Antwerp, Rotterdam Seize Five Percent of Global Cocaine Production

A typical seizure at Antwerp, recovered from an ordinary container arriving from Panama (Europol)

Published Jan 10, 2023 7:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Port of Antwerp is the preferred European destination for cocaine smugglers, thanks to its thriving trade links with Latin America and its ideal location for EU distribution. Cocaine seizures have risen at the port every year for the past decade as customs agents work to thwart ever-shifting patterns of concealment. The amount has become so massive that the Belgian customs agency's incinerators struggle to burn it fast enough.

In 2022, agents at Antwerp seized a record 110 tonnes of cocaine, and their Dutch colleagues at the nearby Port of Rotterdam seized another 50 tonnes. Assuming average wholesale purity, the seizures at the two ports account for one out of every 20 kilos of cocaine produced worldwide, based on the most recent UN statistics - and that's not counting the drugs that make it through customs.

"Outside South America, we are the number one in Antwerp when it comes to cocaine," customs official Kristian Vanderwaeren told VRT NWS. "Belgium accounts for 40 percent of all detections in Europe. Antwerp is therefore really the top destination for those criminals." 

Belgian authorities have help in their fight against drug trafficking. Last year, an additional 70 tonnes of Antwerp-bound cocaine was intercepted in South America, before it could cross the Atlantic. 

Despite the authorities' success in seizing massive quantities of inbound cocaine, smugglers still manage to get tonnes of their product into Belgium, where it is parceled out and distributed throughout Western Europe. At wholesale prices exceeding $30,000 per kilo - up to 12 times the value in origin markets in South America - there is an ample profit motive and enough cash flow to fund sophisticated smuggling schemes. Criminal gangs have been known to infiltrate drug retrieval teams into the Port of Antwerp inside empty containers, where they wait for the right time to break out and pick up inbound goods inside the terminal. 

Belgian customs authorities have promised to redouble their efforts to crack down on the trade, hiring another 100 officers to patrol Antwerp and investing in more container scanning systems. It isn't just about the drugs: In addition to addiction and related social ills, cocaine has brought the violence of organized crime to the streets of Belgium. 

Though cocaine use has been decriminalized in many European nations, the supply chain is still part of the criminal world, and disputes between smugglers sometimes turn violent in Antwerp. On Monday, an 11-year-old girl was killed in a drug-related shooting in the city's Merksem district.

"There is a drug war going on. Criminals are attacking the homes of other criminals. We have been experiencing this for months now. What I feared for a long time has happened: an innocent victim has fallen, a child," Mayor Bart De Wever told VRT.