Antwerp customs and the federal police have been very successful in intercepting large loads of cocaine in recent weeks. Drug criminals lost hundreds of millions of euros worth of merchandise and this causes tensions in the environment. Two weeks ago, the Rapid Response Team was able to pin down an armed commando of Dutch gangsters near the harbor shed where cocaine is kept before the drugs are taken to the incinerator. The Dutch gang hoped to recover part of the ten tons of coke shipment that was seized by force. That plan failed, but customs was well frightened.
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On Friday evening, drug criminals struck again, this time at the GIP Linkeroever, where customs scan suspected containers for contraband such as cocaine. Three suspects entered the customs area unnoticed, threatened a number of workers working in a warehouse with a knife and tied them up. The gangsters then searched a shipment of animal skins. Presumably a load of cocaine was hidden between the animal skins.
Container with GPS tracker
“They targeted a container with animal skins that had been seized by the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FAVV),” says Bart Torrekens, customs officer and chairman of the independent trade union NUOD.
According to Torrekens, that container was probably not seized because there was a suspicion that it contained drugs, but only to check the skins. That is why the container had been there for a number of 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.
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To date, it is not 100% certain whether the container in question contained drugs and whether the gang managed to steal the drugs back. The Antwerp public prosecutor’s office does not want to comment on the investigation. “But there is indeed an increase in violence that we are concerned about,” says Stephanie Chomé of the public prosecutor’s office. “We confiscate a lot of drugs. The result is an additional safety risk that we will have to adapt to.”
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Trade unionist Bart Torrekens demands urgent measures against the increasing violence of the drug mafia. “People have been afraid to come to work for some time,” says Torrekens. “The customs grounds and buildings are insufficiently guarded. What we need? People. Our armed security service has 30 men. Much too little. We should have at least twice as many. And we also need better weapons. The gangsters have heavy weapons, we do it with pistols. If the government does not intervene quickly, I do not rule out that people will stop working. Sooner or later there will be deaths.”
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Johan Lippens of the Christian Trade Union ACV also says that staff come to work with fear. “There has been talk for some time about bringing more people from customs to the port of Antwerp, but people are not eager to do so. They no longer feel comfortable. Colleagues are followed and observed by the drug mafia. Sometimes even to their house. The fear is really there. How is it possible that a few criminals can so easily enter a customs area such as the GIP? Apparently they climbed over the gate at a time when there were not many people on the site. Customs does not have sufficient capacity to monitor that area around the clock.”
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Kristian Vanderwaeren, the Administrator General of Customs, is also concerned about his staff. “We need to burn the cocaine faster,” he says. “The lead time between seizure and destruction must be shorter. Anyone who deals with drugs is no longer safe. That is the new reality. We’ve been confiscating a lot of drugs lately. But protection is urgently needed throughout the entire chain between seizure, storage and processing. We have police support. That’s going well, but just like us, they don’t have enough capacity. That makes it difficult. Therefore, the storage of cocaine should be limited to a minimum period. To achieve this, the capacity to burn cocaine must be increased.”
Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever (N-VA) repeated his criticism of the federal government, which, according to him, is failing to deploy sufficient police capacity in the port of Antwerp. Whether the federal government will take additional security measures to protect customs areas is a big question mark. There were no political reactions from the competent ministers Vincent Van Peteghem (CD&V, Finance) and Annelies Verlinden (CD&V, Home Affairs) last weekend. Only the Minister of Justice Paul van Tigchelt (Open Vld) announced “that he would contribute to a solution”.