Home Brussels Cocaine Whac-A-Mole: A game Brussels is playing to win

Cocaine Whac-A-Mole: A game Brussels is playing to win

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There’s a Whac-A-Mole phenomenon in drugs trafficking enforcement: As soon as you crack down on the problem in one area, it pops up in another.

Europe is proving to be no exception.

Figures show that, in 2021, close to three-quarters of cocaine seizures were made in three countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, which all feature big port hubs, such as Rotterdam, Antwerp and Valencia. But, as law enforcement activities intensify, the European drugs agency has warned that criminals are now extending their activities to other ports, “where cocaine interdiction measures may be perceived as less intensive.”

Take Sweden, which has already seen a record level of cocaine seizures in 2023. It has become a transit country for drugs because criminals assess it as “a low risk country at the ports,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson — herself from Sweden — told POLITICO last month.

Drug traffickers have honed in on the small city of Helsingborg because of “soft spots in the protection” and fewer customs checks, Martin Petersson, a spokesperson from the Swedish customs authority, said.

As a result, the port has become a major European cocaine hub, with the influx of drugs fueling violence in this small town off Sweden’s south coast. “The high rate of use of firearms and explosives by criminals is a consequence of gangs’ fight for the drug market in Sweden,” said Petersson.

In an effort to stop this story being played out at every port across the Continent — and amid an uptick in drug-related violence near the European Commission’s own seat in Brussels — the EU executive is stepping up.

An EU-wide action plan to combat drug trafficking, which President Ursula von der Leyen announced in September, is expected to be presented on Wednesday.

“When Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and others step up, [the drug criminals] change to other ports, so that’s why it’s absolutely necessary [to have a] close cooperation with all the member states,” Johansson said.

Trusted network

Cocaine is the second most commonly used illicit drug in Europe (after cannabis), and seizures by law enforcement are at record levels.

The so-called “rip-on/rip-off” method has become criminals’ favorite method for smuggling drugs, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said earlier this year.

The method, which makes use of legitimate container shipments to smuggle drugs, relies on insider knowledge about the location of a specific container, and on coordination between different ends of the transport supply chain.

Sophisticated networks such as this need to be met with an equally joined up system, the shipping industry has stressed.

“Unless people know each other and know that they can trust one another, it’s very difficult to cooperate on this issue,” said John Butler, CEO of container industry group World Shipping Council, noting that authorities had missed opportunities in the past with “officials in custom services not knowing whom to call in industry.”

Combatting traffickers who are “willing to do anything and everything to get their product to market” requires a “trusted network,” he said. “I would expect that whatever the Commission does will build on the need for those trusted partnerships.”

Last year, 110 metric tons of cocaine were intercepted at the port of Antwerp, and 50 metric tons in Rotterdam — but authorities can only guess at the volumes they aren’t catching. In an interview earlier this year, Antwerp-Bruges port’s CEO Jacques Vandermeiren said they assume it’s just 10 percent to 15 percent of what actually travels to Antwerp and Rotterdam.

In places where cocaine smuggling is already an old problem, EU countries and ports haven’t waited for the EU to join forces.

Under a Belgo-Dutch initiative earlier this year, ministers from Belgium and the Netherlands, the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, the cities’ mayors and five major shipping companies agreed to explore measures including container tracking and smart seals, and increased background checks of “high-risk individuals.”

Teaming up makes sense, said Rotterdam Port’s acting CEO and COO Boudewijn Siemons, because if a drug delivery comes in through Antwerp, “it would be back in Rotterdam in an hour,” he said.

Communication is key, he said: “Criminals will always look at a new modus operandi. If something is detected in one of the ports, we let the others know, because you also have to know what you’re looking for.”

Other ports, like Hamburg and North-Sea, have also joined the effort. But “every time, criminals will look for another port,” said Siemons, arguing that smaller ports “also have to come along.”

The EU action plan is expected to include a European ports alliance to bolster cooperation across the bloc.

In an EU that has removed customs and border checks, it’s “more than logical … to also attack [drug trafficking] as one Europe,” said Siemons.

Pressure building

The Commission’s strategy follows calls for joined up action by the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. “To counter any so-called negative waterbed effect, we need to make all of our logistical hubs more resilient,” the six countries wrote in a statement they adopted in Antwerp in June.

Belgium also plans to make combating drug trafficking a priority during its upcoming presidency of the Council of the EU, with the newly appointed drug commissioner advocating for a “European strategy” to prevent cocaine from traveling to Europe.

But the executive’s move is also a tacit acknowledgement that the influx of cocaine is a problem it can no longer ignore. Europe is overtaking America as the main destination for cocaine — partly due to increased law enforcement activities in the U.S. and partly because of alternative drugs. “North America is not a cocaine market anymore, because they have fentanyl,” Europol’s spokesperson Jan Op Gen Oorth told POLITICO.

The U.S. has taken its turn to whack the cocaine mole; now it’s all eyes on Europe.

Wilhelmine Preussen contributed reporting.

Updated: This article has been updated to clarify that the action plan is expected to be published Wednesday.

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