In recent years, the port of Antwerp in Belgium has been the main entry point for cocaine into Europe, and authorities are actively trying to change that fact. But what can really be done besides continually increasing seizures of cocaine?

In early January, the Belgian government announced that 61.8 metric tons of cocaine had been seized at the port in 2019, alongside 1.87 metric tons of heroin and 504 kilograms of marijuana. This marked a 23 percent rise from 2018 for cocaine, and an increase of 660 percent over the last five years, news site HLN reported citing government data.

This staggering increase has been attributed to the launch in February 2018 of the Stroomplan (Flow Plan), which brings together local and federal police, customs, prosecutors, port authorities and city officials in Antwerp.

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When it began, the Stroomplan was given a team of 30 to 40 officers, with plans to double it over time. The squad was named Kali, for a Hindu goddess who fights evil spirits and as a nod to the Colombian city of Cali, Belgian news site VRT reported.

“Fortunately we are still light-years away in Antwerp [from being like Cali],” Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever told VRT. “But the increasing cash volume of drug gangs means that they can disrupt the city and society.”

The beefing up of port security structure is also being replicated in Latin America, where the United Nations’ Container Control Programme (CCP) places staff and trains officials to help with container inspections.

CCP director Bob van den Berghe told InSight Crime that Antwerp’s dominance as a port of entry for cocaine is clear. “Of the 77 tons of cocaine that were seized by the CCP in 2019, 63 tons were seized in Latin America, and of those, 31 tons were bound for Antwerp,” he said.

According to van den Berghe, 24.5 tons of cocaine were seized in Brazil’s main port of Santos during 47 seizures in 2019. Fourteen tons of cocaine were seized in Colombia, and around 7.5 tons each in Ecuador, Panama and Peru.

The variety of smuggling methods also requires constant scrutiny. Recent photos released by Belgian customs at Antwerp showed drugs being stashed in jewelry, chocolates, packs of coffee and bottles of wine.

InSight Crime Analysis

While seizures of cocaine at the port of Antwerp have climbed rapidly, similar scenarios have been playing out around the world, including in the United States and Brazil. This makes it difficult to know whether the seizures are due to increased port security and intelligence or simply the fact that cocaine is being produced at historic levels.

A recent study of the effectiveness of the Stroomplan, published in February 2020 by the University of Ghent in Belgium, found that the Kali team was facing major difficulties  carrying out its duties. These included not having access to federal databases to check relevant data, the port of Antwerp being located across two judicial districts, a lack of investigative capacity and a lack of support at the federal level. The study recommended the creation of a national-level plan to reduce some of these hurdles.

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A national focus would seem to make sense, as Antwerp is also not the only port Belgium now has to worry about. In December, controls were increased at the port of Zeebrugge after 855 kilograms of cocaine were found in Suriname bound for Belgium’s second port, reported the Brussels Times. Some 1.5 metric tons of cocaine were also found stashed in a cargo of fruit juice at the smaller port of Ghent.

In a statement sent to InSight Crime, the port of Antwerp emphasized that drug control was a common responsibility, adding that the port was taking steps to improve. “We are going to ensure that every terminal has its own security: that means proper supervision and registration policy. Every company in the port must know and be able to report who goes in and out,” the officials wrote in a statement.

And while Bob van den Berghe was generally positive about the port of Antwerp’s efforts, as evidenced by its high seizures, he identified certain vulnerabilities. “The port of Antwerp is an open port as opposed to Rotterdam, which is a closed port,” van den Berghe told InSight Crime. “Containers can be scanned at the container terminal in Rotterdam, but in Antwerp, they have to leave the terminal to be scanned, which is a vulnerability.”

At the moment, it appears more progress is being made across the Atlantic. While drug traffickers have been diversifying the exit points for drugs from Latin America, the UN’s CCP has also been busy collaborating with more ports, which has likely contributed to more seizures from gigantic mega-ports in Brazil to smaller regional facilities in Costa Rica.

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