Home Society ‘Europe’s got a problem’ — Drug violence grips Belgium’s second largest city
‘Europe’s got a problem’ — Drug violence grips Belgium’s second largest city

‘Europe’s got a problem’ — Drug violence grips Belgium’s second largest city

by host

ANTWERP, Belgium — When Lucas first heard the deafening blast, it sounded like a car had just crashed into his house.

It quickly became clear, as he and his neighbors gathered outside in the middle of the February night, that the pizza shop across the street had been bombed — another chapter in the drug war plaguing Belgium’s second-largest city.

The police arrived on the scene with a rehearsed precision that was both reassuring and deeply unsettling. “Are we already at a point where responding to this has become a routine job for emergency services?” asked Lucas, who asked to be identified only by his first name.

Home to Europe’s second-largest cargo port, Antwerp has become a major entry point for drugs, especially cocaine coming from Latin America, and the turf wars have spilled into its streets. In 2022, there were 81 drug-related shootings and explosions in Antwerp, according to numbers shared by the city with POLITICO, and another 25 in the first five months of this year, including a shooting in January that killed the 11-year-old niece of an alleged drug criminal. 

For Antwerp’s mayor, Bart De Wever, the rise in violence is both a crisis and an opportunity. As head of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), it provides him with a club ahead of next year’s national election with which to bash the Belgian federal government, which he accuses of dismissing the issue as a local problem, or worse, gumming up the response in the country’s famously sticky red tape.

In an interview in his office overlooking Antwerp’s majestic central square, the mayor described the threat posed by drug smuggling as “much bigger” than the 2016 terrorist crisis. The violence in his city, he said, is only the tip of the iceberg, as criminals re-invest their illicit money into the formal economy, spreading their influence in countries across the Continent.

“Europe’s got a problem and should wake up,” he said.

Record numbers

De Wever ascribed Antwerp’s importance to the drug trade to its location — connected with the North Sea, just a 40-minute drive away from Brussels, and close to some of the biggest German industry hubs. “We are the most important port city for all trade coming from Latin America,” he said. “We’re the first port of call. But for those piggy-backing [to smuggle], that’s incredibly useful.” 

Last year, Belgian authorities seized a record 110 tons of cocaine in the port, nearly 14 times as much as was confiscated in 2014 and more than double the amount impounded in the nearby Dutch port of Rotterdam (50 tons). The city also topped the European ranking for consumption of cocaine — which has become “the cool drug for young urbanites,” De Wever quipped.

The cocaine is sourced in countries like Ecuador or Colombia, said Belgium’s Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden in an interview with POLITICO, in areas abandoned by the government where some people have “nothing other than cocaine cultivation.” Shipments then cross the Atlantic hidden aboard container ships.

Until 2021, controls at the port were weak: Just one container in 42 was scanned by customs officials. prompting authorities to declare an ambition to check at least the containers that are “high-risk.” The battle against drug trafficking in the ports itself is supported by a dedicated shipping police, which De Wever has said is heavily understaffed.

Drug money is infiltrating the local economy, “poisoning” parts of the city’s retail sector, said De Wever. Lucas, who lives across the street from the bombed pizza parlor, noted bars, restaurants and shops were sometimes ordered by the city council to close overnight. “These are places where everything seems in order from the outside,” he said. “But no one is ever attending these places. It’s when you know: there’s more happening than just bad business.”

Belgian authorities seized a record 110 tons of cocaine in the port, nearly 14 times as much as was confiscated in 2014 | Francois Walschaerts/AFP via Getty Images

In a July interview with POLITICO, Catherine De Bolle, chief of the European Union’s law enforcement agency Europol, warned that drug gangs were seeking to corrupt local governments, the courts and the police. “They are infiltrating our societies,” she said. “They want to decide on big issues in our society.”

Looming over Antwerp is the example of the Netherlands, the scene of high-profile drug killings, including the murder of the Dutch crime reporter Peter R. De Vries and lawyer Derk Wiersum. Such a scenario is the city’s “near future,” De Wever said. “At some point, there will be innocent victims.”

Waterbed

De Wever’s campaign on the issue has pushed it on the national, and international, agenda.

The Belgian government’s attention was focused by the death of an 11-year-old girl. Threats from drug gangs also forced the justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, and his family to twice take refuge in a safe house in September and December last year.

In February, the federal government bolstered the shipping police by transferring 70 security agents who used to guard a nearby nuclear facility. It also signed off for more scanning equipment for customs agents and appointed a national drugs commissioner, Ine Van Wymersch, whose first job will be to get a handle on the scale of the problem.

“Mapping the criminal assets, and predicting that certain people could be involved, that’s some that we could tackle through policy preparation,” said Verlinden. 

Confiscated bags containing cocaine are displayed at the Brussels Federal Police station | Mark Renders/Getty Images

Van Wymersch’s appointment has also put a new face on the effort to rein in drug gangs, and she has tried to catch the attention of a broader audience, arguing, in one of her first interviews in the new job, that “whoever smokes a joint, is funding a criminal organization.”

Belgium has also teamed up with the Netherlands in a cross-border fight against drug violence. “The majority” of suspects of drug-related violence that could be stopped in Antwerp were of Dutch origin, De Wever said. Since early 2022, the local police conducted more than 1,600 arrests for drug dealing and around 85 for drug-related violence.

Law enforcement is also wary of what they call “the waterbed effect” — when a crackdown on one port city just displaces the problem to another. In June, representatives of six EU countries with large ports — Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain — met in Antwerp to coordinate their fights against organized crime.

Belgium plans to make the topic a priority when it takes on the presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of next year. And the European Commission is also looking to play a role. “We need to connect the dots and make sure that if the measures are taken in one port, that [the criminal groups] do not immediately move to another port,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said in an interview on the sidelines of the Antwerp summit.

Belgium is also hoping the bloc could facilitate the extradition of drug bosses, who run some of the organizations out of countries like the Emirates and Morocco, where criminals are sometimes arrested only to be let out on bail.

“If we don’t break through that system,” said Verlinden, “then they can keep on calling out of Dubai to the people on the ground here: Drop another bomb there, and another grenade there.” 

Barbara Moens and Nick Vinocur contributed reporting.

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