Cocaine trafficking European ports must join forces in the face

Cocaine trafficking: European ports must join forces in the face of “very creative” drug traffickers

Belgium, where Antwerp is the first gateway for cocaine to Europe, is in favor of close cooperation between EU ports in the fight against “very creative” drug traffickers, its defense minister tells AFP. Inside Annelies Verlinden.

Together with the European Commission, the Belgian official will launch an “Alliance of European Ports” in the Flemish capital on Wednesday, to which around twenty port agencies (including Rotterdam, Hamburg, Algeciras and Marseille) have been invited. the EU such as Europol and, in particular, interior ministers and organizations representing maritime transport companies.

“We have to create this network to combat organized crime,” emphasizes Annelies Verlinden.

In the gigantic, kilometer-long port of Antwerp, cocaine seizures break records every year: in 2023, 116 tons were seized there. And the city is regularly rocked by violence linked to feuding gangs. A trade with colossal financial risks.

Traffickers “are always very creative and that is our challenge.” They are not restricted by legislation on working hours, private life or borders, so we have to work together and be efficient,” argues the minister, emphasizing the importance of “sharing information and best practices”.

Scan containers

The Alliance must respond in particular to the problem of corruption and the infiltration of ports by these criminal networks.

There needs to be collaboration with the private sector, as controls can have an impact on legal business activity, and the right “balance” needs to be found, emphasizes Annelies Verlinden.

The aim of the partnership is to ensure uniform security in all European ports. “We know that companies are very flexible. If something no longer suits them, they can go somewhere else the next day. We want to avoid that,” the minister continued, emphasizing the economic importance of the port of Antwerp, the second largest in Europe.

By tightening security measures in one port, illegal traffic can also shift to others.

“We can push [les contrôles] in Belgium, but if drug trafficking increases in France or Spain, we cannot create a safe zone in Europe. We all need this stability, this harmonization,” she comments.

In Antwerp “we have a record number of confiscations, but you never know what you haven’t confiscated,” admits the minister. However, she believes that “there is better detection”: “We have invested heavily in security services and customs and created a port security corps.”

The Flemish port currently has one mobile scanner, with five more scheduled to be delivered in 2024, and around a hundred additional customs officers are also expected.

According to Belgian customs, around 1 to 2% of all containers are currently scanned. “What we want is to scan all containers that come from a country at risk” (for example from South America or West Africa), aims Annelies Verlinden, emphasizing, however, that containers may have passed through another port and are no longer classified as “ could be classified. in danger”.

Fight against corruption

In the fight against drugs, Belgium recorded a major success in 2021 when, in collaboration with French and Dutch police, millions of messages sent by drug traffickers over the Sky ECC communications network were decrypted, leading to dragnets and several investigations. A mega trial with 120 suspects is also underway in Brussels.

“We know that we anger criminal groups and thereby cause a panic reaction and acute violence,” says the minister.

The Sky ECC operation also revealed an unprecedented level of corruption in the country: “We realized that members of the customs staff, the police, the judiciary and lawyers could be involved in these criminal networks,” she recalls.

“We have to be very strict when it comes to corruption,” she said, while two police officers were recently charged in a drug case.

“I don’t believe, I can honestly say, that we live in a “narco state” today. But you don't have to travel far in space or time to recognize it [le danger de] The Mafia in Italy. Of course we don’t want situations like this to arise.”