Senay Boztas, Unherd
Antwerp harbour leads up the River Scheldt and into the heart of Europe, a port the size of 16,600 football fields, sucking in 240,000,000 tonnes of freight each year. From the giant aerial photograph spread out on the floor of the Port Authority Building, you can see the open sprawl of its spreading fingers and multiple roads. But it’s not just bananas, steel and new cars that are unloaded here. Antwerp is now Europe’s main artery for cocaine smugglers, and the attendant violence they bring with them.
The increase in violent crime is, according to the Antwerp Federal Police, impossible to ignore. Last year, they confiscated €20.7 million in cash and goods and started 94 investigations into drug-related violence. Intercepted cocaine in Rotterdam harbour, in the Netherlands, dropped from almost 73,000 kgs in the record year of 2021 to under 47,000. Meanwhile finds in Antwerp have increased to a peak of almost 110,000 kgs. Antwerp is now, say customs officers, “the top destination for criminals”, and established Dutch drug gangs are spilling over the Belgian border. Last autumn, four Dutch suspects were arrested for allegedly preparing a kidnapping attempt on the Belgian justice minister Vincent van Quickenborne, who went into hiding following a summer of grenade attacks linked to Dutch and Belgian criminal gangs. In Antwerp this January, 11-year-old Firdaous EJ, the niece of an alleged Belgian druglord, was shot dead in a drive-by attack on her home.
“It’s a narco-state lite,” says Teun Voeten, a photographer and the author of several books on the drug trade, who lives in Antwerp. He was first made aware of the problem of drug violence by the sound of hand grenades on his street in Deurne in 2018, an attack which damaged 16 cars and 10 houses. “The Amsterdammers were always the big bosses, but with the cracking of EncroChat and Sky ECC, some gang leaders have been arrested. Now the Antwerp families are going for themselves, and every change is marked with violence.” It is something Antwerp mayor Bart de Wever has warned about repeatedly: vergismoorden, collateral murders of civilians, which are rife in the Dutch criminal world. Now he says it is a “national crisis”. Last month, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo announced €17 million a year for a new harbour police force, more scanners, screening for 16,000 personnel in “sensitive” positions, and international efforts, including a deal with five shipping companies and the Dutch.
“Belgium has a problem because of its proximity to the Netherlands,” says Andrew Cunningham, drugs market and crime lead at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). “Rotterdam was seizing big hauls of cocaine a few years ago, the Dutch really improved port security, then there’s this waterbed effect: the criminals move to Antwerp to bring in the cocaine. Antwerp is a huge, sprawling port and it’s very difficult to control.” Around five years ago, police and prosecutors feared crime was leaching from the Dutch underworld into Belgium. But when academics including Charlotte Colman, professor of criminology at the University of Ghent, investigated the matter, they didn’t find a displacement, but an expansion of both the drug market and the Belgian and Dutch criminal networks.
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