Investigation“Europe of narcos” (2/2). The huge Belgian port has recently become the main gateway for cocaine to the European market. Police and customs officers may multiply the seizures (90 tonnes this year), they admit a form of powerlessness in the face of the grip of certain criminal organizations.
It’s a world where the fumes from petrochemical plants join the clouds, where highways weave between parking lots and warehouses, where containers pile up. like the pieces of a multicolored Lego set that fell from the hands of a giant. If the fame of the Belgian port of Antwerp, a sorting center on a continent-wide scale, is measured first and foremost by the weight of the goods loaded and unloaded – 238 million tonnes for the year 2020 alone – it also drags a reputation, less glorious, of “strainer” allowing illegal goods to escape from its docks … The Belgian customs themselves concede it: barely 1% of the traffic is inspected, at two checkpoints, on both sides of the Scheldt.
Here we are, one autumn day. While a line of trucks waits their turn to pass, in less than two minutes, within the “scanning” device set up to probe their entrails, three agents unpack boxes filled with cream-colored cushions made in China, transported by a Romanian driver in a semi-trailer registered in France. Nothing to report. It takes more than a few strokes of the cutter to dismantle the dies. In an overhanging room, with a photo of the Belgian royal couple as its sole decoration, the head of the drug investigation unit, wishing to remain anonymous, does not hide the extent of his task: “We are facing an army out of control, he blurted out. The phenomenon is exploding like never before. There is talk of corruption, even within our organizations. “
Yet not a week goes by without a major cocaine seizure, usually from Brazil, Colombia or Ecuador. “A few years ago, we were surprised to discover loads of several hundred kilos, now it has become routine”, comments the same investigator. Thus, more than 90 tons were seized in 2021, for a market value estimated between 4 and 5 billion euros, that is to say 35% more than the previous year and fourteen times more than in 2011. But the leaders of the customs are aware of the limits of their action. According to them, barely 10% of the imported cocaine is discovered. “The level of financial losses caused by a large seizure leads to a vicious circle, continues the customs officer. The traffickers must then recover them as quickly as possible. “
The container hat
On the banks of the Scheldt, no terminal escapes this game of hide and seek. Some are particularly sensitive areas, such as the “MPET MSI”, the reception area for main lines from South America. Or the “Fruit Terminal” – the largest port hub in Europe specializing in fruit. Hiding bundles of cocaine in bunches of bananas is a classic. It was also in a cargo of this type, arriving from Ecuador, that 2 tonnes of powder were seized on July 28. Grapefruits, covered with paraffin, also have their followers. Provided that the Antwerp traffickers recover the goods soon enough … Recently, sachets of white powder continued on their way until they ended up in the fruit and vegetable section of a Polish supermarket.
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“Loads of several hundred kilos of cocaine have become routine”: the port of Antwerp, the epicenter of all trafficking