Bring in the big guns: Politicians want army to fight Port of Antwerp drug war

Bring in the big guns: Politicians want army to fight Port of Antwerp drug war
Credit: Belga/Luc Claessen

Following the record 100 tonnes of cocaine that were seized in Port of Antwerp last year and the death of an 11-year-old girl in a shooting linked to the drug environment, several politicians are asking for the army to be deployed to counter the drug violence in Antwerp.

Bart De Wever, Antwerp mayor and leader of the rightwing Flemish separatist N-VA party, wants extra police officers to guard the port. If that is not possible, the army should step in. De Wever also wants more judicial oversight and calls for the National Security Council to be convened.

"There is an urgent need for an overarching system so that it is not just the competency of specific ministers," added Annick De Ridder, city councillor for the Antwerp port and a member of N-VA, on VRT's 'Terzake' television programme.

She underlined that Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and Interior Affairs Minister Annelies Verlinden know how bad the situation is "but by convening a National Security Council, you bring the top security apparatus together and you can pump extra resources into the port area."

Symbolic measures

On Wednesday morning, Federal Minister David Clarinval agreed with De Wever on Francophone radio: "We want more means, more action to fight more specifically on this issue. I want to call in the army to help the police. We need to put Defence in the port of Antwerp to have more resources."

However, Justice Minister Van Quickenborne stressed that the army only carries out surveillance missions. "You don't want to live in a country where the army replaces the police." He stated that the army involvement at present are "more symbolic measures".

Van Quickenborne also thinks it unlikely that the National Security Council will convene any time soon. But he stressed the need to calculate the criminals' revenue model: "Today, we intercept about 11% of drugs. If we get to 20%, Antwerp will become unattractive to criminal gangs according to Europol. We have to work on that now."

Tweet translation: "They may send in the army but it will not stop them. There is so much money involved that they will always find people to do this." [Lawyer] John Maes is pessimistic about drug smuggling in Antwerp and argues for more prevention.

In practice, that means that port staff and high-risk containers will be subjected to stricter screening and authorities will discuss with the world's biggest shipping companies to make containers smarter, Van Quickenborne said.

Interior Affairs Minister Verlinden also said that De Wever and De Ridder's proposals were not good ideas. "If I remember correctly, Bart De Wever said in the summer that the army is not sufficiently trained to deal with this kind of situation."

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She compared the situation with the terrorism threat, which did see the army deployed to keep an eye on things. "Certain hotspots where a lot of people gathered were guarded... But here you are dealing with houses dispersed across [Antwerp]. The army isn't properly equipped or trained to deal with this. It is primarily the police who know that terrain well."

Still, Verlinden did acknowledge that more needs to be done. "We have already taken important steps and we will now continue that. For example, we have taken the decision to strengthen the federal judicial police in Antwerp. At the end of this legislature, 100 extra people will be put to work, specifically also to follow up these kinds of cases."

The same goes for the maritime police, Verlinden stressed, as people from other zones were already temporarily brought in to be able to guard the huge port area with more people. "We are also going to ensure further thorough coordination between local and federal police, the prosecutor's office and customs."

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