The fight against international drug trafficking seemed to be an exercise in futility for years, but extra resources and better cooperation have slowly started to bear fruit.
In the past few weeks, customs and police have intercepted a total of more than 23,000 kilograms of cocaine in the port of Antwerp – good for a street value of more than €2 billion. Many thousands of kilograms of coke were seized in the Netherlands thanks to Belgian detectives, and the Federal Police were able to arrest one of the biggest figures in the Marseille drug mafia in Brussels last week.
“The seizures in recent days and weeks are truly unprecedented. Last year was already a record year, with a total of 110 tonnes of drugs seized,” Kristian Vanderwaeren, administrator general of customs, told De Standaard. “I already dare say that by the end of this year, the figures will be about a quarter higher.”
Over the past few months, enforcement agencies at the port have been provided with more manpower and more container scanners, while more mobile scanners will soon also be added. Vanderwaeren made the case that in the future, customs will be able to screen all containers from Latin America and West Africa by default.
Antwerp no longer a soft touch
“Cooperation on the ground has advanced significantly. Police, customs and justice have been much better coordinated for a year now,” said Charlotte Colman, professor of criminology (UGent) and national drugs coordinator. “There is also much closer cooperation with Dutch colleagues.”
Exactly how heavy a blow customs, police and judiciary dealt in October remains impossible to say as no one knows the total quantity of drugs that do manage to slip through the cracks.
“But that we are hurting the drug gangs at the moment is certain,” said Vanderwaeren. “Such a seizure of 10 tonnes all at once means that they lose hundreds of millions of euros. We see that nervousness is increasing.”
He referred to an incident last Tuesday when customs officers narrowly escaped an armed confrontation with a Dutch drug gang who tried to recapture 10 tonnes of confiscated cocaine.
Sources with contacts in the drug scenes told De Standaard that smugglers are feeling the pinch in Antwerp and feel the port has become “less interesting” in favour of ports in France, Germany or Spain.
Vanderwaeren fears that this nervousness could lead to more violent confrontations and therefore advocates the creation of heavily armed intervention units within Customs as well, following the Dutch example.
“Of course I am proud of this month’s result. But I have been particularly worried lately about how triadic the drug gangs are becoming,” he said.