Belgium, Netherlands Break Cocaine Records

More cocaine is seized in Antwerp and Rotterdam than ever, but consumption has also gone up.

Antwerp Belgium port
Port of Antwerp, Belgium (Port of Antwerp-Bruges)

Belgian and Dutch police have got more money to interdict drug smuggling in the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. Record amounts of cocaine were seized in 2022.

Yet the black-market price of cocaine is unchanged. Factoring in inflation, the drug has arguably become cheaper.

An analysis of European wastewater suggests that cocaine use in major cities, including those of the Low Countries, has increased.

“We are in a tunnel, where more and more resources are being allocated with no discernible result,” argues Bob Hoogenboom, a professor in police studies at the University of Amsterdam. Hoogenboom is also a co-founder of the Dutch branch of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit of former police officers and prosecutors who want to end the drug war.

So far, their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

More money, more manpower

Belgium has increased funding for the drug war by €300 million, including to hire more cops in Antwerp and buy scanning equipment to inspect more cargo.

The Dutch government has raised funding by almost half a billion euros, of which €82 million goes to prevention.

Dutch police spend between 20 and 30 percent of their annual budget on fighting drug crimes, which are 1.6 percent of the total.

94 out of 780 federal investigations in Belgium are drug-related. The head of the national police in the Netherlands, Andy Kraag, has said that three in four of his detectives are investigating drug crimes.

Record amount of cocaine seized

All this money and manpower is not without effect.

Antwerp and Rotterdam, the two main ports of entry for cocaine into Europe, interdicted a record 160 tons of cocaine in 2022. Registered drug crimes in the Netherlands fell from 18,000 in 2010 to 12,000 last year.

Yet cocaine still sells for €50 per gram, suggesting that cartels are making up their losses by shipping more of the stuff to Europe.

Cocaine use is up, but far from widespread

Demand for cocaine is not declining. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction found increases in cocaine use from analyzing wastewater in 104 European cities. The highest concentrations were found in Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

A separate study for residue of crack cocaine in thirteen European cities found the highest loads in Amsterdam and Antwerp.

Cocaine use peaks on weekends. On Sundays, researchers found residue equivalent to 100 lines of cocaine for every 1,000 residents of Amsterdam. Although users include tourists.

Amsterdam may be an outlier. The Dutch Trimbos Institute, which specializes in addiction, estimates that 2.2 percent of the adult population took cocaine last year. Its Flemish counterpart, VAD, puts the share of cocaine users in Dutch-speaking Belgium at 1.7 percent.

Cocaine has become more popular worldwide

It’s not just Europe, which accounts for 21 percent of global cocaine use. (North America is in first place with 30 percent.) According to the UN, production in South America rose 35 percent between 2021 and 2022.

Its Office on Drugs and Crime blames a post-COVID bounce in use:

Although these increases can be partly explained by population growth, there is also a rising prevalence of cocaine use.

“War” in streets of Belgium

The combination of increased demand and increased repression makes smuggling more lucrative, feeding an escalatory cycle of gang violence.

Four men were arrested in the Netherlands in September on suspicion of planning to abduct the Belgian justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne. An 11 year-old girl was killed when shots were fired at her family’s home in Antwerp in January. Arson, grenade attacks and stabbings have become commonplace in Antwerp and Brussels.

Marij Preneel, the mayor of the Antwerp suburb Borgerhout, says there is a “war” in her streets and residents are afraid to leave their house.

The federal police chief in Antwerp, Yve Driesen, agrees, saying,

We are drowning in drug violence. In 2022, there was an attack every four days.

“The reason is always the same,” argues crime reporter Dirk Leestmans: “internal conflicts between rival drug gangs.”

The heart of the matter is that there is a lot of money to be made with drugs and there is a lot of competition. With these attacks, they try to intimidate or liquidate their rivals.

Crime has moved from Netherlands to Belgium

The uptick in violence in Flanders is at least partly the result of extra police efforts in the Netherlands.

After Derk Wiersum, an attorney who represented a witness against alleged drug lord Ridouan Taghi, was assassinated in 2019, the Dutch government raised funding for the drug war by €150 million. The amount of cocaine seized in the port of Rotterdam doubled from around 35,000 kilos in 2019 to some 70,000 kilos in 2021.

Last year, close to 47,000 kilos of cocaine were found in containers in Rotterdam while the amount seized in Antwerp grew to 111,000 kilos. The port of Antwerp and ships bound for Antwerp now account for three quarters of all cocaine interdicted in Europe.

“The major drug problem has moved from the Netherlands to the south,” says the mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever.

You see there is a shift to Antwerp as logistics hub for cocaine. But it are often Dutch cartels who have taken the initiative.

De Wever estimates that 80 percent of all drugs imported through Antwerp are bound for the Netherlands.

He has called for the army to be deployed if the police can’t get the violence under control, a request the federal government has denied.

Some countries have decriminalized possession

Hoogenboom counsels against escalation. It would mean even more other crimes, like cyber theft, domestic abuse and fraud, go unpunished. Those crimes affect more law-abiding citizens and far more directly.

De Wever’s counterpart in Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, agrees. “The war on drugs isn’t working,” she told a conference of Western European justice ministers in October.

Halsema has proposed to decriminalize cocaine. That would make it an offense, but no longer a crime, to sell and possess the drug.

Colombia, which cultivates 60 percent of the world’s coca bush, has already decriminalized possession of small quantities of cocaine. So have Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Greece.

But so long as cocaine is illegal elsewhere, there is money to be made from smuggling it out of South America. The proceeds have funded a sixty-year war in Colombia that has cost 450,000 lives and displaced one-tenth of the population.