The river Scheldt moves wide and quiet out towards the North Sea. Cranes and containers line up in Europe’s second most important port. Belgium’s Antwerp is only beaten by neighboring Dutch port of Rotterdam when it comes to cargo handling. The volume of cargo here has doubled in the last 20 years to almost a million containers a year. This is welcome for the Belgian economy – but also has a downside. “What makes this port so interesting for the legal trade unfortunately also makes it interesting for the illegal trade,” states Minister of the Interior Annelies Verlinden at a press conference at the harbor police.Antwerp is also one of Europe’s biggest gateways for narcotics. Last year, a new record was again noted in police seizures of 110 tons of cocaine. The quantity is so large that local customs officials have stated that more ovens are needed to burn up what has been taken. Then you still expect to find only 10-15 percent of what is smuggled in. With the drugs also comes violence. In early January, eleven-year-old Firdous was shot dead when unknown perpetrators opened fire on a residential building in the Merksem district. The attack was likely aimed at one of her uncles, identified as a local cocaine kingpin who is likely hiding in the United Arab Emirates. “A drug war is going on. We have seen this for several months,” Mayor Bart De Wever said on Belgian television afterwards. Belgium has a contract with more police in the port, promises of better equipment to be able to control more loads and the appointment of a special narcotics commissioner to coordinate the fight against the drug mafias.In addition, Minister of the Interior Verlinden is going to South America in the next few days. Together with the EU’s interior commissioner Ylva Johansson, she will discuss the fight against drugs with the authorities in Colombia and Ecuador. “We must try to stop the cocaine in the countries of origin,” says Verlinden. “We have noticed that when there are more controls in certain high-risk ports such as Santos in Brazil or Cartagena in Colombia, the criminal organizations move to less controlled ports where they can operate. We have to make those ports more resilient as well.” One method is to have Belgian police on site in South America to cooperate with the police there. “We already have one in Brazil and it has been very effective,” says Verlinden. Another method is increased cooperation within the EU. To the port of Antwerp, the Belgian Minister of the Interior has brought with him Ylva Johansson and Alexis Goosdeel, head of the EU’s anti-narcotics unit, EMCDDA, to familiarize themselves with the situation. “What we need above all is much stronger police cooperation and information exchange. They are doing a good job, the national police. But they become a bit blind and tied up if you can’t get information incredibly quickly and easily cooperate with police officers in other countries. We need to be able to act much faster,” says Johansson to Swedish journalists on site. In April, Annelies Verlinden will gather colleagues in a collaboration with the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany and Italy to discuss measures against organized crime. In the same month, Johansson will present new EU proposals against corruption. Both bribes and threats are widely used by the smugglers to get their goods in . Ylva Johansson warns of the consequences. “Security is the glue that holds society together. When you see killing in the streets, when innocent children end up in the line of fire and ordinary citizens feel that their areas are no longer safe, it is a dangerous poison for cohesion and trust, she says – and at the same time wants to make the ‘fun junkies’ wake up.” We can see an increase in drug use by people who are quite well off. They don’t see themselves as addicted but just use it for pleasure. And I think they need to realize that they are fueling these shootings and killings in the streets. It is their drug use that kills the eleven-year-old girl in Antwerp,” says Ylva Johansson.
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