Record cocaine seizures in Europe, but Latin American drug cartels continue to roil Netherlands, Belgium

A man's hand holds a tiny bag of crack cocaine
Kris Verborgh, chief police inspector of the Marolles neighborhood of Brussels, holds a bag of crack cocaine on Monday.
(Geert Vanden Wijngaert / Associated Press)

Each tiny plastic package was barely the size of a fingernail and weighed all of 0.2 of a gram. Still, the bags of white powder police seized in a Brussels cellar were yet another indication that a surge in cocaine and crack supply is hitting Europe hard.

And with it comes unprecedented drug violence in Belgium and the Netherlands, whose ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, respectively, have become the main gateways for Latin American cocaine cartels into the continent.

In Belgium, the justice minister is forced to live in a safehouse, out of reach of drug gangs. In the Netherlands, killings hit ever more prominent people, and there are suspicions that the reason the heir to the Dutch throne had to quit her student life and return home was also linked to threats from drug lords.


“We almost have to see it as a war,” said Aukje de Vries, the Dutch state secretary for customs.

Officials in Antwerp on Tuesday announced yet another annual record in cocaine seizures in Belgium last year: 110 tons, up 23% compared with 2021 and more than twice the amount confiscated five years ago.

“It astounded us,” said Belgian Finance Minister Vincent Van Peteghem. “It also means the drugs that are entering Europe [undetected] through our ports are also rising. And that, of course, has a huge impact,” he told the Associated Press.

Because with cocaine comes not only addiction, decay and death, but also violence and gang warfare.

In the last three years, Antwerp has suffered dozens of grenade attacks, fires and bombings often linked to gangs trying to control the thriving cocaine trade.

On Monday evening, the city better known for painter Peter Paul Rubens and a famed fashion school saw the fatal shooting of a child, an innocent victim of the drug war.


“A girl of barely 11 that obviously has nothing to do with crime gangs is now the victim of narco terror that is turning ever more ruthless,” said Antwerp Prosecutor Franky De Keyzer.

The situation in Belgium has become so bad that even Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne is living in hiding after evidence emerged that drug gangs might be seeking to kidnap him, or worse.

In the Netherlands, murder and intimidation have become increasingly common as drug lords go to extreme lengths to protect their cut of the multibillion-dollar market. And 50 tons of cocaine were seized at Rotterdam last year, which, combined with Antwerp, made for another record year.

Among high-profile murder victims in the Netherlands in recent years were a lawyer representing a witness in a drug gangsters’ trial and crime reporter Peter R. de Vries, who was a confidant to the same witness.

Unspecified threats to the heir to the Dutch throne, Princess Amalia, forced her to abandon student life in Amsterdam and return home last year. Security reportedly also has been beefed up around Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In both cases, it’s suspected that drug-related crime organizations are a factor.

And in places like Brussels, where the violence might be less spectacular, cocaine and crack are starting to have a chilling effect in areas such as the Marolles, a quaint neighborhood that figured in Tintin’s cartoon adventures.


The chief police inspector for the neighborhood, Kris Verborgh, said South American cocaine “seems to be — or seems to have become — the new normal.”

Verborgh says the cost of the base product in Colombia amounts to about $250 a pound. A kilo of the finished product is worth about $35,000 on the street.

“It is a massive amount of money that you can earn relatively easily,” he said.

Because of that, seizures in the dozens of tons in Antwerp and Rotterdam may still constitute a losing battle in a multibillion-dollar global trade from the South American nations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to the major cities of Europe.

Brussels’ Marolles is hardly ground zero of that trade, and many of the 11,000 people living in its warren of narrow streets are among the poorest in the city of 1.2 million.

Yet, in recent months they have been sought out for cocaine and crack sales. Verborgh said each tiny dose of 0.2 of a gram sells for about $21, within reach of even a panhandler for whom a traditional 0.8-gram dose costing more than $50 is too expensive.

“They’re really targeting homeless people,” said Verborgh. In a cocaine seller’s world, it makes economic sense.


Dealers sometimes sell crack ready to be smoked on the curbside of once-tranquil streets, even in a subway station with families walking by. Gangs start intimidating locals not to squeal, hurl rocks at passing police vans and try to turn streets into no-go zones for police — who, Verborgh says, are not giving in.

Since mid-October, there have been 115 arrests in the neighborhood. The power of the gangs is such, however, that within half an hour a new seller may be on the same corner.

And, increasingly, the young are drawn in to the expanding trade. “Several years ago, we never saw somebody who was 12 or 14 years. Now we see them being more or less part of the gangs,” Verborgh said.

Just last week, police in the Marolles stumbled upon a cache in a seemingly deserted cellar where they found cocaine and other drugs, precision scales, a drone, pepper spray and two swords. One of the two teenagers arrested there was 14.

“Well, it’s a problem because normally a youngster of 12 or 14 years old should be at school,” Verborgh said.

AP writer Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report.