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#Encrochat News : Antwerp is the 2023 European capital of cocaine

They say in Antwerp that the city owes the Scheldt to providence, and to the Scheldt everything else. It is a river as international as the traffic that reaches it, it is born in France, crosses Belgium and ends in the Netherlands. But not only goods transit with absolute ease through its port, the largest in Europe ahead of Rotterdam since it merged with Zeebrugge.

In just a few years, the inexhaustible source of prosperity that the Scheldt has been for centuries for Antwerp and Belgium has become the source of an unprecedented wave of violence linked to drug trafficking.

The hacking, two years ago now, of the Sky ECC messaging system, supposedly impenetrable and widely used in the criminal world, gave access to millions of messages and has allowed the opening of more than 500 cases, the arrest of more than 1,400 people in various countries and the conviction of hundreds of individuals. But if a shipment doesn't reach its destination, there is always someone who will pay for it. And as the anthill was stirred up, an uncontrollable dynamic of brutal infighting and gang vendettas was unleashed. "We have entered a new phase of narco-terrorism in our country," admitted Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne.

But "the last thing we're going to do now is throw in the towel," he says.

Antwerp is, today, the epicenter of cocaine in Europe. 2022 set a new record in seizures in the Flemish port, 110 tons compared to 90 the previous year (the police feared an attack on their warehouses, they could not cope with destroying so much drugs). It was the largest amount intercepted in Europe, ahead of the neighboring port of Rotterdam, where 50 tons were detected. The concern is similar in Belgium and the Netherlands. The gangs speak the same languages, Dutch and Arabic, and cross borders as they please, be it to recover goods or settle scores.

The Antwerp environment has become the daily scene of shootings, intimidating explosions of grenades, disappearances, torture, contract killings, as well as death threats against police officers, judges and even the Minister of Justice, who has spent periods confined to a secret location with his wife and two young children for threats of kidnapping (five Dutchmen have been arrested for planning their kidnapping). In the Netherlands it is Princess Amalia, 19, who lives in semi-confinement.

Every week there is an attack. In January, an 11-year-old girl, the niece of a trafficker, was killed in her home by a stray bullet. A few days ago, a resident of the area who had been kidnapped a month earlier at a gas station, supposedly for the disappearance of a drug shipment, was released on the other side of the border. The police think they got the person wrong. This same weekend, an attack with explosives left damage to 20 houses and five cars in the center.

“Things are getting very ugly,” says Jackie de Moor, the owner of The Club, a port roadside diner known for serving up extra-large portions, tailored to beefy patrons, from sandwiches to chips to biscuits. for coffee, a donut in this case. “I've been here 20 years and things are getting worse. More drugs, more unemployment, more vandalism, more violence...

The port has always been an island, a world apart, but now it's another environment”, he says worried.

A large banner on the facade of his premises warns against the temptation to collaborate in drug trafficking and warns that "there is no way out" of this world of violence. “Hey, Ben, do you want to earn an extra salary?”, “Don't you feel like driving a sports car?”, reads some fictitious messages on social networks addressed to port employees.

"That's how it works," agrees De Moor. “Personally, I hate drugs, which is why we collaborate with the campaign. The port is taking the issue very seriously. It seems important to us as a business. We don't want to be in a danger zone or stay here to do deals. We want to be a cafe for truckers and stevedores, not for traffickers”.

The campaign, which offers an anonymous platform to report suspicious movements or colleagues, targets the necessary collaborators that traffickers have at the port. The hack of the Sky ECC app not only revealed the terrifying practices of criminals and helped locate laboratories, a torture chamber in a container in the Netherlands or a shredder in Serbia where they disposed of human remains (“It was like sitting at the table with criminals," said Europol director Catherine Bolle). He also shed light on the dense network of contacts they have between civil servants, employees of logistics companies and the police.

Currently, the port employs 150,000 people. Among the measures of the new action plan announced by the Government in February is the examination by the intelligence services of 16,000 workers in "sensitive positions" in the port, a process already underway among its 750 customs agents that has also started Rotterdam. In addition, he is going to reinforce the courts with more qualified personnel to follow the money trail and has promised to send 200 more police officers to the port.

Given its enormous size (160 square kilometres) and heavy traffic (240 million tons before the merger with Bruges), port control is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack. Less than 2% of the containers are examined. The Government works with the large companies in the sector to develop smart seals that record who opens them and, in parallel, has signed an agreement with Ecuador –more than half of the drugs seized in 2022 left Guayaquil– to cooperate against drug trafficking .

Antwerp is the great gateway for cocaine to Europe, but part of it stays at home, and the Executive plans to raise the fine for possession of 10 grams of cocaine from 300 to 1,000 euros to discourage its consumption. "Here they already know they don't have to come, but there is always someone who is clueless," says the owner of The Club, who has kicked out clients for snorting coke on his terrace in broad daylight. A study by the European Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction has concluded that the city of Scheldt is the place in Europe where it is most consumed. Wastewater does not lie.

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