Drugs, violence and organized crime in Belgium – Politico

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Stephen Ray is the publisher of AML Intelligence, the leading anti-financial crime and compliance publication. He is the former Group Editor-in-Chief of INM and a member of the Supervisory Board of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

This is the picture.

A justice minister has been placed under 24-hour security because of threats of kidnapping by narco gangs, which he says are as dangerous as Islamic State. The country’s industrial scale can’t keep up with cocaine seizures, and there are warnings from local mayors that organized crime is infiltrating the world of politics and business. There are also concerns about bribing law enforcement officials for information in police and customs raids.

It is not Central or Latin America. It’s Belgium. And it’s all terribly real.

But how exactly did a wealthy, well-resourced Western democracy, home to the European Union’s most powerful institutions, become the frontline of Europe’s war on organized crime?

The answer, of course, is cocaine.

Antwerp, the diamond capital of Europe, is now known as a key way station on the drug superhighway from Panama, Ecuador and Paraguay to the European Union.

Customs officials here seized 110,000 kilograms of cocaine last year alone, and UN figures show organized crime networks siphon off around 130 billion euros a year from the cocaine trade.

Four-fifths of drug shipments arriving in Antwerp are subsequently transported across the border to the Netherlands to be cut, packaged and distributed across the continent. And Europe’s insatiable appetite for cocaine means drug mafias now have industrial amounts of cash on hand – plenty to turn a blind eye to.

From an institutional point of view, it is only geographically concerned.

One could argue that in the United States, the flood of drugs into the country from the south is happening hundreds of miles away from decision makers in Washington, providing some cover for policymakers. But here in Europe, most of the drug trafficking takes place just half an hour away from Brussels, the capital of the European Union.

The threat to Belgium’s 3,300 customs officers is so palpable that, in fact, they are ordered not to be photographed or photographed to protect their identities from gangsters who want to intimidate or bribe them.

Confiscated items at the East Flanders Federal Judicial Police Office in Ghent Jonas Roogens/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

“They look upon the weak, the poor, [the] Those who are personally in trouble, who are spending too much money,” said Christian Vanderweeren, director general of Belgian customs, in an interview. Corrupt officials receive €50,000 to €80,000 in cash for tip-offs, he revealed.

And it’s not just police and customs on the front lines who are under threat – businesses and politicians too.

“Antwerp is the first port of call for European trade with America,” said the city’s mayor Bert de Weaver. “We are proud of this strong trade relationship, which creates close ties between our city and Latin America. In recent years, however, cocaine traffic has grown rapidly. The consequences are very clear, especially for port cities,” he added.

De Weaver said drug money was “poisoning traditional sectors, such as real estate and hospitality,” with billions of euros laundered through property developments and fast-food restaurants.

“It’s going to permeate all of society,” he said. “It’s going to get into politics.”

De Weaver spoke of how a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs backed by dirty money was “subtly” infiltrating Antwerp politics. “These criminals seek the company of respectable people, and then you can be unconsciously ensnared, or you can be lured, brought into making a deal with them,” he said. “No one is immune to it.”

A ship sails through the port of Antwerp Kenzo Triboillard/AFP via Getty Images

He sees the drug mafia as a bigger security threat than terrorism — a view shared by Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Vincent van Quickenbone.

“Today, organized crime is the new terrorism … it’s a tough fight. Six years ago we had a terrorist attack in Brussels and it has the same intensity after that,” Van Quickenboen said in an interview, referring to the March 2016 suicide bombings in Brussels that killed 32 people.

Both Van Quickenbone and De Wever have police protection due to credible threats.

Meanwhile, across the border in the Netherlands, the mayors of the two largest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, wrote to the Dutch government last year calling for tougher action against organized drug crime, warning that the problem had grown to mafia-like proportions, “weakening our democratic legal system.”

“We now see violence as a calculated display of power intent on undermining our democratic legal system,” the mayors wrote.

Jan Struij of the Dutch police union NPB even described the country as “a narco-state,” where drug crime is “rotting the pillars of society.” And the murders of lawyer Dirk Wiersum in 2019 and crime journalist Pieter RD de Vries in 2021 showed how untouchable gangs feel in the Netherlands.

A drug-sniffing dog sniffs fruit during customs control in Antwerp Valeria Mongel/AFP via Getty Images

Given all this, what is clear is that efforts to curb the problem have so far not been enough.

Antwerp is less than 50-kilometers from Brussels, the political and institutional center of the European Union. And the cash scandal for the unfolding “Catargate” effect has already shown how easily some politicians in the European Parliament can be swayed by bundles of cash.

Who says that organized crime will not seek influence in Brussels? Where does it stop?

The EU’s new Anti-Money Laundering Authority (AMLA) is a start — but what else is Brussels doing to prevent our democratic institutions from being undermined by industrial scale dirty money?

Yes, there is Europol, Eurojust and recently the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. But where is the bloc’s appetite for investigating major transnational crimes and money laundering? Cross-border policing and investigations are extremely expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming for national police departments, and funding is already under pressure.

We have seen that EU cooperation against terrorism can pay off. Now is the time to get serious about the damage dirty money is doing to our democracy.

As a young crime reporter in Ireland in 1996, I had to cover the murder of my colleague, investigative journalist Veronica Guerin.

Irish media had been reporting on the growing power of the gangs and their police infiltration for years. Veronica’s murder was a wake-up call, and what unfolded was an extensive legal and criminal justice response, setting the gang back at least five years.

Western Europe as a whole now faces a threat that is no different. And how long can we turn a blind eye to the growing power of transnational crime rings?