HomeNewsAnalysisRecord Cocaine Haul at Belgium Port Uncovers Police Corruption
ANALYSIS

Record Cocaine Haul at Belgium Port Uncovers Police Corruption

COCAINE / 17 NOV 2020 BY ALESSANDRO FORD EN

Authorities in Belgium have arrested a former top counter-narcotics official being investigated for suspected involvement with a ring that concealed 11.5 tons of cocaine in cargo shipped from Guyana to the port of Antwerp, in a case revealing how law enforcement corruption is crucial to moving massive amounts of drugs into Europe.

On October 27, police discovered the 11.5 metric tons of cocaine with an estimated wholesale value of about $530 million in a container of scrap metal from Guyana that arrived at the Antwerp port, according to a police news release and a tweet. The seizure was one of the largest ever recorded in Europe, according to the news website VRT.

The discovery occurred after a two-part operation on September 28 and October 1, according to a press release by Belgium's Federal Prosecutor. The former head of counter-narcotics of Belgium's Gendarmerie, Willy Van Mechelen, and a scion of the Belgian-Italian Aquino crime family were both arrested in the operation, according to reporting by De Standaard, though neither has been formally charged in the drug trafficking case. More than two dozen other people were also arrested, including three police officers.

The news website reports that the arrests provided police with information that a large shipment of cocaine was on its way from South America, which led investigators to the Guyanese cargo. 

An investigation into this criminal network began in October 2019, after the seizure of 2,800 kilograms of cocaine in Antwerp in a container bound for Maasmechelen, home to the Aquino crime group.

SEE ALSO: Can Port of Antwerp Truly Stem Cocaine Entering Europe?

Corruption of law enforcement is not a new concern in Belgium. In 2018, Antwerp’s mayor, Bart de Wever, said the scale of cocaine trafficking through the city’s port was so vast the corruption of local politicians was inevitable. In 2019, a large-scale drug investigation ended with the arrest of two police officers and led security services to highlight drug gangs' growing infiltration of law enforcement.

At the time, Thierry Gillis, who heads Antwerp’s Police General Inspectorate, told De Staandard that “the pressure on individual police officers is increasing... [c]riminals have ever-increasing sums of money. Some police officers cannot resist that call”.

In recent years, European ports have made historic cocaine seizures, particularly in Antwerp, which, as Europe’s primary port of entry for drugs, seized a record 61.8 metric tons of cocaine in 2019. The latest interdiction raises the volume of cocaine seized in 2020 to over 54.5 metric tons, rapidly nearing 2019’s record.

InSight Crime Analysis

The current boom in South American cocaine supplies and European demand for the drug -- coupled with increased security at key European ports -- mean the role of colluding customs officials, port authorities and police has grown.

While the collusion of a high-level official in Europe is striking, Van Mechelen, the former head of the counter-narcotics division of Belgium’s Gendarmerie, has been arrested in the past. He was indicted for drug trafficking in 2001, the same year the Gendarmerie was abolished.

The arrests of three active police officers may be the more important development, as it is more representative of current trends. Antwerp has become more favorable to drug traffickers than Rotterdam, with the less automatized nature of Antwerp’s port (over Rotterdam or Hamburg) raising the value of corruptible human workers. The risks are high, but colluding workers in Antwerp can earn 75,000 to 125,000 euros ($85,000 to $142,000) per drug shipment they help move, according to De Volkskrant.

SEE ALSO: European Drug Report Shows Advances in Trans-Atlantic Drug Trafficking

Corrupt police officers represent a serious obstacle to law enforcement efforts like Antwerp’s “Stroomplan” (Flow Plan), launched in February 2018 to help coordinate local and federal police and authorities in counternarcotics operations. It was just one year before that that Antwerp’s Federal Judicial Police Chief warned that criminal networks were on their way to infiltrating key positions within business, customs, law enforcement and judicial institutions.

What's less clear is how to solve this type of collusion. A 2020 report from the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption agency recommends raising current, inadequate levels of funding for federal anti-corruption units and implementing “integrity checks” during police officers’ careers, particularly when they are recruited to sensitive divisions such as counternarcotics.

However, similar problems can be found in countries that have already implemented such recommendations. Recently in the Netherlands, for example, an anti-corruption investigation led to the arrest of a former police officer who shared information on containers in the port of Rotterdam with a cocaine-trafficking network.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

HUMAN RIGHTS / 17 AUG 2015

The arrest of several police officers accused of extrajudicial killings once again shines the spotlight on this issue in…

MEXICO / 20 MAR 2014

A new report from a leading think tank takes a detailed look at Mexico's security agenda under President Enrique…

COCAINE / 25 DEC 2020

As another Christmas passes us by, drug traffickers have been embracing the season to be jolly with open arms once…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…

THE ORGANIZATION

Exploring Climate Change and Organized Crime

10 SEP 2021

In July, InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley moderated a panel for the Climate Reality Project's regional series of workshops for young climate activists in the Americas. The week-long event…

THE ORGANIZATION

Gearing Up a New Class of Interns

3 SEP 2021

InSight Crime is readying its newest class of interns – from universities in Europe and the Americas – to begin investigative work on a number of high-impact projects. For the…

THE ORGANIZATION

Tracking Environmental Crime in the Amazon

27 AUG 2021

Next week, InSight Crime launches an investigation – conducted with Brazilian think-tank the Igarapé Institute – on the sophisticated organized crime structures and armed groups that…