Cocaine and meth: Belgium remains favourite import country for drug smugglers

Cocaine and meth: Belgium remains favourite import country for drug smugglers
Customs wants to use technology to scan more containers in Antwerp port for drugs. Credit: © Belga

Belgium is the only European country in the top five when it comes to the places with the highest amounts of seized cocaine, with most of the shipments sent from Ecuador and destined for the Port of Antwerp.

An update on the European drug market, compiled by police organisation Europol, makes it painfully clear how Belgium plays a central role in the traffic of cocaine and now also of methamphetamine.

Last year, police and customs officers in various countries seized no less than 194 tonnes of cocaine that could be linked back to Antwerp. A large part of this, almost 90 tonnes, was intercepted in the port itself.

If catches in the countries of origin are added to this, the total comes to almost 200 tonnes of ‘Antwerp’ cocaine, according to the new report.

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“The trade in illegal drugs continues to dominate serious and organised crime in the EU, and nearly 40% of the criminal networks operating at the international level reported to Europol are active in drug trafficking,” said Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle.

“Fighting this illegal trade is a key priority for Europol and the EU. Today’s analysis supports us in understanding the market dynamics and is crucial for formulating effective law enforcement responses.”

The Netherlands, Spain and France also seized cocaine

For the Netherlands, 73 tonnes of cocaine were seized in the country itself, for Spain 56 tonnes and for France over 19 tonnes.

Together with Belgium, these key countries seized more than 240 tonnes of cocaine in 2021, which is more than the previous European record of 214.6 tonnes from 2020, the report states.

A collection of drugs that were seized in Spain in 2021. Credit: Spanish National Police

The increase in seized tons of cocaine is partly explained by the increasing attention paid to trafficking in recent years, along with Operation Sky in Belgium which led to major takedowns of organised crime networks.

But Belgium remains the favourite importing country of drug smugglers. Together with the Netherlands and Spain, it accounts for three quarters of the European total of seizures.

Cocaine production in Latin America leads to increase in heavy violence

The main countries where cocaine is produced for European customers are Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. But for cocaine found in Belgium, Ecuador is the main source, and more specifically the container port of Guayaquil.

The quantities shipped from there rose from six tonnes in 2018 to 56 in 2021. Europol says more research is needed to understand the reasons for the increase, but Ecuador notably shares two land borders with Colombia and Peru, and has evolved in recent decades from a transit country to a major hub for trafficking. It is now starting to become a producer country.

That evolution is leading to heavy violence between local gangs working as subcontractors for Colombian and Mexican cartels.

“Between 2020 and 2021, there was almost a doubling of homicides, including violent riots among prison gangs that killed hundreds of prisoners. Those murders are related to the cocaine trade in the country,” Europol’s report says.

Methamphetamine, better known as ‘crystal meth’ or simply ‘meth,’ is the most commonly used synthetic drug worldwide and while it plays a relatively small role in the European drug market, its importance is growing.

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of crystal meth seizures more than doubled from 3,000 to 6,200. The quantities increased fivefold, reaching 2.2 tonnes in 2020. Together with the Netherlands, Belgium has become a hotspot for crystal meth production in Europe.


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