How Belgium became Europe’s port of call for cocaine

The port of Antwerp has the dubious claim to fame as the main entry point for cocaine in Europe. But with critics citing a weak central government and divided law enforcement system, can Belgium ever win the war on drugs?
Illustration by Joe Magee

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a Brussels-based journalist reporting on security, crime and intelligence in Europe

26 Jan 2023

In early January, just hours before Belgian authorities announced a shocking new record (they had seized nearly 110 tonnes of cocaine in 2022 at the port in Antwerp, surpassing the previous record of 90 tonnes in 2021), tragedy struck in a northern Antwerp suburb. An 11-year-old girl was dead from five bullet wounds, an innocent bystander killed when unknown gunmen sprayed her home with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

Compounding the tragedy of a young girl killed are fears across Antwerp of retaliation, as the victim was the niece of one of Belgium’s top accused drug traffickers, Othman el Ballouti. Authorities claim el Ballouti runs a massive cocaine smuggling operation through Antwerp’s port from the safety of Dubai, which has been reluctant to arrest and extradite Belgian suspects.

While homicide remains rare in Belgium (1,150 killings were recorded in 2020 among a population of 11.5 million), the murder could hardly come as a surprise: Antwerp has been in the throes of a multifaceted gang war over the huge amounts of cocaine flooding the port. More than 50 bombings and gun attacks on buildings since last summer have been linked to major traffickers, according to the police.

With a weak central government and a political environment and law enforcement system deeply divided between rival French- and Dutch-speaking factions, Belgium offers drug traffickers almost perfect conditions to thrive. The combination of the European Union single market, a port so physically large that officials estimate only two per cent of incoming containers can be checked, a thriving trade in easily laundered diamonds and gold, and close access to a modern transportation network spanning northern Europe has created an organised crime monster.

Belgium offers drug traffickers almost perfect conditions to thrive

The head of Belgium’s customs service has suggested at least 40 per cent of Europe’s cocaine imports pass through Antwerp and other nearby ports.

There’s violence between rival gangs battling for control of the port and cocaine shipments. But killings among Antwerp’s cartels are intentionally uncommon, says Joris van der Aa, a top crime reporter for Gazet van Antwerpen. The handful of Moroccan clans that control the port and its cocaine smuggling are closely interrelated – most come from Morocco’s Rif Mountains – so killings are usually avoided in favour of harassment.

The targets tend to be apartment building lobbies, shuttered store fronts and restaurants believed to be operated by the families of cartel bosses to launder money. Last summer, the violence directed at two restaurants – Poke Bowl and Stacks – forced the mayor to shutter both establishments.

“Everyone is intermarried, it’s hard to kill someone who is married to your cousin, and it will have repercussions both in Antwerp and Morocco,” says van der Aa. “Instead, they shoot up buildings, set off small bombs – it’s a pattern of pressure and harassment. Make the family of your opponent so miserable they’re forced to return the stolen cocaine or whatever started the conflict.

Europe’s largest physical port and second busiest in terms of cargo (only neighbouring Rotterdam moves more containers a year), Antwerp has seen a massive rise in cocaine trafficking since 2012 as Moroccan cartels began to dominate the trade in northern Europe.

These cartels exploited the massive amounts of container traffic at the northern ports, making them the main entry point for cocaine into Europe, which replaced the United States as the single largest cocaine market in 2020. And Belgium’s weak government and poorly co-ordinated police departments have allowed these gangs to flourish, according to officials and locals.

The links between the Dutch-speaking Moroccan diaspora in both Holland and Belgium is deep, and all the regional ports are used to traffic drugs into Europe, with large-scale busts occurring weekly in ports stretching from Le Havre to Hamburg.

But while the gangs are interlinked, a series of high-profile arrests in the Netherlands, including the Dutch-Moroccan cartel boss Ridouan Taghi, who is facing life in prison for drug trafficking and multiple murders, have only raised the profile of the Antwerp-based gangs, who face significantly less law enforcement pressure than their Dutch colleagues.

And northern Belgium provides a practical home for operations: Antwerp might as well have been designed by an urban planner with an interest in cocaine smuggling and money laundering. Already the centre of Europe’s diamond trade, Antwerp’s famous bourse neighbourhood has a long history of using precious stones to launder money.

“So, there’s Europe’s biggest diamond district, one of Europe’s largest gold markets, Europe’s second busiest port, where most of Europe’s cocaine imports arrive, and a neighbourhood full of immigrants with close ties to both port operations and Morocco’s extensive hashish and cocaine trade,” says a former Belgian Federal Police officer, who spent more than a decade investigating financial crimes, fraud and diamond thefts, of Antwerp’s position in the drug underworld.

Experts suggest that between three and five per cent of most European cities’ gross domestic product can be linked to crime and illegal economies.

“But in Antwerp things are very different because of the scale,” says the ex-police officer, who declined to be identified to avoid strain with their current employer. “Between the diamonds, gold and the historic smuggling centred around the port, Antwerp’s financial criminal underground has always been very powerful, but now with the cocaine trade exploding since 2012, an effort to clean up illegal activity would crush the economy.

“Just to get Antwerp to a level of normal criminal activity would put the city in a recession, and I don’t think there’s political will in Belgium to do normal government tasks, so there’s no chance of a politician seriously supporting a crackdown that would affect the economy to this extent,” the former police officer adds.

Belgium’s dysfunctional political system prevents the level of co-operation necessary to combat transnational organised crime, according to van der Aa, because of political and economic rivalries between the French-speaking south and Dutch-speaking north.

“We have maybe seven parliaments for a country of just over 10 million people and everything is divided between French- and Flemish-speaking populations that see one another as rivals, not the same nation,” van der Aa explains, adding: “These layers of government prevent any real reform or action, in part because this dysfunction has left the federal government broke. So everyone competes for resources, and French speakers don’t care about problems in the Flemish areas and vice versa.”

An Antwerp government official, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, agreed that Belgium’s structural dysfunction made reforms nearly impossible, but also cited a more personal level of politics.

“[Antwerp Mayor Bart] De Wever isn’t just a local politician, he’s the leader of the strongest Flemish separatist party in the federal parliament,” says the political insider. “These multiple roles put Antwerp in a terrible position: if Brussels offers more resources to combat crime and money laundering in Antwerp, it helps the largest opposition party.” (De Wever did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“Very few Belgian officials see the problems of Antwerp as a national issue, and getting co-operation between the various police departments and branches of the [Belgian] Federal Police is always a nightmare,” the government official adds.

“Very few Belgian officials see the problems of Antwerp as a national issue”

According to this person, the rise in terror attacks linked to Isis from 2013 to 2016 drew resources away from traditional crime and law enforcement in Antwerp in favour of combating terror cells in French-speaking areas.

“Antwerp had only a minimal problem with Isis compared to Brussels and other places, in large part because many of the young men Isis primarily recruits were already involved in the cocaine trade,” says the official. “The kids here were less interested in Isis because many of them already had roles – and paycheques – in the drug environment.”

But, the government source explains, the focus on the Isis threat gave the cocaine traffickers space to grow over the last decade: “They’ve started pouring some resources into the drug environment to replace those taken for Isis but there’s just not enough money for more cops, more checks of containers and serious investigations into financial crime.”

However, the former police officer says the Belgian Federal Police has a larger problem than co-ordinating and supporting each other across the country: there’s a lack of political will and resources to investigate financial crime. There’s a widespread impression that investigators are content to make cases from cocaine seizures at the port but do little to track the money created by the trade, which some experts estimate at €10bn annually.

“The [Federal Police] are educated and intelligent but they’re a bunch of cops who have no background in serious financial crime investigation,” explains the ex-police officer. “It’s very hard to recruit and pay financial analysts who can track illegal money flows around the world, investigate complex shell company structures and find the hundreds of millions of euros being laundered by these gangs. And I’m not sure Belgium, which relies on ports, diamonds and gold, all complicated trade, has the resources or will to really investigate.

“If they can only scan two per cent of the containers in Antwerp and have more than 50 full-time police officers just working on cocaine in the port… how can they expect to have the people or skills to track hundreds of millions of euros flowing between Belgium, Morocco, Dubai and Panama? Europe doesn’t pool its resources like the cartels often do, so a small country like Belgium can find itself completely overwhelmed.”