Europe's largest port Rotterdam 'drowning in cocaine'

by Team Inc.

Evergreen container ship

The largest container ship in the world is 400 meters long and 61,5 meters wide and sails for shipping company Evergreen. The ship, which was only commissioned this year, can carry just over 24.000 standard containers. The millions of containers unloaded by Rotterdam's gigantic cranes make it the largest port in Europe, but the Dutch city is also dealing with increasing amounts of a less welcome cargo: cocaine.

A record nearly 2021 tonnes of the drug was intercepted in 70, 74% more than a year earlier, said Ger Scheringa, who heads a team of armed customs officers at the port. Rotterdam and Antwerp were the two main entry points used by a Dubai-based "super cartel" supplying a third of Europe's cocaine, which Europol said last month had been rounded up.

A dip in cocaine

De cocaine usually hidden in containers, or sometimes under ships in openings below the waterline where they are then recovered by professional diving teams. Pinpointing the reason for this jump in cocaine seizures is a "delicate question," Scheringa told AFP. “It seems that there are many buyers in Europe. If there is a demand, it will be delivered.” Rotterdam has taken major steps to prevent the white powder from entering Europe, in particular by tightening customs controls.

Needle in a haystack

Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb deplores the fact that the port city is “drowning in cocaine” and condemns the violence associated with the drug trade. Aboutaleb wants port authorities to scan all containers coming from Latin America. However, Customs Officer Scheringa said the "biggest challenge is to strike a good balance between the speed of logistics for the port and checking everything you want." Gangs use sophisticated methods to send the cocaine through Rotterdam and then retrieve it, often relying on inside information, says Romilda Schaaf, a drug specialist for the port police.

Maps on her computer show the staggering scale, with tens of thousands of containers piling up at multiple terminals, meaning investigators need pinpoint detail to find smuggled drugs.
"It's really like looking for a needle in a haystack," she told AFP. Young men, according to public prosecutors, often from the underprivileged south of Rotterdam, sometimes spend several nights in 'container hotels' equipped with food and blankets, close to where a container with cocaine is expected.

They then move the drugs into different containers so there is less chance of them being checked. So far this year, more than 70 people have been arrested for trafficking-related offenses at the port, including gang members and even port staff. On December 6, the Dutch police reported that a 43-year-old female police officer from Rotterdam had been arrested on charges of corruption and involvement in drug trafficking. Gangs pay dock workers and officials up to 100.000 euros to let large parties through, Scheringa said. It is easy to earn money, says police officer Schaaf, “but it leads to nothing. Once you say yes, you can't say no…don't start!”

Risk assessment

Customs officials emphasize that good contacts with 'source countries' are important to halt the cocaine flood, in addition to tackling corrupt port employees and more controls. An important part of the controls is the risk assessment. Containers are, often because of information from abroad, classified as suspicious, then scanned, unpacked and searched with sniffer dogs. Some ships are also inspected by dive teams.

The automation of some parts of the port, and with it the disappearance of the human factor, has also helped to contain corruption, according to two officials. Violence related to the cocaine trade has deeply affected Dutch society. The low point was the murders of lawyer Derk Wiersum in 2019 and crime journalist Peter R. De Vries. Both involved in the trial of an alleged drug lord.

Source: euroactiv.com (EN)

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