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Belgian customs seized record amount of cocaine as EU faces rise in drug-related violence

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Customs seized 116 tons of cocaine in the port of Antwerp in 2023, setting a record for the second year in a row, Belgian authorities said on Wednesday, according to AP News

Demand for cocaine is growing rapidly across the EU, and governments blame the drug trade for outbreaks of violence in major port cities like Antwerp, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Marseille in France.

The port of Antwerp has become the main gateway for Latin American cocaine cartels into the continent.

Another five tons of cocaine were seized last year at the port of Zeebrugge, which is part of the larger Port of Antwerp-Bruges, said Finance Minister Vincent Van Peteghem.

“Thousands of employees, spread all over the country, gave their best in once again extraordinary circumstances last year,” the minister said.

The announcement was made a day after 22 people, including three police officers, were arrested in a major anti-drug bust targeting individuals suspected of smuggling cocaine through Antwerp.

The quantity of cocaine seized in Europe’s second largest seaport rose from 110 tons in 2022, Belgian authorities said, adding that Colombia, Ecuador and Panama remain the top origin countries.

Record amounts of cocaine are being seized in Europe, with 303 tons stopped by EU member countries in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available. According a report from the EU agency monitoring drugs and addiction, 75% of that quantity was seized in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.

In Belgium, federal authorities say drug trafficking is penetrating society rapidly as foreign criminal organizations have built deep roots in the country, bringing along their violent and ruthless operations.

In the past four years, Antwerp has seen dozens of grenade attacks, fires and small bombs, many linked to gangs trying to carve up the thriving cocaine trade. In Belgium, then-Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne spent time living in hiding after evidence emerged drugs gangs might be seeking to kidnap him, or worse.