‘Anyone who deals with drugs is no longer safe. That is the new reality.’ This is what Kristian Vanderwaeren, the chief executive of customs, said in a response to Friday’s events, in which two dock workers were gagged and threatened on the customs premises in the Waasland port. ‘We have been confiscating a lot of drugs recently. But protection is urgently needed throughout the entire chain of seizure, storage and processing. We receive support from the police. That’s going well, but just like us, they don’t have enough capacity. That makes it difficult.’ According to Vanderwaeren, the storage of cocaine must therefore be limited to a minimum period. ‘To achieve this, the capacity to burn cocaine must be increased.’
Customs and police services in the port of Antwerp have had an exceptional few weeks. During the month of October alone they intercepted more than 23 tons of cocaine. Last Friday, another 7.5 tons were found in a refrigerated container at quay 1742. The number of seizures is also increasing in Rotterdam, where the same drug gangs are active. It seems that the war on drugs in Antwerp and Rotterdam is finally starting to hurt the drug gangs in the pockets. Until recently, a seized load was simply a calculated risk that hardly disrupted the organization. That seems different now. It leads to nervousness, because among criminals there is always someone who has to pay for the costs of a lost load.
Until now, violence in the streets of Antwerp has been mainly limited to the drug gangs themselves, but that now seems to be changing because the gangs are taking the risk of stealing their confiscated loads again.
In mid-October, the Rapid Response Team (SRT) of the Antwerp local police narrowly prevented a heavily armed drug gang from stealing back a shipment of 10 tons of seized cocaine from customs.
On Friday, at the Linkeroever border inspection post in the Waaslandhaven, two dock workers working on behalf of customs were gagged by three men and threatened with knives. “The criminals targeted a container with animal skins that had been seized by the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC),” says Bart Torrekens, customs officer and chairman of the independent trade union NUOD. The FASFC is located in the same buildings as customs. According to Torrekens, the container was probably not seized because it was suspected to contain drugs, but merely to check the skins. That is why the container had been there for several days.
“I suspect that there was a GPS tracker in the container and that this is how the drug gang found out where it was,” says Torrekens. To date, it is not 100 percent certain whether the container contained drugs and – if so – whether the gang managed to take the drugs. The Antwerp public prosecutor’s office does not want to comment on the investigation. “We are certainly concerned about the violence that is becoming increasingly violent,” says Stephanie Chomé of the public prosecutor’s office. ‘We confiscate a lot of drugs. The result is an additional safety risk that we must urgently adapt to.”
Torrekens, who himself works for the armed security service of customs, advocates for more heavily armed customs officers. ‘Customs officers are being followed. Cars with Dutch license plates drive slowly past our posts. That is not intended to reassure people. There are 30 of us, but we could use twice as many. And we should also get machine guns instead of our pistols. The criminals are also heavily armed.”
Another tricky point is the combustion of the cocaine. ‘We used to be able to go to Ghent, Harelbeke and Bruges to burn the cocaine. But due to changed environmental legislation, this can now only happen in Antwerp or Brussels. We certainly do not advocate traveling unnecessary distances with cocaine, because that is also a risk. But in the Netherlands they destroy the drugs the same day. That should be possible here too.’
Burning faster is also the solution that Kristian Vanderwaeren advocates. ‘But it’s not always that simple. If the cocaine is just in the deck load, it’s easy. But it is often built into the walls or incorporated into the goods. Then it must first be removed from there and then put into barrels. That takes a lot of time.’
There were no political reactions from Finance Ministers Vincent Van Peteghem (CD&V) and Annelies Verlinden (CD&V) last weekend. Only the Minister of Justice Paul van Tigchelt (Open VLD) announced ‘that he would contribute to a solution’.