How a quiet corner of Northern Europe became a theatre of extreme drug warfare
13 Aug 2020

When, in early July, detectives discovered a secret torture chamber halfway between the giant ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, it made a grim kind of sense that the room had been built in an old shipping container.

The extreme gang violence that has been unravelling over the past decade in Belgium and the Netherlands is linked inextricably to the high seas, seeping out of the two ports and into the streets of the region’s major cities.

In 2019, the head of America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) chose to visit Antwerp, alongside Colombia, to state his determination to push back against global drug gangs. A series of shootouts and explosions in the Belgian city – home to the second largest port in Europe – have led to the founding of a special task force to tackle the rising problem of underworld drug gang violence.

Rotterdam and Amsterdam have been hit by similar rises in open gang warfare. In Rotterdam, at least three men were shot dead in separate gangland-style killings this spring, while a building was peppered with bullets and then bombed. Police suspect the violence was related to the interception of 4,200 kilos of cocaine by the authorities in the port of Antwerp the previous month.

In Amsterdam, there’s been a steady rise in underworld violence over the last eight years. In 2014, crime lord Gwenette Martha was mowed down in a hail of more than 80 bullets outside a kebab shop; a severed head was left outside a café in 2016; an anti-tank rocket was fired into the offices of a major newspaper in 2018; and, in December of 2019, Derk Wiersum – the lawyer for a state witness in a major mob trial – was shot dead in front of his wife outside their home.

Insiders say the torture chambers found during the EncroChat busts supposedly belonged to an alliance of local criminals working against the Netherlands’ formerly most wanted man, Ridouan Taghi – a Dutch-Moroccan alleged mob boss arrested in 2019 on suspicion of murder and drug trafficking.

So how has such a modern, otherwise peaceful part of the world – known best for its waffles, flowers and clean streets – become home to a steady stream of gangland assassinations?

The answer is cocaine.

A huge chunk of Europe’s coke comes through Rotterdam and Antwerp. In July of 2020, Dutch customs revealed they had seized double the quantity of the drug in the first six months of 2020 as the same time last year, mainly at the port of Rotterdam, while Antwerp is Europe’s main entry point for cocaine smuggled from South America. In 2019, a total of 61.8 tonnes of cocaine was intercepted at the sprawling 120-square-km port, a rise of 660 percent in five years.

“It’s a very fast movement of millions of containers through Antwerp,” says Bob Van den Berghe of the UN’s Container Control Programme. “Ships drop containers off in the port and quickly the ships are gone, which is an advantage for criminal organisations.”

An investigation in 2015 found that, at one point, smugglers had hacked into Antwerp’s security grid, allowing them to better plan smuggled cocaine shipments by tracking containers. There have also been instances of corruption at the port, with dock workers bribed or followed home and coerced by criminals.

As the profits from cocaine smuggling have spiralled, so has the violence. When a 200-kilo shipment was seized by Antwerp customs in 2012, the bust sparked a wave of shootings and retaliations across Belgium and the Netherlands, between an ensemble of mobsters who all suspected one another of ripping each other off.

By 2018, the murders of 30 people were linked to the feud, including that of Gwenette Martha. Two members of a Belgian crew known as the Turtles were kidnapped and filmed being tortured with a soldering iron. The war was later re-enacted in the 2018 Belgian black comedy, Gangsta.

The situation was getting so bad that, in 2018, Antwerp authorities decided to beef up security and tackle port-side corruption. However, they have admitted that they are still only finding, at most, just 10 percent of the cocaine trafficked through the port. From Antwerp, the drug is then taken to the Netherlands to be cut for distribution across Europe.

By Niko Vorobyov, Vice, 11 August 2020

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