Inside Europe’s Cocaine Gateway: ‘A Repeat of Miami in the 1980s’

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Antwerp, now the No. 1 port in Europe for cocaine busts, has seen a rise in mass violence and corruption.

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Authorities have seized 88 metric tons of cocaine stored in containers from Latin America this year, nearly 10 times the 2014 figure. This is more than any other European port, as smugglers have flooded the continent with so much cocaine that it is now a market larger than the US, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The resulting injection of cash has distorted the city’s economy and strained society. Police, customs officials and a hospital employee have been arrested for passing information to a cocaine-smuggling network through encrypted apps. Reputable smugglers rent supercars for hundreds of euros a day and recruit young people with the allure of quick cash and a lucrative lifestyle. Legitimate companies struggle to compete with criminal-fronted businesses that can bear huge losses.

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“It’s a pharmaceutical economy,” said Kevin Daniels, deputy head of the DEA in Europe. “It’s an iteration of Miami in the 1980s.”

Antwerp in the Netherlands and nearby Rotterdam, Europe’s two largest ports, are now the main gateways for cocaine into the continent, according to a joint report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Europol, the European Union’s police agency. The September report said authorities seized less than 10 tonnes in Antwerp in 2014.

In recent years many Moroccan or Albanian heritage, gangs capable of bringing cocaine ashes through their connections at ports have come to power. The bulk of the cocaine that police seized this year was worth billions of euros, and is likely to be several times higher, officials said.

The influx has given rise to gang violence. Restaurants and homes were damaged by grenades and rifle fire. The message of such attacks may be a warning to rival gangs, pressure on a port officer to assist a gang, or a covert way to undermine rivals by warning the police that a cafe owner May be associated with drug trade.

Officials say a cash tsunami is distorting Antwerp’s economy, raising prices for real estate and existing businesses.

Antwerp Mayor Bart de Weaver said, “Bad money outweighs good money.” “They will chase honest people.”

Some companies are used to launder money, from restaurants to luxury car dealers. Yve Driesen, director of the Federal Judicial Police in Antwerp, said more widespread and harmful companies undermine and disrupt the legal economy.

Drug traffickers buy into restaurants or shops to give the impression that their fortunes derive from legal commerce. Front companies also use legal activities to hide their illegal drug-related work. For example, a transportation company that removes cocaine from shipping containers may also carry out legal transportation on behalf of multinationals.

“They will win contracts because their prices are lower than those of competitors,” said Mr Driesen.

Other companies have come up to serve criminals. Authorities say resellers of encrypted phones rely on drug gangs only able to afford contracts that could cost thousands of dollars. Companies rent luxury cars for the equivalent of $1,000 or more per day.

“They can only exist and thrive thanks to the cash of local drug offenders,” Drissen said.

Officials say smugglers are paying several times their monthly salary to steal their drugs through the port, so that they can move containers for unloading piracy, to help evade inspections. Customs officials are bribing, and senior officials, including prosecutors and police, to evade the law, officials say. ,

“Every section of society is infected,” said Mayor Mr. de Weaver.

That said, the effects are easily missed if you’re not paying attention, especially for the wealthy in the south of the city.

Money is pouring into the poor areas with large immigrant populations in the north of the city, from where many criminals come. Officials say criminal gangs pay youth soccer teams to burn their reputations.

Robbers can then rely on teenagers to look at police license plates or swarm the police to obstruct drug arrests. Attracted to the criminal environment, they can move up the food chain and earn thousands of euros by riding in luxury cars and wearing expensive suits and acting as couriers for small bags of cocaine to gang members.

“It’s not a positive role model,” said Mr. Drison.

Officers are trying to fight back, gathering resources and information among police, prosecutors, customs and other services. Law enforcement and city hall are using various powers to shut down eateries with money links to cocaine. Port companies and dock workers’ associations launched an awareness campaign and a hotline to anonymously report suspicious behavior.

Earlier this year, police infiltrated an encrypted messenger system downloading nearly a billion messages, leading to hundreds of arrests and prompting many more investigations, leaving gangs here in shock. But the officers admit they are fighting a relentless enemy.

Antwerp’s chief prosecutor Frankie de Keizer said: “In a few months, there are others who will replace him, but experience helps us develop new strategies.” “It’s always a cat and mouse game.”

Write James Marson at [email protected]

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