Belgium authorities are intercepting cocaine, but most makes it into Europe anyway

Antwerp, Belgium, is one of the largest entry points into Europe and home to what Europol believes to be one of the most active cocaine trafficking networks. Local police raided dozens of locations last month and arrested 45 people as one part of an international effort to crackdown on the growing problem. Special Correspondent Willem Marx reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Belgian city ofAantwerp is one of the largest entry points into Europe. Its port is also home to what Europol describes as one of Europe's most active cocaine trafficking networks.

    In February, police raided multiple locations and arrested dozens as part of an international effort to crack down on a growing problem with cocaine smuggling.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Willem Marx has more.

  • Willem Marx:

    These customs agents in Antwerp, Belgium are searching one of the tens of thousands of containers that arrive by sea here every day, looking for cocaine.

    The team checks containers based on certain risk factors, says Florence Angelici from Belgian Customs: Where it's coming from, where it's going and what's inside?

  • Florence Angelici, Belgian Customs:

    This container comes from South America, Uruguay, and also contains wood. And here it's wood.

  • Willem Marx:

    Angelici showed us an inspection scan with drugs stashed inside a previous timber shipment from South America.

    How much cocaine have you been seizing here in Antwerp?

  • Florence Angelici:

    So last year, in 2021, we had up to 90 tonnes of cocaine.

  • Willem Marx:

    90 tonnes!

  • Florence Angelici:

    Yes. It's very big. And if you compared to five years before it's up 50 percent more. So every year we break a new record and we would like to stop this record.

  • Willem Marx:

    The most they ever found in a single shipment? About 11 tons. With a current street value of $57 a gram that's more than half a billion dollars worth of cocaine.

  • Florence Angelici:

    Finding 2 or 3 tons at a time. That's an average but that was crazy.

  • Willem Marx:

    According to a recent UN report, Belgium has surpassed Spain as the key entry point for cocaine into Europe, responsible for more than a quarter of the continent's coke supply. Its biggest port, Antwerp, the main gateway.

  • Willem Marx:

    This is just one small part of the entire port here in Antwerp. And everywhere you look there's movement, there's activity, there's vehicles, containers, ships.

    Some incoming containers are placed on trucks headed for Europe's highways. Others are loaded from one ship to another, then on to countries around the world. With 11 million containers passing through Antwerp every year it's impossible to search them all. In fact, right now fewer than one in 200 are examined.

    Those that raise flags are sent to one of two inspection sites with large tunnel x-rays.

    If analysts spot something amiss, the trucks are held for further inspection.

    Officials are on the lookout for illegally trafficked wildlife and counterfeit goods. But the number one concern is cocaine.

  • Florence Angelici:

    To train the customs agents, we have to keep images to show them how ingenious the traffickers can be. So technology helps us.

  • Willem Marx:

    The scans show suspicious density differences inside the containers.

  • Florence Angelici:

    So it will be within the products, in the middle of the products or also inside the structure of the container. We have a picture of that as well. Here, here small dark pieces and this is cocaine. So when we do open, it's in the bottom of it and there we found I think it's 500 kilos.

    Those are bananas from Columbia. The banana you see kind of clearly. This is more like kind of boxes of packages and this is two tons of cocaine. This is also bananas–

  • Willem Marx:

    More bananas? Why would drug smugglers choose bananas for cocaine?

  • Florence Angelici:

    So they really use what exists and what exists is fruits coming from South America and going to Antwerp. That's one of the main reasons we find so much cocaine here; it's because they are using existing boat lines.

  • Willem Marx:

    The banana boat line.

  • Florence Angelici:

    The banana or other fruits. You could have pineapple. We have found pineapples filled with cocaine. They are very inventive but not for doing good things.

  • Willem Marx:

    Despite what they do detect, a lot slips through.

    So how much do you think you're finding of all of this?

  • Florence Angelici:

    We think around ten percent that we find. So you can imagine the amount being produced, being transported.

  • Manolo Tersago:

    What we call the drug sensitive keys in Antwerp are located over here.

  • Willem Marx:

    Manolo Tersago heads the Antwerp drugs division at Belgium's Federal Judicial Police.

    He says several factors make Antwerp attractive to smugglers: Its port is a hub for Europe. It's huge and hard to patrol. And it lacks enough x-ray scanners. The big tunnel we saw is around a mile from the docks and gives smugglers time to extract the drugs between ships unloading on the dock and the inspections.

    Then there's the people factor. Some 700 customs agents monitor 60,000 dock drivers, crane operators and terminal workers. And authorities say some are definitely corrupted by criminal groups from Albania, Italy and Morocco that are well organized and well financed.

    Manolo Tersago, Antwerp Judicial Police: They just bribe everybody. So you have a few people apparently. They are willing to receive a big amount of money for sometimes a very small job. And that small job could limit itself to giving information about the container and its whereabouts.

    They also put people on their payroll, and those people they try to get a certain job so they are close to the other port workers. And then they go and screen the people and they, they look for weaknesses. For example, somebody got divorced, or he has gambling debts. And then they give those names to the criminal organizations and just for giving those names, they get about 10,000 Euros for one name.

  • Willem Marx:

    So a lot of money.

  • Manolo Tersago:

    That's a lot of money. The amount of people working for the criminal organizations are probably more than we expect. So you need inside information…

  •  Willem Marx:

    But Tersago says the fight against drug gang networks is showing progress. Last year in Antwerp's port, authorities arrested around 160 people. Not a huge number but they hope it sends a message.

  • Manolo Tersago:

    So the goal is to disturb the criminal process and put up some structural barriers so they would eventually make mistakes. For example, if we need to arrest somebody, we will do that on the terminal itself. So on the place where he works. So everybody will see this. And what we also did is, we put up a website, where they can actually put out anonymous tips, because the people in the port, they are a little bit afraid to come out in the open and say, I've seen this, I've heard this because they are afraid of what will happen if they go to the police right away.

  • Willem Marx:

    And he says the most critical part of his strategy is sharing intelligence with Interpol, Europol and other countries.

  • Manolo Tersago:

    Now why is this interesting for the United States? Well we are convinced the people who are actually providing the European drug traffickers with cocaine, with drugs, are the same people who are actually providing the drug traffickers which going to the United States of America. It's the middleman who change and it's the destination that changed.

  • Willem Marx:

    In this international fight, Belgian Customs plans to add five more fixed scanners closer to the harbor and more than 100 agents. Their future goal: to inspect each and every suspicious shipment.

  • Florence Angelici:

    We alone as custom agents we cannot stop but with collaboration and more means we can do it. We, we have to do it.

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