international analysis and commentary

Italian solutions for drug violence in Belgium?

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The Netherlands and Belgium are struggling with organized crime and major drug trafficking problems. On the ground it means violence in the streets, drug labs in houses, and huge quantities of hidden drugs in seaports. Criminals are not only targeting each other, but also lawyers and journalists, and potentially even lawyers and royals as well. Is crime fighting in Italy an example for the Low Countries?*

One of the main docks of the port of Antwerp-Bruges

 

The Federal Kingdom of Belgium kicks off every New Year with a reception at the Royal Palace in Brussels. All governmental representatives are present in the Throne room, along with editors-in-chief of the most important national media. On January 31, 2023, King Filip and Prime Minister Alexander de Croo both delivered a speech, speaking out against the drug violence currently gripping some Belgian cities.

King Filip said that he is “very concerned about the serious, despicable attacks on our emergency and police services in recent weeks and months” and called for more awareness on the increasingly violent drug crime, which has “serious consequences for our fellow citizens and our whole society.” The King concluded this violence must be remedied, but he also said “we have to tackle the causes of addiction, investing more in prevention to protect the young from the false promises they receive for taking drugs.”

It has been tough in Belgium. Last year saw an increase in drug crime and its effects. Violent and organized drug gangs use the port of Antwerp as their main infrastructure base for trafficking illegal drugs from overseas into Belgium and into the rest of Europe. In order to avoid police investigations and checks, they have expanded their area of operations into Dutch ports, such as Rotterdam. Similarly, Dutch drug trafficking criminals have expanded their spheres of influence into the port of Antwerp. With open borders between both Schengen countries, it is relatively easy to switch locations as circumstances dictate.

Focusing on Antwerp, one can see a game of cat and mouse between the authorities and the drug trafficking gangs. In 2021 and 2022, the Belgian police and border control of the ports were successful in catching illegal drugs in containers from overseas. Last year, the Belgian authorities seized a record of 110 tons of drugs. “Today we scan 40,000 containers, or one tenth of the ‘high-risk containers’. Thanks to an investment of €70 million, customs will receive five additional mobile scanners and can hire 108 new people. We want to use these investments to scan 400,000 containers,” Justice Minister Vincent van Quickenborne said to the Flemish public broadcaster VRT.

Since van Quickenborne came into office in 2019, he has made “breaking the drug mafia” one of his main targets. Being tough on organized crime did not come with consequences: Van Quickenborne was threatened by organized crime, became a target and had to hide for months. In 2022, he and his family lived in a safe house. But the Minister kept going and presented more plans in January 2023. Undeterred, he unveiled the goal of his ministry to intercept 220 to 250 tons of drugs in the port of Antwerp. “That figure corresponds to about 20% of the drug trade. Europol tells us that with that figure we will destroy the mafia’s business.”

In addition to the Belgian government becoming harsher on drug trafficking, the drug gangs have demonstrated a similar hardening. A gang war is being fought on the streets of the Antwerp region, killing criminals but also innocent people. To sum up a few headlines: “Fireworks bomb thrown at house in Borgerhout, just as new residents want to move in” (January 14th); “Explosion in Hoboken building hall, local resident: I have already reported a thousand times that we are not safe here” (January 20th); and “Another attack against office building Brasschaat” (January 29th).

The biggest low point occurred in Merksem, a community in the Antwerp region, where criminals shot at a house three times. An 11-year-old girl named Firdaous was hit and died. Belgium was in shock, partly because the victim turned out to be a cousin of one of the country’s top drug criminals, Othman El Balouti – a 32-year-old former drug runner who climbed the hierarchy and is now a drug millionaire, living in Dubai – a place where approximately 500 to 600 top criminals live. His brother, Younes El Balouti, has also been mentioned by Belgian media as a high-profile drug criminal. The attack on their sister’s house in Merksem was part of the ongoing drug war.

In order to stop the violence, Antwerp’s Mayor Bart de Wever asked all the countries’ authorities for help. “There is a direct line between the withdrawal of coke and the death of the girl in Merksem. Now scrape together all possible officers to guard the port of Antwerp; 99% of all cocaine lands there. Do something,” De Wever stated after the killing of Firdaous. The Mayor asked for assistance from police from all over the country, but that was not possible due to lack of capacity.

Belgium seems to be stuck. Drug criminals are making easy money despite efforts to stop them. A senior police officer called on the EU to hunt down the drug money of criminal organizations. That also means putting an end to drug money laundering in Dubai, Malta and Switzerland, among others. Though this is a good idea, Belgium is not prepared for this. There are just too few financial investigators to monitor and tackle these complicated money flows.

In Italy, for example, the situation is different. There the amount of financial investigation is enormous. During the 1980s and 1990s, blood and violence in the streets of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and other Italian regions was quite common. Thanks to Sicilian crime fighters Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino – both killed in 1992 – the Italian government developed the toughest policies on organized crime in Europe. As soon as the judiciary prosecutes someone for a mafia crime, the procedure is different from a “normal” crime. Mafia crimes are tried according to the separate Anti-mafia Law 416 bis. A conviction can lead to solitary confinement, to prevent the bosses from continuing their business from prison.

Mayor De Wever of Antwerp has called for more police forces to fight the violence in the streets and port of his city. One could compare it with the Italian military, which went into Sicily during the 1990s, reconquering land from the mafia. The situation in Belgium is different, however. The mafia is not infiltrated into the governmental structures, for instance, and there are no pieces of land owned by drug gangs. Still, starting a fight could control the violence and have effects in the short term. In the long term, other measures such as breaking the business model of organized criminal networks by legalizing hash, cannabis and cocaine, could work best.

In his New Year’s speech in Brussels, Prime Minister De Croo did not mention De Wever or Italian solutions. Instead he said: “the fight against international drug criminals cannot be won without cooperation, in our own country, between the local and federal police. Between the public and private sector, at all levels: local, regional and federal. But also cooperation across national borders, between port companies and shipping companies, with neighboring countries that face the same challenges and with source countries from which the drugs are shipped.”

Last week De Croo installed former magistrate Ine Van Wymersch as ‘National Drugs Commissioner’, an new position in government. The drug crime fighter will have to make sure that all ships sail into the same direction and that Belgium will find a solution for its drug crime problems.

 

 

* The second part of this story will focus on the Netherlands