Record Amount of Cocaine Smuggled Through Belgian Ports in 2023

cocaine smuggling
Dutch police made large seizures of cocaine mixed in with shipments of bananas (The cocaine was founding hidden in a container of bananas (Openbaar Ministerie)

Published Jan 17, 2024 6:33 PM by The Maritime Executive


Belgium experienced another year of record seizures of cocaine being smuggled through the country’s ports in 2023, giving it the dubious honor of being the epicenter of the illegal trade from Central and South America. Belgian officials held a news conference along with their Dutch colleagues in the port of Flushing in the Netherlands to highlight their efforts while calling for more coordination to fight organized crime and the massive smuggling operations.

The data released by Belgium’s Minister of Finance Vince Van Peteghem showed just over a five percent increase in the amount of cocaine seized in Antwerp in 2023 as he emphasized the increased efforts by the country’s customs operation. According to his data, 116 tonnes of cocaine were seized in Antwerp up from 110 tonnes in 2022. He highlighted that it represents an increase of 50 tonnes since they began public reporting on the efforts in 2020. A further five tonnes were seized in the neighboring Belgium port of Zeebrugge in 2023.

Citing extraordinary circumstances, Van Peteghem said they would be continuing on the path taken to increase the seizures and work with colleagues in neighboring countries. “The fight against international drug trafficking requires a lot of expertise and energy from our customs,” the minister said during his briefing.

He said the seizures however were evidence of the success of the federal government’s investment in people and resources for the customs bureau. He cites the close cooperation in cross-border operations as well as the efforts working with the police. Yesterday, the police conducted large sweeps across Brussels and Antwerp reporting the arrest of 22 people including three police officers involved in the narcotics trade. They also seized cash, cars, and weapons with the police blaming increasing violence in the cities on organized crime rings such as the one they broke up yesterday.

Belgium cites Columbia, Ecuador, and Panama as the top countries of origin for the smuggling operations with the minister days that the same three countries continued to dominate the smuggling operations in 2023. 

While Antwerp has become the main gateway for the cartels smuggling cocaine onto the continent, the problem however is widespread. European Union officials point to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain, reporting that three-quarters of the seizures in 2021 happened in the three countries’ ports. A total of 303 tonnes was seized in 2021 according to the latest information from the EU. The Netherlands reported seizures of 59 tonnes in 2023 with almost 27 tones originating in Ecuador. 

Port officials highlight that one of the biggest challenges is the perishable trade, which has become a preferred host for the smugglers. They point to the rush to move refrigerated containers through the port and that they have become one of the primary locations for drug smuggling. Several of the largest seizures in Europe in the last years were all made mixed in with bananas. 

Belgium recently took its turn at the Presidency of the EU Council and used this role to launch an ambitious plan to increase efforts both at the ports and working with the governments of the Central and South American countries. Belgium intends to leverage the European Commission’s comprehensive roadmap that was launched in October last year during its leadership of the Council to intensify efforts to combat drug trafficking and criminal networks in European ports.