1 Is it a new problem for customs that they have difficulty destroying the seized drugs?
Absolutely not. It’s a problem that has been popping up for years. Three years ago, the alarm was raised because customs were forced to retain more than ten tons of cocaine due to a defect in the incinerator. It was then called a temporary problem. But it resurfaced last year, after a period in which customs had intercepted an exceptional amount of cocaine. The Antwerp public prosecutor sounded the alarm and the Federal Public Service Finance reported shortly afterwards that ‘a structural solution had been found to allow more cocaine to be burned’.
Even then, the Ministry of Finance stated that a seizure of more than 5 tons would remain problematic. Even though the waste processing company involved undertakes to be able to burn at least 20 tons of coke per week. The fact is that customs have made enormous catches in recent weeks. In one month, he intercepted 40 tons of cocaine in Antwerp. But according to the waste processing company, the increasing amount of seized drugs is not a problem for processing, the spokesperson said.
2 What happens after a container with drugs is found?
After a drug seizure, the cocaine must be removed from the container. That is not always obvious, Kristian Vanderwaeren, the CEO of customs, said on Monday (DS November 6). ‘If the cocaine is just among the deck cargo, 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,” says Vanderwaeren.
After removal, the drugs are transferred to a secure location by the Federal Judicial Police (FGP). ‘Samples are taken there, photos are taken and an official report is drawn up. Then we have to wait for a go from the public prosecutor’s office, so that the drugs can be sent to the incinerators,” says Bart Torrekens, customs officer and chairman of the independent trade union NUODS.
Once the public prosecutor’s office has given approval, a time slot must still be available at the incinerators in Brussels or Antwerp. From that moment on, customs takes over the security of the drugs. Heavily armed customs officers are also present during the burning until the drugs are completely destroyed.
3 According to customs, the coke must also be ‘conditioned’ before combustion. What does that mean?
According to Torrekens, the cocaine cannot simply go into the oven. It must be specially packed ‘in a uniform package’. And which packaging is needed depends on the incineration plant used. ‘One requires the packs of drugs to be put in barrels, the other in boxes.’
4 How long will the drugs remain at customs?
Torrekens claims that due to staff shortages it can sometimes take months for the drugs to be transferred to the incinerator, but that nowadays the coke is destroyed within a week. According to Miet Deckers, spokesperson for Minister of Finance Vincent Van Peteghem (CD&V), this is not correct, but Deckers also says that no deadlines have been agreed to destroy the drugs. “They go to the incinerator as soon as a time slot becomes available.”
5 Is it dangerous to store those drugs for a while?
At customs they think so, especially because they notice that drug gangs are trying to get their hands on seized drugs again. Especially now that the big catches ‘really hurt the drug gangs’.
Speed is crucial, especially to get the seized containers to a safe and secret storage location. “After all, the members of the affected gang are roaming around the port,” says Torrekens. ‘They can track the containers through the GPS tracker they put in them. They are often such unhinged young criminals that they will stop at nothing.’
Steps have been taken. For example, the drugs are no longer stored in a warehouse that is known to every dock worker. ‘But if it comes to a confrontation, the battle will be unequal. Those gangs have weapons of war. The armament of the customs officers has not been adjusted. We are fighting with weapons from 2000 against criminals from 2024.’
6 Can’t those drugs just be transported to different ovens and burned as quickly as possible?
According to Ovam, a drug like cocaine is ‘hazardous waste’ that must be destroyed in a special way. “The cocaine must be burned in a special rotary kiln above 1,000 degrees for thirty minutes,” says spokesperson Jan Verheyen. ‘The gases then go to an afterburning chamber, so that there are no emissions whatsoever.’
The problem is that there are only three of those rotary kilns in Flanders, on the same site in Antwerp. “Other hazardous waste, such as medical waste, must also be destroyed there,” says Verheyen. Although, according to him, there should be no capacity problem, because those ovens together have an annual capacity of 100,000 tons, of which 20 tons per week are reserved for drugs.
7 Why does the Netherlands manage to destroy the drugs on the same day?
Bart Torrekens says that Dutch customs has more resources and that things run more smoothly because the work is left to customs. In Belgium, on the other hand, different services come into contact with the drugs at different points in the process, such as the FGP. ‘When customs officers in the Netherlands make a catch, they block off the area and call in the Special Assistance Team. This transports the cocaine to a safe location, samples are taken, the drug load is weighed and photographed. Then it goes straight to an oven.’ In the Netherlands, the drugs can be destroyed in various incinerators, among the household waste. ‘We are stricter in that respect.’