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ANTWERP, Belgium — When Lucas first heard the deafening explosion, it was as if a car had just hit his house.
It quickly became clear, as he and his neighbors gathered outside in the middle of the February night, that the pizzeria across the street had been bombed: Another chapter in the war on drugs raging in Belgium’s second largest city.
Police arrived on the scene with repeated accuracy that was both reassuring and deeply disturbing. “Are we already at a point where responding to this situation has become a routine task for the 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 from Latin America, and turf wars have spread through its streets. In 2022, there were 81 drug-related shootings and explosions in Antwerp, according to figures shared by the city with POLITICO, and another 25 in the first five months of this year, including a January shooting that killed l 11 year old child. niece of an alleged drug criminal.
For the mayor of Antwerp Bart De Wever, the rise in violence is both a crisis and an opportunity. As leader of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), it gives him a club, ahead of next year’s national elections, with which he can criticize the Belgian federal government, which he accuses of considering the issue as a local problem, or worse, encumbering the response in the country’s notorious sticky bureaucracy.
In an interview in his office overlooking Antwerp’s majestic central square, the mayor called the threat posed by drug trafficking “far greater” than the 2016 terror crisis. he said, is just the tip of the iceberg, as criminals reinvest their illicit money into the formal economy, thereby extending their influence in countries across the continent.
“Europe has a problem and it should wake up,” he said.
De Wever attributes Antwerp’s importance for drug trafficking to its location: connected to the North Sea, just a 40-minute drive from Brussels and close to some of Germany’s biggest industrial hubs. “We are the most important port city for all trade from Latin America,” he said. “We are the first port of call. But for those who smuggle, it’s incredibly useful.”
Belgian authorities seized a record 110 tonnes of cocaine at the port last year, nearly 14 times the amount seized in 2014 and more than double the amount seized in the nearby Dutch port of Rotterdam (50 tonnes ). The city also tops the European rankings for cocaine use – which has become “the cool drug for young city dwellers”, joked De Wever.
The cocaine comes from countries like Ecuador or Colombia, Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said in an interview with POLITICO, in areas abandoned by the government where some people have “nothing but culture of cocaine”. The shipments then cross the Atlantic hidden aboard container ships.
Until 2021, port controls were weak: only one container out of 42 was scanned by customs officers. encouraging authorities to declare their ambition to control at least “high risk” containers. The fight against drug trafficking in the ports themselves is supported by a dedicated maritime police, which De Wever says is in high demand. understaffed.
Drug money is infiltrating the local economy, “poisoning” part of the city’s retail sector, De Wever said. Lucas, who lives opposite the bombed pizzeria, noted that bars, restaurants and shops were sometimes ordered by the city council to close overnight. “These are places where everything looks fine from the outside,” he said. “But nobody ever frequents these places. It’s when you know there’s more than just bad business going on.”
In a July interview with POLITICO, Catherine De Bolle, head of the European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol, warned that drug gangs seek to bribe local governments, courts and the police. “They infiltrate our societies,” she said. “They want to decide the big questions of our society. »
The example of the Netherlands looms over Antwerp, the scene of high-profile drug-related murders, including that of Dutch crime journalist Peter R. De Vries and lawyer Derk Wiersum. Such a scenario represents the “near future” of the city, De Wever said. “At some point, there will be innocent victims. »
De Wever’s campaign on this issue propelled it onto the national and international agenda.
The attention of the Belgian government has focused on the death of an 11-year-old girl. Threats from drug gangs also forced Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and his family to take refuge in a safe house twice, in September and December last year.
In February, the federal government beefed up maritime policing by transferring 70 security guards who were guarding a nearby nuclear facility. He also approved the acquisition of new scanning equipment for customs officers and appointed a national drug commissioner, Ine Van Wymersch, whose first task will be to measure the extent of the problem.
“Mapping criminal assets and predicting that certain people might be involved is something we could tackle through policy preparedness,” Verlinden said.
Van Wymersch’s appointment also gave a new face to efforts to bring drug gangs under control, and she tried to catch the attention of a wider audience, saying, in one of her first interviews in the under his new position, that “he who smokes a joint, finances a criminal organization.
Belgium has also joined forces with the Netherlands in a cross-border fight against drug-related violence. “The majority” of drug abuse suspects who could be arrested in Antwerp were of Dutch origin, De Wever said. Since the beginning of 2022, local police have made more than 1,600 arrests for drug trafficking 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 only shifts the problem to another. In June, representatives from six EU countries with major ports – Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany and Spain – met in Antwerp to coordinate their fights against organized crime.
Belgium intends to make this subject a priority when it takes over 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 have to connect the dots and make sure that if the measures are taken in one port, (criminal groups) don’t immediately move to another port,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said in an interview. on the edge of Antwerp. summit.
Belgium also hopes the bloc could facilitate the extradition of drug bosses, who run certain organisations, out of countries such as the Emirates and Morocco, where criminals are sometimes arrested only to be released on bail.
“If we can’t break that system,” Verlinden said, “then they can keep calling from Dubai to the people on the ground here: drop another bomb over there, and another grenade over there.”
Barbara Moens and Nick Vinocur contributed reporting.