April 1. 2023. 4:32

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Belgium, Netherlands among Western Europe’s main cocaine hubs

Belgium and the Netherlands have become Western Europe’s main import centres for cocaine, a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) presented in Vienna on Thursday reads.

“The points of arrival in Europe have changed, with Belgium and the Netherlands now eclipsing the Iberian peninsula [traditional entry points in Spain and Portugal] as the main hub,” the report reads.

“There are indications that cocaine importation has shifted from the Dutch port of Rotterdam to the Belgian port of Antwerp in recent years”, although “the majority of cocaine reaching Antwerp is believed to be channelled into the Netherlands” afterwards.

Despite the many media reports of incidents related to cocaine in Belgium, UNODC states that there is little cocaine-related violence in the country. Indeed, drug traffickers do not seem to be competing against each other and, due to high demand, coexist instead.

However, the report also underlines the fact that port employees are vulnerable to pressure from criminal groups and may feel forced to provide logistics-related information to traffickers.

Demand for cocaine has continued to grow following the slump that came with the pandemic and lockdowns. Population growth but also growing cocaine use explain the trend, UNODC added.

The surge in supply that comes with growing demand has led to increased coca cultivation in several countries. From 2020 to 2021, cultivation went up 35% – a record high and the sharpest year-to-year increase since 2016, UNODC warned.

The increase in cultivation was accompanied by the rise in land cultivated in South America – a 300,000 hectares increase between 2020 and 2021. Production has also increased due to advances in how the drug is chemically processed before being ready for sale.

In the report, it is also underlined that while the market remains concentrated in the Americas and parts of Europe, there is a strong potential for a large expansion in Africa and Asia.

The report also points to a worldwide increase in interceptions of cocaine shipments.

Following “suspicious activities” in the port of Antwerp on Thursday, police found “a considerable quantity” of cocaine that most likely came from one of the South American Grimaldi ships docked there. Antwerp Federal Judicial Police is carrying out further investigations, a press release states.

The report also states that the war in Ukraine that started in February last year will likely impact supply lines.

According to the UN agency, it is likely that foreign criminal groups, which used Ukraine’s ports to avoid law enforcement controls in Western Europe, “will shift their activities to other Black Sea ports in Romania or Bulgaria”.

UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly urged world governments and others to counter this transnational threat with transnational responses based on awareness raising, prevention, and international and regional cooperation.

Belgium outlined its strategy to fight drug criminality in February, which includes increasing cooperation with other countries and port operators regarding customs and police, screening port staff, recruiting more customs agents and upping security in the port of Antwerp.

(Anne-Sophie Gayet | EURACTIV.com)

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