Antwerp, Europe’s diamond capital, is now better known as a key way station on the drug superhighway into the EU from Panama, Ecuador and Paraguay. A justice minister is placed under 24-hour protection because of a threat of kidnapping by narco gangs, which he says are as dangerous as the Islamic State.
The country’s incinerators can’t keep up with the industrial scale of cocaine being seized, and there are warnings from local mayors that organized criminals are infiltrating politics and the business world. There’s also the worry of law enforcement officials being bribed for tip-offs on police and customs operations. This isn’t Central or Latin America. It’s Belgium. And it’s all scarily real.
But how exactly did a wealthy, well-resourced Western democracy, which is home to the European Union’s most powerful institutions, become the front line in Europe’s battle on organized crime?
The answer is, of course, cocaine.
Antwerp, Europe’s diamond capital, is now better known as a key way station on the drug superhighway into the EU from Panama, Ecuador and Paraguay.
Customs officers have seized 110,000 kilograms of cocaine here in the last year alone, and U.N. figures show that organized crime networks are turning over around €130 billion a year from the cocaine trade.
Four-fifths of the drug consignments that arrive in Antwerp are subsequently transported across the border into the Netherlands to be cut, packaged and distributed across the Continent. And Europe’s insatiable appetite for cocaine means drug mafias now have industrial quantities of cash at their disposal — plenty to buy off prying eyes.
From an institutional point of view, this is worrying, if only geographically.
One could argue that in the United States, the flooding of drugs into the country from the south is happening hundreds of miles away from decision-makers in Washington, which provides some cover for policymakers. Here in Europe, however, the bulk of narco-trafficking is happening just half-an-hour from Brussels, the EU’s capital.
The threat to Belgium’s 3,300 customs officers is so apparent, in fact, they’ve been instructed to avoid being filmed or photographed in order to protect their identities from gangsters who may want to intimidate or bribe them.
“They look to the weak, the poorest ones, [the] ones who have problems privately, those who are spending too much money,” said Kristian Vanderwaeren, director general of Belgian customs, in an interview. Corrupt officers receive €50,000 to €80,000 in cash for tip-offs, he revealed.
And it’s not just police and customs on the front lines who are under threat — businesses and politicians are too.
“Antwerp is the first port of call for European trade with America,” says the city’s Mayor Bart De Wever. “We are proud of this strong trade relationship, which creates close ties between our city and Latin America. In recent years, however, cocaine traffic has increased exponentially. The consequences of this are very tangible, especially for port cities,” he added.
De Wever said that drug money is “poisoning traditional sectors, such as real estate and hospitality,” with billions of euros laundered through property development and fast-food restaurants.
“This is going to penetrate all of society,” he said. “This is going to permeate politics.”
De Wever has spoken of how a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs backed by dirty money is “subtly” infiltrating Antwerp politics. “These criminals seek the company of respectable people, and then you can be subconsciously trapped, or you can be tempted, brought to make a deal with them,” he said. “No one is immune from this.”
He sees the drug mafia as a bigger threat to security than terrorism — a view echoed by Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne.
“Today, organized crime is the new terrorism … It’s a very tough fight. Six years ago we had the terrorist attacks in Brussels and it is again the same intensity as after that,” Van Quickenborne said in an interview, referring to the March 2016 suicide bombings in Brussels that killed 32 people.
Both Van Quickenborne and De Wever have police protection due to credible threats made against them.
Meanwhile, across the border in the Netherlands, the mayors of the two largest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, wrote to the Dutch government last year, urging tougher action against organized drug crime, warning the issue has grown to mafia-like proportions, “weakening our democratic legal system.”
“We are now seeing violence as calculated displays of power, with the intention of weakening our democratic legal system,” the mayors wrote.
Jan Struijs of the Dutch police union NPB even described the country as “a narco-state,” where drug crime is “rotting the pillars of society.” And the assassinations of lawyer Derk Wiersum in 2019 and crime journalist Peter R de Vries in 2021 showed just how untouchable the gangs feel they are in the Netherlands.
Given all this, what is clear is that efforts to curb the problem so far have not been sufficient.
Antwerp is less than 50 kilometers from Brussels, the political and institutional heart of the EU. And the unfolding “Qatargate” cash-for-influence scandal has already shown how easily some politicians in the European Parliament can be influenced by bundles of cash.
Who’s to say organized crime won’t seek influence in Brussels? Where does it stop?
The EU’s new Anti-Money Laundering Authority (AMLA) is a start — but what else is Brussels doing to prevent our democratic institutions from being undermined by industrial quantities of dirty money?
Yes, there is Europol, Eurojust and, more recently, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. But where is the bloc’s appetite for big transnational crime and money-laundering investigations? Cross-border policing and investigations are very expensive, labor intensive and time consuming for national police departments with funding already strained.
We have seen EU cooperation on terrorism can pay off. Now it’s time to get as serious about the damage dirty money is having on our democracies.
As a young crime reporter in Ireland in 1996, I had to cover the assassination of my colleague, investigative journalist Veronica Guerin.
The media in Ireland had been reporting for years about the increasing power of gangs and their infiltration of the police. Veronica’s murder was a wake-up call, and what unfolded was a comprehensive legislative and criminal justice response, which set the gangs back at least five years.
Western Europe as a whole is now facing a threat that is not dissimilar. And how much longer can it turn a blind eye to the increasing power of the transnational crime gangs?
February 13, 2023 Published by Politico News.