ANTWERP, Belgium — As a teenager in the 1980s, Norbert Somers would roam the port of Antwerp, where his father worked as a customs officer. Biking through the docks and gazing at the ships undisturbed was a favorite pastime.
Since then, the port has grown into a sprawling high-security complex over about 47 square miles, with trucks and cranes handling millions of containers a year. And given the port’s size,Mr. Somers, now the head of the Belgian customs’ drug unit in Antwerp, has grown alarmed about one concern: The port is now at the center of a huge intercontinental drug-smuggling operation.
“A cocaine tsunami is exploding and expanding in Antwerp and all over Europe,” Mr. Somers said in an interview near the first docks built in the city, in the 19th century.
Europe is in the grip of a growing cocaine problem, officials say: Seized quantities are skyrocketing in big ports like Antwerp, drug-related violence and corruption are on the rise in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, and cocaine consumption and deaths have increased on the continent.
Belgian law enforcement authorities say they are overwhelmed as more criminal groups have participated in the drug trade, with violence surging in tandem with ever growing quantities of cocaine. Customs officers in Antwerp are on track to intercept 100 tons of cocaine this year — up from 66 tons in 2020 — an amount equal to about twice the volume seized in the whole of the European Union 10 years ago.
Part of the surge in seizures is a result of the coronavirus pandemic, shipping experts said. In the early months of lockdowns, container shipping decreased, as did the number of customs and police officers at ports in Latin America, giving a freer hand to criminal groups and pushing them to ship increasingly large loads of cocaine.
But the pandemic only reinforced a trend that has been continuing for several years, according to law enforcement officials and researchers. In Colombia, coca production has increased despite the peace deal signed by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. And Colombian drug cartels have turned to Europe as their primary destination market for cocaine, according to researchers and law enforcement officials.
Europe has also become a major transit point for shipping the drug east to Russia, and to Asian and Middle Eastern countries, according to the European Union’s drug agency.
Public health experts and academics say that cocaine is circulating largely unchecked in Europe and has become more available and accepted in social circles where it would once have been taboo, including among younger users.
“It matches trends in our societies,” said Tom Decorte, a professor of criminology at Ghent University. “It’s a stimulant that allows us to work harder, be more focused and cope with things,” he added, describing the views of many users in European cities.
Four million adults consume cocaine in the European Union, and the use of both crack and powder cocaine have been on the rise, said João Matias, an analyst at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the European Union’s drug agency. So have cocaine-related hospitalizations and deaths.
But another source of concern has been the rampant penetration of drug money in the local administrations and economies of cities like Antwerp. Bart De Wever, the city’s right-wing mayor, said criminals involved in cocaine trafficking were increasingly laundering money in real estate, or using legitimate businesses as fronts.
“Before you know it, they own a part of your town,” Mr. De Wever said.
Antwerp is merely a logistical hub from which cocaine is dispatched throughout Europe through the Netherlands — the “staging point for cocaine trafficking on the continent,” according to Europol.
But the trade has led to a surge in violence in the Netherlands, including the killing in July of a prominent crime reporter on a street in Amsterdam. And Antwerp has been rocked by shootings and grenade explosions linked to drug gangs. Europol and the United Nations said in a report this year that an increase in shootings, bombings, torture and murders on the continent were the direct consequences of a “booming cocaine market.”
“We are facing violence that borders on savagery,” Eric Jacobs, the head of the judiciary police in Brussels, said last month at a news conference.
That has pushed Mr. De Wever, the Antwerp mayor, to launch a war on drugs in his city and to call for tougher policies across Belgium, even if such an approach in the United States has left a trail of violence over the past 50 years, has not curbed drug use, and is widely regarded as a failure.
Mr. Decorte, the criminology professor, said that the stepped up policing had pushed lower-level criminals out of the market and replaced them with organized criminal gangs, who were often more violent.
“We create incredibly powerful gangs that have money and assets, and they’re able to corrupt whoever they want, wherever they want,” said Mr. Decorte, who is part of an organization in Belgium that has pushed for a public health-based approach to solving the drug problem rather than relying on tough enforcement tactics.
Despite the skyrocketing number of seizures in Antwerp, experts are divided on whether it reflects an improvement in tracking cocaine shipments — or if the volumes being shipped are just so much larger.
Customs officers estimate that they seize around 10 percent of the cocaine smuggled to Europe, with Antwerp and Rotterdam the leading destinations. Kristian Vanderwaeren, the head of the Belgian customs, said as much cocaine destined for Antwerp had been seized in Latin American ports before departure this year as in the Belgian port itself.
“We’re seizing a lot, but is that hurting criminals?” Mr. Vanderwaeren said. “So much cocaine is escaping us.”
Cocaine is often smuggled in containers with items like bananas, orange juice or coffee. Jeans and animal skins can also be impregnated with cocaine, and later extracted in laboratories. Sometimes, smugglers hide for days in containers stored on the docks to pick up the drug, using a tactic referred to among customs officers as Trojan horses.”
Bob Van den Berghe, a senior law enforcement officer at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said Antwerp’s port was convenient for smuggling because containers are processed quickly in automatized terminals, limiting options for customs and police officers to check them.
On a recent afternoon at a scanning outpost at the port, two dozen trucks lined up for inspection. Sitting in front of a large screen, an officer searched X-ray images for suspicious products in containers. Officials said they were expecting another surge in seizures of cocaine being shipped for the holidays — a “White Christmas,” as the phenomenon is known.
Most of the traffickers in Antwerp are lower-ranking members of the gangs, with the leaders based in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco or Southern Europe, said Manolo Tersago, the chief of the drugs department at the federal police in Antwerp.
Officials have also discovered a vast criminal web operating across Belgium. The interception this year of a million messages on the secured platform Sky ECC by the Belgian and Dutch police led to the dismantling of a cocaine trafficking network in Brussels, to the discovery of drug laboratories, and to dozens of arrests across the country.
At the port in Antwerp, Mr. Somers, the customs investigator, said it was easy to feel overwhelmed at the size of the networks involved in the drug trade.
Corruption was affecting every level of the supply chain: Dock workers and crane operators, as well as customs officials and civil servants, were being paid off to look the other way, he said. More than 64,000 people work at the port of Antwerp, and 80,000 others depend on its activities.
“If you look at the amount of people involved in the business,” Mr. Somers said, sometimes it feels “like everyone is involved.”