Belgian customs seized record amount of cocaine as EU faces rise in drug-related violence
BRUSSELS (AP) — Customs seized 116 tons of cocaine in the port of Antwerp in 2023, setting a record for the second year in a row, Belgian authorities said on Wednesday.
Demand for cocaine is growing rapidly across the EU, and governments blame the drug trade for outbreaks of violence in major port cities like Antwerp, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Marseille in France.
The port of Antwerp has become the main gateway for Latin American cocaine cartels into the continent.
Another five tons of cocaine were seized last year at the port of Zeebrugge, which is part of the larger Port of Antwerp-Bruges, said Finance Minister Vincent Van Peteghem.
“Thousands of employees, spread all over the country, gave their best in once again extraordinary circumstances last year,” the minister said.
The announcement was made a day after 22 people, including three police officers, were arrested in a major anti-drug bust targeting individuals suspected of smuggling cocaine through Antwerp.
The quantity of cocaine seized in Europe’s second largest seaport rose from 110 tons in 2022, Belgian authorities said, adding that Colombia, Ecuador and Panama remain the top origin countries.
Record amounts of cocaine are being seized in Europe, with 303 tons stopped by EU member countries in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available. According to a report from the EU agency monitoring drugs and addiction, 75 per cent of that quantity was seized in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.
The Dutch government announced that customs authorities last year seized almost 60 tons of cocaine, a “significant increase” from the year earlier, when more than 51 tons were seized. The drugs were found at the major port of Rotterdam, but also smaller ports like Vlissingen and at airports.
State Secretary Aukje de Vries, the minister in charge of the customs authorities, said the fight against cocaine smuggling “continues to require constant attention and investment.”
In Belgium, federal authorities say drug trafficking is penetrating society rapidly as foreign criminal organisations have built deep roots in the country, bringing along their violent and ruthless operations.
In the past four years, Antwerp has seen dozens of grenade attacks, fires and small bombs, many linked to gangs trying to carve up the thriving cocaine trade. In Belgium, then-Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne spent time living in hiding after evidence emerged that drugs gangs might be seeking to kidnap him, or worse.