater.
Customs officials estimate that they seize about 10 percent of cocaine smuggled into Europe, with Antwerp and Rotterdam as the main destinations. Kristian Vanderwaeren, the head of Belgian customs, said that just as much cocaine destined for Antwerp had been seized in Latin American ports before departure this year as in the Belgian port itself.
“We grab a lot, but does that hurt criminals?” said Mr Vanderwaeren. “So much cocaine escapes us.”
Cocaine is often smuggled in containers containing, among other things, bananas, orange juice or coffee. Jeans and animal skins can also be impregnated with cocaine and later extracted in labs. Sometimes smugglers hide for days in containers stored in the port to pick up the drug, using a tactic referred to by customs officials as Trojans.”
Bob Van den Berghe, a senior law enforcement officer at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said the port of Antwerp is convenient for smuggling because containers are processed quickly in automated terminals, limiting control options for customs and police officers.
On a recent afternoon at a scanning outpost in the harbor, two dozen trucks lined up for inspection. Seated in front of a large screen, an officer searched x-rays for suspicious products in containers. Officials said they expected another wave of cocaine seizures for the holidays — a “white Christmas,” as the phenomenon is known.
Most traffickers in Antwerp are lower-ranking members of the gangs, with the leaders in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco or southern Europe, said Manolo Tersago, the head of the drug division of the federal police in Antwerp.
Officials have also discovered a huge criminal web operating across Belgium. The interception this year of a million messages on the secure Sky ECC platform by the Belgian and Dutch police led to the dismantling of a cocaine smuggling network in Brussels, the discovery of drug labs and dozens of arrests across the country.
In the port of Antwerp, Mr Somers, the customs officer, said it was easy to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the networks involved in the drug trade.
Corruption affected every level of the supply chain: dockers and crane operators, as well as customs officers and officials, were paid off to look the other way, he said. More than 64,000 people work in the port of Antwerp, and 80,000 others depend on its activities.
“When you look at the number of people involved in the business,” says Mr. Somers, it sometimes feels like “everyone is involved”.