Belgium’s drug gangs want their cocaine back.
The country has seized so much of the white powder lately that it now faces a new problem: Its stashes of confiscated cocaine are becoming a target for criminals looking to steal them back.
Belgium and the Netherlands are among the top European destinations for drugs coming from Latin America — mostly cocaine — and seizures in Belgium have ramped up over recent months. But while the Netherlands has the ability to incinerate any cocaine it seizes the same day, Belgium is not there yet — giving criminals an irresistible opportunity.
“We used to seize quantities that were part of the calculated risk for criminal organizations,” Ine Van Wymersch, Belgium’s drugs commissioner, told public broadcaster VRT on Tuesday evening. “But the quantities we seize today are much bigger and no longer part of the calculated risk. [Drug criminals] are clearly willing to go great lengths to recuperate the drugs.”
On Friday, two port employees working close to a seized container near Antwerp were threatened at knifepoint and tied up by three people trying to access it. Belgian customs later confirmed there was cocaine in the container, hidden between animal skins.
The incident came three weeks after seven heavily armed Dutch men with plans to recapture a seized cocaine load stored at a secure location were intercepted at the last minute in Antwerp.
Belgium has seen a sharp uptick in drug-related violence in recent years as the country has increasingly become a key destination in the global drugs trade, centered around Antwerp, the EU’s second-biggest port.
The most recent incidents have put Belgian authorities on high alert that drug gangs won’t shrink from brutal violence to recapture cocaine loads seized by police or customs officers.
It has also led to a political tussle over where responsibility lies for delays in disposing of confiscated drugs.
Kristian Vanderwaeren, head of customs and excise at Belgium’s finance ministry, has called for seized drugs to be incinerated as soon as possible, preferably on the same day. “[The Netherlands] intercept, do conditioning and have enough availability to burn it immediately; we don’t have that option at the moment,” he told Belgian radio Monday.
However, the Flemish environment minister, Zuhal Demir, denied there’s a capacity problem, blaming a lack of staff at the federal customs authority. She added it’s up to customs and waste material operators to organize the disposal.
In the short term, Van Wymersch — who will present a plan to tackle Belgium’s drug-related crime to the country’s National Security Council on Wednesday — said she has engaged with both customs and waste material operators to grant customs a “fast track” to burn drugs in incinerators. The catch is that customs is not the only source of dangerous waste, Van Wymersch argued, and cocaine seizures “are hard to predict.”
There are also security concerns for customs officers during the period from the seizure and storage of drugs, to their transport to an incinerator. After customs officers seize cocaine they are responsible for guarding the load, the federal police confirmed to POLITICO. Police assist with transport.
“The government bets heavily on scanning of containers. But scanning more means there will be more seizures. So we expect there will be more budget to secure transport and for psychological support for customs officers,” Johan Lippens, a trade union representative for the Christan-Democratic ACV said earlier this month, before the two recent incidents.
Meanwhile, the volume of drugs seized by Belgian authorities continues to rise.
In 2022, 110 metric tons of cocaine were seized in Antwerp, a record that looks to be shattered this year, with Vanderwaeren disclosing in his radio interview that 40 metric tons had been seized in a single month. Last Friday Belgian customs announced it had seized 7.5 metric tons of cocaine in a single consignment, hidden beneath a load of bananas.
Wilhelmine Preussen contributed reporting.