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NY Post
New York Post
24 Feb 2024


NextImg:How Antwerp became the drug den of Europe

When you read a headline like “Four Shootings in Three Days,” it wouldn’t be unfair to think it’s been another violent week in Chicago or possibly Juarez, Mexico. But the latest news of rampant gunplay is from Brussels, the capital city of the European Union and a charming tourist hot spot.

NY Post

The violence comes from a rising tide of rival drug gangs competing for control of a lucrative cocaine market. In mid-February, the city and its municipalities became a battlefield, with one drug dealer killed in a drive-by shooting and several bystanders injured in gunfire (often involving machine guns) throughout the week, including at a family-friendly Mardi Gras parade. Jean Spinette, mayor of Brussels Saint-Gilles district, said during a local radio interview that the drug mafia has effectively “taken the city hostage.”

But the true drug epicenter — the Flemish metropolis that’s serving as a gateway for drugs and gang violence not just into Brussels but across the European Union — is actually 30 miles to the north, in the charming port city of Antwerp. 

A drug bust in Antwerp, which has seen more illegal narcotics seized in the past year than in all of the United States. Courtesy of Kristian Vanderwaeren

Just how bad is the problem in Antwerp? Last month, the Belgian Finance Ministry announced that they’d seized 116 tons of cocaine at the Port of Antwerp in 2023, a 5% increase from the previous year and double 2018’s numbers. It’s also 76 more tons of cocaine than were seized in the entire United States in 2023.

The bad guys don’t always give up all that cocaine without a fight. In mid-October, Antwerp authorities apprehended a van filled with seven heavily-armed men, on their way to steal back a seized 10-ton cocaine cargo from customs. And in early November, knife-wielding thugs attempted to reclaim several tons of cocaine before customs officers barricaded themselves in an office and called police. 

The cocaine might not be so tempting to steal if there wasn’t so much of it. “At the moment, we are trying to burn the seized drugs as quickly as possible,” Bart Torrekens, an Antwerp customs officer, told The Post. “But there is only a limited number of incinerators available which have a limited capacity.” The confiscated stash has gotten so huge, it’s been given the unofficial nickname “Cocaine-berg.”

The situation in Antwerp, the cocaine-import capital of Europe, is either under control or descending into drug-fueled madness, depending on who you ask.

Yet another illegal narcotics haul in Antwerp. Courtesy of Kristian Vanderwaeren

“I think it’s an exaggeration to say that Belgian ports are controlled by criminals,” says Kristian Vanderwaeren, director general of Belgian customs. “Our police forces do an extraordinary job of tracking them down, and I’m convinced that this is the right way to go about it.”

Andrew Cunningham, drugs market and crime lead at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, doesn’t share his optimism. “I think (drug violence in Antwerp) has become more brazen in recent times,” he tells the Post.

The most worrisome sign that the situation is becoming untenable, he says, is the purity of cocaine. “There’s very little adulteration going on in the cocaine market in Belgium, which suggests to us that there’s not a shortage,” says Cunningham. “If there was, the first thing the organized crime networks would do is dilute the cocaine to make it go farther. But they’re not.”

Along with its port, Antwerp’s highly-sophisticated diamond and jewelry industry makes it an ideal narcotics entrepot. Getty Images

In other words, despite the record-setting amounts being confiscated, there’s probably much, much more that’s making it through undetected.

Teun Voeten, a photographer and the author of several books on the drug trade — his latest is the upcoming “The Devil’s Drug: The Global Emergence of Crystal Meth” — has lived in Antwerp for years and “never took the Dutch drug violence seriously,” he says. “But then a hand grenade exploded on my street, 40 meters from my kitchen window, and I said, ‘Wait, what the fuck is going on?’”

What’s “going on” in Antwerp didn’t happen overnight. It’s been slowly evolving over the last few decades, as drug suppliers in Ecuador and Colombia have discovered that Antwerp’s port, once a hub for the global diamond trade, is ideally suited for smuggling cocaine. For one thing, it’s one of the largest seaports in Europe, second only to nearby Rotterdam, with more than 20,000 ships bringing in 240 million tons of freight each year. “It’s absolutely huge, so it’s very difficult for the authorities to control,” says Cunningham.

Police attend to a drug-related crime scene in the Belgian capital of Brussels, near Antwerp. Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands might be bigger, but it’s also mostly automated. “Which means that a lot of the places where the ships come in and containers get offloaded, people aren’t really allowed,” says Cunningham. “That presents a problem for the organized crime groups who are trying to get the drugs out of the containers.”

The Antwerp port has also seen an increase in deliveries of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and other highly perishable goods in recent years. “When you open refrigerated containers with fruit, it begins to ripen,” explains Charlotte Colman, a professor of criminology at the University of Ghent. “So you cannot do this with every container.” Which just increases the odds that hidden cocaine can slip through.

“There’s no sign that a single arrest does anything to interrupt the flow of drugs,” says crime specialist Mitchell Prothero. Brazen/ Gateway

“In the past, not many checks were made so as not to disrupt the commercial supply chain,” says Torrekens, noting that until 2021, just one container in 42 was scanned by customs officials. “It’s only now, when the situation appears unmanageable, that the government is willing to take action.”

Netherlands soccer star Quincy Promes was sentenced to six years in prison by a Dutch court for his role in smuggling almost 3,000 pounds of cocaine into Antwerp. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

That action, at least for now, means arrests — and lots of them. In mid-January, Belgium’s federal police announced that they’d made 45 raids and 22 arrests (including several dirty cops) in Brussels and Antwerp. On Feb. 14, former Netherlands soccer star Quincy Promes was sentenced to six years in prison by a Dutch court for his role in smuggling almost 3,000 pounds of cocaine into Antwerp, which was intercepted in January of 2020. (Promes, who currently plays in Moscow, skipped the trial and is unlikely to show up for his sentence.)

Charlotte Colman, a professor of criminology at the University of Ghent, says drugs are increasingly being smuggled within fresh fruit shipments. IRCP

Mitchell Prothero, who hosts the podcast “Gateway: Cocaine, Murder, & Dirty Money in Europe,” is unimpressed with the show of force. “There’s no sign that a single arrest does anything to interrupt the flow of drugs,” he tells The Post. “There’s always another cartel operation ready to step in.”

Narcotics expert Andrew Cunningham says the drugs pouring into Antwerp are particularly potent. LinkedIn

The reason for the lack of real progress may come down to old-fashioned political corruption. Antwerp’s mayor Bart De Wever, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has hinted in the past that wealthy entrepreneurs with underworld connections have been “subtly” infiltrating Antwerp politics. “No one is immune from this,” he’s warned. 

Colman says the conspiracy runs deeper, with criminal organizations relying on “bad actors within the port” who help them steer clear of law enforcement—or in some cases, identify where seized cocaine is being stored (and when it’s less likely to be heavily guarded.) “These facilitators are crucial because of their access to information,” says Colman.

A major Antwerp drug bust in 2022. AFP via Getty Images

Sometimes even law enforcement is involved. Last summer, a senior police inspector was arrested for providing drug cartels with information about police operations at the Antwerp port, helping them to evade capture.

It sounds like the plot of a pulp crime paperback — dirty cops and port officials helping drug smugglers bring in massive quantities of coke while politicians on the take look the other way — but Torrekens says it’s “not inconceivable, especially given the enormous flow of money within the drug mafia. There is corruption in all ranks within the Port of Antwerp.”

Prothero says he’s been told as much, although the justifications for letting criminals run amok is sugarcoated as a public good. “I was told by a Belgian cop that bringing Antwerp’s level of economic criminal activity down to normal levels for a European city would hit the GDP hard enough to cause a recession,” he says.

Despite critiques to the contrary, “I think it’s an exaggeration to say that Belgian ports are controlled by criminals,” says Kristian Vanderwaeren, director general of Belgian customs. BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

Voeten calls it narco capitalism. “We’re living in a very hedonistic age,” he says. “People think they have the right to get high. Drugs make a capitalist system function smoothly. The economic divide is getting bigger and bigger, and the lower classes turn to drugs to escape and to make a living.”

That seems to be the case in Antwerp, which is ground zero not just for drug smuggling but drug consumption. A 2023 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which investigated the wastewater of 54 million people in more than 100 European cities, found that the citizens of Antwerp, by a wide margin, indulge in more cocaine than anybody else in Europe. 

Jean Spinette, mayor of Brussels Saint-Gilles district, said during a local radio interview that the drug mafia has effectively “taken the city hostage. BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

“Some people say, ‘You should legalize cocaine and then the crime will disappear.’ But I don’t think that’s correct,” says Voeten. “The criminal organizations will just switch to crack or they’ll mix coke with fentanyl to make it even more addictive. You cannot weed out drugs. You can only keep it a little bit in check.”

If that means accepting a little violence, Voeten says the public has largely learned to live with it.

“The people in Antwerp get nervous, but then after a while things calm down and everyone gets back to normal.”