Customs officials face losing battle as €10bn cocaine trade leads to dramatic increase in violent crime in north-west Europe
Squeezed between the two channels of France’s biggest container port is a warren of narrow alleyways, blowsy 1950s bungalows and – along a windblown high road – a disheartening parade of shuttered shops.
Les Neiges is Le Havre’s dockers’ district. At the end of each side street stands a 3-metre, steel-and-concrete fence topped with razor wire; beyond that, dipping and swivelling, the cranes and gantries that process more than 3m containers a year.
Hidden away in those shipping containers, stashed among the bananas, frozen prawns, cane sugar and canned fruit, is an ever-increasing quantity of cocaine. Of the record 27 tonnes of the drug seized in France last year, more than a third was intercepted in the Normandy port.
“What we’re actually seeing,” said Laurent Laniel of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), “is a concerted, ongoing attempt to flood Europe with cocaine. It’s an expanding market, and it shows no sign of slowing.”
Each year since 2017, Laniel said, EU police and customs officers have seized more of the drug than the last. In 2021, the most recent year for which full data is available, it was 303 tonnes – five times more than a decade ago. “And that’s just what we intercepted,” he said. “Right now, it doesn’t seem like a battle we’re winning.”
The consequences, within and beyond the continent’s key north-western gateways of Antwerp, Rotterdam and Le Havre, are spiralling corruption as the drug cartels bid to co-opt port logistics firms, local union officials and politicians, even the judicial system – and a dramatic increase in violent crime.
As South American traffickers link up with European organised crime gangs to share the spoils of a €10bn market, the Netherlands, Belgium and France have witnessed drug-related contract killings, torture, bombings, shootouts and deaths. Credible plans have been uncovered to kidnap senior government ministers.
In Les Neiges, unsurprisingly, it’s not something people much want to talk about. “Seriously?” asked one longtime resident, standing foursquare on her doorstep and declining to give her name. “You don’t seriously expect to find anyone round here who’ll be happy to tell you about that?”
With reason. Last year, a few hundred metres from here, police opened fire on a group of men unloading cellophane-wrapped bricks of cocaine from a container. In another incident reminiscent of Mexico or Colombia, heavily armed criminals stormed a high-security warehouse to liberate their stash.
This February, six local men, all of whom grew up in or operated out of Les Neiges – including Louis Bellahcène, alias “Doudou” or the “King of the Port” – were handed prison sentences totalling more than 100 years for helping to smuggle 1.3 tonnes of South American cocaine out of the terminal.
Unable to resist the temptation – as one said at his trial – of “earning a year’s salary in a couple of hours”, dozens of Le Havre’s 2,200 dockers, as well as port agents, truck drivers and other port workers, have been arrested over the past five years.
For those who hesitate, the cocaine cartels have other, more forceful methods. More than 30 port workers have been kidnapped or held hostage since 2017. In 2020, one – a 40-year-old union leader and father of four – was beaten to death and dumped behind a local school; two years earlier, another was found alive but horribly tortured, his calves repeatedly stabbed with a screwdriver.
Some give way to the coercion. “Guys will come up to them at the school gates, or in a cafe, and show them smartphone photos of their wife and kids,” says Valérie Giard, a lawyer who has defended several. “They say: do what we say, or they get it.”
Many, though, need little encouragement: according to a list of tariffs found by police, the going rate for helping to extract a container from the port is €75,000. Moving it out of CCTV range or closer to a fence will earn you €50,000, while a loan of your security badge is worth €10,000. Recruiters can earn €100,000 per operation.
The sums are tiny compared with the drug gangs’ staggering profits: a kilo of cocaine bought for $1,000 in Colombia is worth more than €35,000 in Europe and, once smuggled out of port and cut – or diluted with other substances – can be sold on the street (or, more likely, ordered by WhatsApp or Signal) for €50 to €70 a gram.
Cultivation of coca leaves in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru has been rising since 2014, according to a report this year by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and surged by 35% from 2020 to 2021. Meanwhile, global cocaine manufacture has surpassed 2,000 tonnes, double the 2014 figure. The drug is also 40% purer now than in 2010.
In Europe the drug sells at up to twice the price in the US, where the market is now saturated. With an estimated 3.5 million Europeans using cocaine in 2021, four times more than 20 years ago, Europol puts the total street-level value of the European cocaine market at somewhere between €7.6bn and €10.5bn.
“With those kinds of sums involved, the logistics chain has become very efficient,” Laniel said. “It uses mostly containers, but also yachts, fishing boats, private jets, now manned semi-submersibles or submarine drones. And once it gets here, there’s a veritable European army to distribute it – we estimate at least 100,000 people.”
The business is largely controlled by Mexican mafia gangs, police say, who once served as middlemen for the Colombian Cali and Medellín cartels but are now in command of much of the chain, from financing production to organising the smuggling into Europe.
Shipments are separated to reduce cost and risk, and sold to pan-European crime syndicates including the Moroccan “Mocro maffia” active in Belgium and the Netherlands, Serb, Albanian and Kosovan gangs, and Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta.
The main entry point remains Antwerp, about 450km north-east of Le Havre, where police and customs officials – who, as in most ports, have the resources to check only between 1% and 2% of all containers – intercepted more than 43 tonnes of cocaine in the first half of this year alone, after 110 tonnes in 2022.
“The tsunami,” said the Belgian port’s customs chief, Kristian Vanderwaeren, “just keeps coming.” Brussels’ chief public prosecutor, Johan Delmulle, this year warned that with molotov cocktails, car bombings and gun battles regularly rocking the streets of Antwerp, the country could soon “come to be seen as a narco state”.
Antwerp has witnessed more than 200 drug-related violent incidents over the last five years, including 81 last year alone. In January, an 11-year-old girl – the niece of two of Belgium’s top accused drug smugglers, the El Ballouti brothers – died after five bullets from a Kalashnikov assault rifle were fired into the family kitchen.
A retired Belgian police officer, who asked not to be named because he still advises government agencies, said the hidden share of the drug business in Antwerp, Europe’s second busiest port, was “just huge.”
About 100km further up the coast, in Europe’s largest port of Rotterdam, a reinforced customs operation – including the full automisation of the port’s cargo terminals – has made things “significantly more difficult” for the smugglers and helped reduce seizures from 70 to 47 tonnes last year, according to a senior customs official, Ger Scheringa.
But drug-related violence has reached unimagined heights in the Netherlands. In July 2021, the investigative TV journalist Peter R de Vries was gunned down in a car park in Amsterdam and died nine days later. A crime specialist, one of his sources was the key state witness against alleged drug baron Ridouan Taghi, arrested in Dubai in 2019.
A lawyer involved in the same case, Derk Wiersum, was also shot dead in 2019, prompting – along with incidents such as the discovery of a shipping container transformed into a torture chamber – the mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to warn of a “culture of crime and violence … taking on Italian traits”.
Everywhere, police and customs investigations are being heavily ramped up. Le Havre brought in 25 new officers this year, while Antwerp has a new drug commissioner and aims to ensure all containers coming from South America are automatically scanned within the next five years.
Police have made breakthroughs: in 2021, Sky ECC, a messaging service seen as uncrackable by its users, was broken, leading to thousands of new drug cases. But the overall impact on Europe’s ballooning cocaine trade was minimal. “You take one out, another just replaces him,” said a French investigator.
Increasingly, too, the traffickers are spreading their bets. As seizures in Rotterdam have shrunk, those in nearby Vlissingen have doubled. Smaller, less well-guarded ports are being targeted: fishing harbours in Spain and Portugal, minor Swedish ports. Last year, for the first time, 600kg of cocaine was seized in Montoir-de-Bretagne, a small roll-on, roll-off dock in the Loire estuary.
Equally alarmingly, instead of making cocaine in South America and shipping the finished product to Europe, the gangs are also setting up sophisticated factories on the continent to extract cocaine paste hidden in maritime cargos ranging from plastic polymers to asphalt products, and then transform it into powder, Laniel said.
More than 30 such labs were dismantled on the continent in 2021, according to the EMCDDA. In May, a police raid on a remote cottage in Galicia, north-west Spain, allegedly found eight “cooks” working around the clock. Once fully operational, the new production line could have turned out 200kg of cocaine a day, Spanish police said.
“Cocaine kills people slowly,” Laniel said. “It also brings with it unprecedented violence, and corruption. A lot of bad people are making huge amounts of money. It’s being taken seriously now. But it’s a massive challenge.”
Source : The Guardian