Ports in a storm: Europe wants common approach to drug smuggling

Cocaine seized in Rotterdam. Photo: Public Prosecution Department

Containers of fruit shipped from South America are the biggest risk for cocaine smuggling to Europe, according to a coalition working to fight drug crime.

The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and Italy – together with European commissioners, investigators and lawyers – pledged to work on common, tough harbour checks to stop the flow of drugs at a special conference in Antwerp on Monday.

“International criminal organisations have a number of ingenious systems and constructions to evade controls as much as possible,” said the Belgian home affairs ministry in a press release. “Key figures in important administrative and checking functions are also bribed for large amounts of money.”

Dutch justice minister Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius has previously advocated more collaboration to stop drugs simply diverting to another harbour if controls are tightened in one country – as appears to have happened with Rotterdam and Antwerp. Last year, Antwerp seizures of cocaine reached a record 110 tonnes, while those at Rotterdam dropped to 47 tonnes, after a crackdown.

Yeşilgöz told the NOS on Monday: “We want to make our part of Europe really unattractive. We need to break the earning model.”

The plans discussed include “harbour officers” charged with sharing information quickly with other ports and a common, tougher approach to the “collectors” or uithalers, typically young men who are paid to steal into harbours to rescue the drugs from shipping containers. The justice minister told the Telegraaf that it also needs to be easier to confiscate criminal funds across jurisdictions, employ “digital seals” on containers and better screening everywhere.

“The money goes elsewhere, the drugs do too, but the violence stays in our country,” she said. “We need to ensure that it doesn’t come here any more.”

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