Rotterdam’s Largest Cocaine Seizure as Efforts Expand to Stop Smuggling

cocaine seizure
More than 8,000 kilos of cocaine were seized from a container in Rotterdam (Openbaar Ministerie)

Published Aug 10, 2023 4:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

Prosecutors in the Netherlands confirmed the largest-ever individual seizure of cocaine being smuggled through the port of Rotterdam. The discovery was made last month but only now released with few details as they continue to investigate this case while a broader crackdown is also underway to stop the arrival of illegal narcotics at Europe’s ports.

The shipping company involved in the seizure was not identified. They said the drugs were discovered during a sweep of containers and when drug sniffing dogs targeted a container with bananas. It is not the first time that the smugglers have attempted to use reefer containers and shipments of bananas from Central America to ferry cocaine into Europe.

A search of the container extracted a total of 8,064 kilo packages of cocaine from 12 pallets of bananas. Law enforcement is estimating the street value at more than €600 million. The container originated in Ecuador and came to Rotterdam via Panama, where the seizure took place on July 13. No arrests have been made so far in this case.

Officials said this was nearly twice the size of a 2005 seizure of 4,600 kilos of cocaine and also referenced more than 3,500 blocks of cocaine also discovered with a shipment of bananas in June. In 2021, they reported the largest single seizure was 4.2 tons (3,800 kilos) of cocaine found in two containers of soy arriving from Paraguay and transshipped in Uruguay. 

In the first six months of this year, prosecutors reported a total of 29,702 kilos of cocaine was seized during drug seizures in the Netherlands. Customs reports that of the drug seizures this year, more than half were smaller than 100 kilos. They had also previously cited an increase in smuggling activity in smaller seaports.

After reports that the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp accounted for five percent of global cocaine trafficking in 2022, the authorities in both countries implemented further crackdowns and announced new efforts working in conjunction with the major shipping lines. This came as Europol warned on widespread corruption and infiltration by gangs into the ports.

The Danish news outlet Jyllands-Posten released an exposé on drug smuggling at the end of July saying that corrupt employees were selling container release codes to the drug smugglers. They cited the head of the police in the Port of Rotterdam, Jan Janse, saying that Dutch police are now of a view that Maersk has been "infiltrated" by drug traffickers. Janse said that the shipping company's employees are not screened sufficiently, and far too many have had access to information about containers that, in the hands of criminals, provide the opportunity to carry the cocaine out of the port. The newspaper cites a former employee arrested in Belgium who shared confidential information from the shipping company with a drug lord.

The report goes on to say that six employees of Maersk’s AMP terminals in Ecuador are also facing drug-trafficking charges in a case involving smuggling cocaine to Europe. Maersk, they report, is aware of the challenges and is one of the shipping companies working with the authorities in the ongoing crackdown. 

At the end of 2022, Bloomberg also published an exposé claiming that MSC had been infiltrated by the drug cartels. The world’s largest carrier strongly refuted the claims citing its efforts at combating smuggling and cooperation with the authorities.