Rule of law in European democracies is at risk of being undermined unless EU leaders significantly ramp up their response to a boom in drug-related crime, the head of the bloc’s law enforcement agency told POLITICO.
Europol chief Catherine De Bolle said Europe had replaced the United States as the primary target market for international drug traffickers, and that arrivals of drugs were expected to spike over the next two years amid a glut in production.
The result is an increase in violence and creeping corruption at several drug-trading hotspots including the port of Antwerp in Belgium, as criminal gangs increasingly seek to infiltrate logistics companies, local government and even the judicial system, De Bolle warned.
“We see that the European Union has become more important [for the criminals] compared to the United States. The European countries are predominant for the moment,” she said. “We see that for the upcoming two years we will have an increase in drugs toward the European Union because there is more production.”
The warning from De Bolle, a former chief of the Belgian federal police, comes as the EU faces multiple challenges to the rule of law in the bloc, including in countries such as Bulgaria, which lies along a key drugs import route from the Middle East and where organized crime is widely seen as being intertwined with government.
Yet De Bolle said Europe’s worsening problem with drug-linked organized crime isn’t just in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s plaguing affluent hubs in western and northern Europe as well, from Antwerp in Belgium to Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to Hamburg in Germany and small ports in Spain and the coastal cities of Sweden.
“Rotterdam and Antwerp are very important for the criminal groups. But we see that the more we work in big harbors, there are also smaller harbors, like Hamburg, or harbors in Spain, that are very lucrative and interesting for the drug traffickers,” she said.
An immediate side-effect of drug exporting cartels from South America linking arms with mafia groups in Europe is an increase in violent crime. “What is really worrying to us is the increase in violence. Not only regular violence: contract killings, torture, explosions, really tough and hard violence with a lot of dead people,” she said.
Indeed, several European countries have been shocked in recent years by high-profile drug killings. In the Netherlands, whose Rotterdam Port is a key entryway for drugs into Europe, the brazen murder in 2021 of a prominent crime journalist, Peter R. de Vries, and of lawyer Derk Wiersum in 2019 prompted national soul-searching and a pledge to crack down on drug gangs.
‘Very difficult situation’
In Belgium, the seat of EU institutions, the killing of an 11-year-old girl in drug-related violence earlier this year in Antwerp prompted a similar outcry, while police last year uncovered a plot to kidnap the country’s justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, leading to beefed-up security for him. “Very concerning but predictable,” reacted Bart De Wever, the right-wing mayor of Antwerp, at the time.
Alarm bells are also ringing in Sweden, Spain and Germany, where De Bolle said the Port of Hamburg had become a key destination for traffickers. The problem for EU leaders is that in each of these hot spots, traffickers are gradually chipping away at rule of law by corrupting logistics workers, taking over IT systems, infiltrating local government and even the courts and police, she said.
“We discovered a harbor where everyone was corrupted. If we abandon certain certain areas you can have really tricky situations where the criminals take over,” said De Bolle, declining to name the harbor.
She added: “They [the drug gangs] are infiltrating our societies … They want to decide on big issues in our society. We need this to be a priority in upcoming years if we want to save and protect the vulnerable groups.”
Although Europe isn’t as riddled with fentanyl, an ultra-powerful synthetic opioid behind a huge number of overdose deaths, as the United States, its use is growing in Estonia, Sweden, Finland and Germany, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
Faced with a worsening situation, EU leaders and law enforcement chiefs are ramping up their efforts to combat the gangs’ onslaught. In 2021, a massive sting operation coordinated across multiple countries and focused on encrypted phones led to some 800 arrests, many of them in Europe. And the leaders of six European governments — Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands — formed an anti-crime coalition to share intelligence and work jointly against organized crime.
But leaders need to make the fight against organized crime an even bigger priority if they want to avoid citizens losing trust in the system, warned De Bolle.
“We are in a very difficult situation,” she said. “We are behind.”