Cocaine Seizures In Antwerp Hit Record High In 2023

Belgium, neighbouring Netherlands and Spain are the top three European nations for illegal cocaine imports, mostly from Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

Outgoing Dutch State Secretary Aukje de Vries (L) and Belgian Finance Minister Vincent van Peteghem address a speech during a joint presentation on drug seizures in the port of Vlissingen, on January 17 2024. (Photo by Iris van den Broek / ANP / AFP)


Cocaine seizures at the Belgian port of Antwerp, the top gateway into Europe for mainly South American drug cartels, hit a fresh record high last year, authorities said on Wednesday.

Some 116 tonnes of cocaine were seized in Antwerp alone, Belgian Finance Minister Vincent van Peteghem told reporters, a five-percent rise on 2022 which itself was a record figure.

“These are quantities that pose a gigantic danger to safety in our ports and cities, to the safety of the many hundreds of customs and dock workers on site and to the safety of our families,” the minister told reporters.

Belgium, neighbouring Netherlands and Spain are the top three European nations for illegal cocaine imports, mostly from Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

At the same news conference, Dutch officials said they had seized 59.1 tonnes of cocaine in 2023, also a sharp rise compared to the previous year.

Ecuador was by far the biggest country of origin for drugs seized in the Netherlands, with just under 27 tonnes impounded.

Antwerp and the Dutch port of Rotterdam regularly experience gunfire and explosions linked to turf wars between powerful international drugs gangs.

The two ports were the two main entry points used by a Dubai-based “super cartel” supplying a third of Europe’s cocaine, which Europol said it busted in late 2022.

The cocaine is usually hidden in containers, or sometimes underneath ships in openings below the water line where they are then recovered by divers.

Sniffer dogs and police frogmen are deployed at the Antwerp and Rotterdam container terminals, but authorities fear they are only intercepting a fraction of illegal cargoes.

“The drug traffickers will stop at nothing and will use every mean available,” said Aukje de Vries, Dutch state secretary for customs.

“That’s why we need to do everything in our power to intercept drugs,” she added.

‘Underwater robots’

Dutch authorities scored a major bust in August, uncovering more than eight tonnes of cocaine concealed in a banana shipment from Ecuador — the largest ever consignment.

De Vries said officials were “constantly innovating to stay a step ahead of the criminals,” deploying underwater robots, smart cameras, and drones.

European officials have said organised crime is as big a threat to the continent as terrorism.

Criminal gangs have made threats against Belgium’s Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and the drug trade has caused a spike in armed violence.

Wednesday’s figures were published the day after 22 people, including three police officers, were arrested in a huge anti-drug operation.

Around 350 officers were deployed mainly in Brussels and Antwerp and 45 searches carried out, resulting in the seizure of cash, luxury vehicles and a handgun, the federal police said in a statement.

Belgium is currently holding a drug trafficking mega-trial with more than 120 defendants in the dock, thanks in large part to investigators cracking encrypted messaging apps.

Last year, authorities announced a record haul of 109.9 tonnes in Antwerp for 2022.