Belgium to step up fight against organised crime, as analyst warns war on drugs is lost

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By Christopher Pitchers
A container is loaded onto a ship in the Port of Antwerp on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.
A container is loaded onto a ship in the Port of Antwerp on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.   -  Copyright  Virginia Mayo/AP

The Belgian government is stepping up its fight against organised crime and the drug smuggling that goes with it by hiring more customs agents at the Port of Antwerp.

As Europe’s second largest port, millions of shipping containers pass through its gates every year, which is why it is often called the gateway to the continent, alongside the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

"For the last five years, we have been breaking (drugs) records here in Antwerp," Florence Angelici, spokesperson for the Belgian Federal Public Finance Service told Euronews. "Last year, there were 89 tonnes of cocaine seized here in Antwerp. It was a very big year, but still, we see the numbers rising."

"We are currently hiring 100 new customs agents and we are about to build new scanning devices directly inside the terminals and the aim is to scan 100% of the risk containers."

Some 41 tonnes were recovered by authorities in 2017, with the number rising year-on-year to reach 65.5 tonnes in 2020.

Seizures hit a peak in 2021, with 89 metric tonnes seized after investigators cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC and intercepted a billion messages during a two-year investigation.

War on drugs is already lost

For Professor Letizia Paoli, an expert in organised crime at Catholic University Leuven, the war on drugs is already lost and Europe should start focusing instead on the damage caused.

"The war against [drug] trafficking cannot be won," she told Euronews. "And I think that police forces all over Europe should focus not so much on reducing the flows because in areas such as the European Union with open borders, it's really hard to stick to the use of laws.

"Instead they should, as much as possible, try to reduce the harms associated with drug trafficking itself, the harms of violence and the harms of corruption."

Paoli added that an EU-wide discussion on the legalisation of some narcotics should be explored.

"At the same time, (we should) start a debate on whether or not some drugs should be legalised in such a way as to reduce the revenues of organised criminals."

But as drug seizures have increased, so has violence linked to organised crime. 

Just last month, Belgium's Justice Minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, was caught up in a foiled kidnapping plot linked to organised crime in the Netherlands.

He described it as “narco-terrorism” with others even calling Belgium a "narcostate". Paoli, however, said this definition is unjustified.

"There is no reason to define Belgium as a narcostate. There are huge differences with real narcostates, such as Mexico, for example," she explained. 

"In Belgium, in the Netherlands, the public administration has more integrity, so there are very few cases known of civil servants that have been corrupted by organised criminals."

Paoli added that the record cocaine recovered last year at the Port of Antwerp nearly matched the whole EU's yearly consumption and still prices across the continent did not increase.

In fact, she said the cost of cocaine even decreased in some cases, showing that supply is still readily flowing through Europe, despite police seizures.