November 7, 2023
Not only the disruptive police action Sky ECC, but also the fierce competition between criminal gangs and the growing supply of firearms are the basis of drug violence in Belgium. ‘Even young criminals are walking around with firearms these days.’
Drug-related violence in Belgium has continued to escalate over the years. While criminals first mainly tried to intimidate each other, threats against dock workers, customs officers, magistrates and even the Minister of Justice have now also become a reality.
Policymakers and politicians often refer to Operation Sky ECC as an explanation for this spiral of violence. The cracking of the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC disrupted the underworld in 2021. Criminals used the ‘uncrackable’ Sky ECC to communicate. After the crack, a new battle arose between competing drug gangs.
- The Flemish Peace Institute investigated the link between gun violence and the cocaine trade in Belgium.
- The report concludes that the erosion of the monopoly of dominant cartels and the growth of the illegal arms market contribute to the spiral of violence in the drug world.
- More weapons have entered the criminal market in recent years, partly due to an increase in converted alarm pistols.
- The Peace Institute calls for more research into the origin of seized weapons.
But according to the Flemish Peace Institute, which conducted research into drug-related gun violence in Belgium at the request of the European Drug Agency, there is more going on. Belgian drug violence is mainly linked to the cocaine trade, which has changed fundamentally in recent years.
After the Colombian peace agreement with the rebel movement FARC in 2016, the monopolies of the existing cartels crumbled. Other criminal organizations stepped into the gap, both on the export side in Latin America and in import countries such as Belgium.
Since then, many more intermediaries have been involved in international cocaine smuggling. ‘The chain is long, there is more competition and the players do not know each other. As a result, they trust each other less. That combination leads to more violence,” says researcher Astrid De Schutter, who co-wrote the report.
It is striking that the cannabis market is less violent than that of cocaine. Although the market for cannabis in Europe is still larger, there is less distrust and competition between gangs. De Schutter: ‘In the cannabis market we see more organized networks and a shorter chain, because cannabis is often grown locally. That makes the dynamics completely different.’
Drug-related violence has become more frequent and severe across Europe since 2021.
National drug coordinator
The increasing drug violence is not a Belgian problem. “Drug-related violence has become more frequent and serious across Europe since 2021,” said National Drugs Coordinator Charlotte Colman. ‘Drug trafficking and arms trafficking are strongly linked. We know from European research that between 28 and 44 percent of the seized firearms are linked to drug trafficking.’
Converted alarm pistols
The Peace Institute has noted that many more firearms have ended up on the illegal market. In addition to the traditional supply line of weapons and drugs through the Western Balkans, criminals found a gap in European regulations on the sale of weapons such as alarm pistols. You could easily buy them in Turkey. Criminals later converted them into real firearms. The regulations have now been amended and weapons that are easy to convert are no longer freely available.
Criminals lower in the hierarchy also walk around with firearms these days.
Astrid De Schutter
Researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute
The increased availability of firearms means their use is no longer limited to conflict at the highest levels of criminal organizations. ‘The criminals lower in the hierarchy also walk around with firearms. There are even very young people, around 15 years old, who carry such a converted alarm pistol,” says De Schutter.