The Port of Antwerp is a honey jar for organized crime

No less than eight million containers pass through the Port of Antwerp every year. Also for organized crime, the port is an indispensable link in its logistic chain.

“Organized crime exists in Belgium, mainly in Antwerp and Brussels. Antwerp’s large port and Brussels’ main airport make them attractive targets for organized crime”, the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security writes in its Belgium 2011 Crime and Safety Report.

“Due to its central location and to the good connections between the port and its surrounding land, Antwerp is indeed a honey jar for criminals”, says Frans Van Rompuy, director-general of the (Belgian) Federal Governmental Department for Mobility. “Just as is the case for the regular economy, mobility is an important asset for them.”

Another factor which makes the Port of Antwerp attractive to Mafiosi is its openness. “As an example, it is one’s right to make photographs from the roads”, says Rik Verhaegen, security manager of the Port of Antwerp. Furthermore, “Each day 140,000 people enter and leave the port. With a surface of 130 km², this equals a large city.” On the port territory, there are living areas, nature reserves and even a cinema complex. Van Rompuy: “Unless you would build a wall around the Port of Antwerp, with one entry and one exit gate only, there is no way to check everything. But of course, this is not feasible.”

‘criminals are looking for continuity’

On top of that, the vast quantity of trafficked goods makes effective control more difficult. After Rotterdam, Antwerp is Europe’s largest port. In 2010, exactly 8.468.476 containers passed through the Port of Antwerp. Searching them one by one is just impossible. Customs aim to screen 2% of all declared goods, using scanners and other devices, but even that goal proved to be too ambitious. As a result, nobody knows how large the share of illegal trafficking is. Frans Van Rompuy: “I assume that between 100 and 1,000 containers annually are containing illegal trafficked goods. This is of course an estimation, reliable figures are not available.” Whereas Rotterdam is renowned for its Far East connections, Antwerp is a typical trans-Atlantic port. Out of 8,5 million containers, 948.597 came from North or Central America and 281.241 from South-America.

Certain shipping companies organize regular shipping connections to and from South America. “This continuity is just what a criminal organization is looking for”, says Stanny De Vlieger, head of the judicial police in Antwerp. “Each week, six to seven banana ships arrive in the port’s terminal. Turning all of them inside out is not possible.”

Van Rompuy nevertheless points out that it’s not all doom and gloom. “Each second year, the American Coast Guard visits the Port of Antwerp and at each of those occasions, Belgium is being complimented for its security measures.” Also Marc Beerlandt would like to readjust the image of the Port of Antwerp as the beating heart of criminal activities. As the CEO of MSC, the port’s largest shipping company, accounting for over half of all trade in Antwerp, Beerlandt knows what he is talking about. Beerlandt: ‘No port has a 100% solid security system. Antwerp’s one is very solid, succeeding in successfully combining security and control measures. And yes, the system is more flexible than the one applied in for instance Rotterdam. But this is very beneficial to trade. Antwerp is very well organized. Period.”

Opportunity makes the thief

True as this may be, MSC only recently took the initiative to contact the Antwerp police, following three security incidents in a short period of time. Beerlandt: “Two times thieves were caught in the act on our quay. In the third incident, one of our employees turned out to be bribed. He received a huge sum of money just to bring a backpack onshore to a fence, a distance of nearly 500 meters. I’d rather not specify the amount he received, I don’t want to give people bad ideas. It was a pity, we were very happy with that particular employee. But opportunity makes the thief.”

Getting hold of the illegal goods once they arrive in the Port of Antwerp without anyone noticing it, that is the main challenge for crime organizations. Francis Adyns, spokesman of the (Belgian) Federal Governmental Department for Finances (responsible for customs) says: ‘A classical rip off only lasts a few minutes. Cocaine is usually packed in sport bags. You cut the fence and enter a terminal where thousands of containers are stored, looking for the one which contains drugs. It’s crucial to know where it’s located. We presume that some dockworkers earn an extra income once in a while.”

The latter appears to be only a modest problem. Out of 8200 recognized dockworkers, only 5 people lost their permit since January 2010 due to a conviction related to theft or drug offences. But indeed crime organizations need assistance from the inside and next to dockworkers, other port employees are being targeted. “We noted that criminals try to get information by calling freight handlers and asking them about the paperwork”, says Stanny De Vlieger. “Also Google is used to localize containers.” According to De Vlieger, rip offs are often violent. “Our observation teams are sometimes being ran down by their cars. Some criminals do not hesitate to use violence against us.”

The Antwerp juridical police investigated to which extent it would be theoretically possible for a criminal organization to bribe an entire transport line, from sender to recipient. De Vlieger: “We looked what it would take them to own and control the legal shipping lines, as the American Mafia did in the Thirties. Luckily, we concluded that this is nowadays not the case.”

from open quays to closed terminals

Sinds late 2010, three dog teams are inspecting the MSC terminal in the Port of Antwerp. “Each week 40 ships arrive here”, says Beerlandt. “Ever since the random inspections started, no incidents have occurred. Th inspections appear to be dissuasive.” MSC also organizes additional security checks in supply countries, like Brazil. “Given our large share in South American trafficking, we are indirectly confronted with drugs smuggling. We don’t want to be labeled as a facilitator of organized crime.”


Since 2004, private companies operating in the Port of Antwerp have increased their security measures. “2004 was the year when the ISPS code was introduced, a code used to identify and secure ships and port facilities”, says John Kerkhof of ABAS, the professional association of stevedores. “ISPS was introduced in the aftermath of 9/11 and is linked to the war against terrorism. As a side effect, the number of thefts dropped significantly in the past years. Before 2004, one could easily access ships and terminals. Today, this is unthinkable. Open quays turned into closed terminals.”


The 86 companies subjected to ISPS regulations in Antwerp use private security companies to guard their infrastructure. However, a recent survey revealed that 20% of the 120 private security guards has insufficient knowledge of the ISPS system. Security manager Verhaegen says: “We had expected a more qualitative service from them in this area. That is why we will organize additional trainings, informing them for instance which are the regular players operating in the port and what are their responsibilities. Only when this is clear, one can identify intruders and inconsistencies.”

Customs to recruit informants

But the port’s safety is of course primarily a police and customs responsibility. “Our first line services check the legal goods based on a risk analysis”, says Adyns. “Custom guards scan containers and search ships even before they moor, using rummage teams. In addition, there is the investigation team, which operates on the basis of detailed information.” In particular intelligence from the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and from other foreign police departments proves to be very important in combatting illegal port trafficking.

The customs investigation team counts 45 employees, eight of them working on drug issues. As a comparison and to put things into perspective: in the port of Hamburg, over 100 custom guards work on drugs and narcotics.

A novelty in Antwerp is the informants network which customs intends to run. Adyns says: “Today we receive information and tips, but not from the criminal environment. If we came across of a criminal willing to provide us with information, we had to refer him to the police. In the future, we intend to organize this ourselves. One custom officer has already been trained as an informant runner and several others will soon take the course.” Legally, this is possible, as certain officials of the customs investigation team also have the rank of officer of the juridical police.

The port of Dendermond

Customs services are closely cooperating with the waterway police (carrying out the initial findings) and with the juridical police (starting investigations when required). Remarkably, two different services of the juridical police are operating in the port: the Antwerp juridical police for any crime investigation on the right bank, and the Dendermond juridical police for anything on the left bank (where the port’s territory has notably increased over the last twenty years).

The Antwerp port’s territory is spread over two juridical districts, which is far from ideal from a crime fighting point of view. Stanny De Vlieger: “Imagine a police officer working on the basis of information coming from abroad, and eventually a ship arrives at the other bank than the expected one. In that case, we would have to transfer the whole file to Dendermond. This kind of administrative burden delays the investigations. In 2007, the College of Prosecutors-General decided each should stay on his own territory. I hope that one day better arrangements will be made.”



■ In 2010 Belgian customs intercepted 5.5 ton of cocaine in the Port of Antwerp. Street value: 192 million (wholesale) to 275 million euro (retail). The stuff, shipped from Peru, Panama, Colombia and Equator, was found in 53 different containers, hidden in between shipments of fake bananas, hollow pineapples, broccoli and coffee. The latter became a new trend: increasingly, cocaine is being transported together with fruit shipments, as this makes it harder to detect for customs scanner devices. According to the UN, Belgium, together with the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, serves as the main access gate for cocaine to Europe.

■ Belgian customs intercepted 2.6 ton marihuana, 2,5 ton hash, 260 kilo of heroine and 6.5 ton of ‘precursors’ – chemical ingredients to produce drugs in the port of Antwerp in 2010.

■ The juridicial police in Antwerp opened 126 investigations into cocaine trafficking in the course of 2009-2010. 238 suspects have been arrested. According to the police, Dutch organizations prevail in the statistics.

counterfeit items

■ In 2010, customs service confiscated 1.8 million counterfeit articles in the Port of Antwerp, ranging from food and drinks (208) over fashion clothes (89.481) to cd’s, dvd’s and tapes (1.3 million).

■ Cigarette smuggling decreased. In 2008, 254 million cigarettes were confiscated, in 2010 “only” 115 million. Latest trends suggest that traditional brands are less being conterfeited and that increasingly cheap white cigarettes are being smuggled and branded with names as Jin Ling or Palace. Not only there’s the problem of import taxes evasion, but cigarette smuggling poses a serious problem to public health. Half of the ‘cheap whites’ contain amounts of up to twenty times the normal quantities of nicotine and tar.

■ 14.260 pieces of counterfeited medicines have been confiscated. A source at the Belgian customs: “Last year we were checking a shipment with medicine, destined to Benin. Although the medicines should have been kept chilled, the container was exposed to the sun for a certain period of time while standing in the port. Eventually, the container took off to Benin, but was intercepted there. It also has happened that a pharmaceutical company, after having been informed by us on the fact that their products had been conterfeited, told us not to bother confiscating the goods: “Just let them pass. Africa is not really a relevant destination the would endanger our core business”.”


■ Customs registered five violations against the Belgian arms legislation in 2010. These actually turned out to be offenses linked to licensing rather than real trafficking. A customs guard: “Real cases of illegal weapon trafficking have not been recorded in Antwerp for years. But then again, organized crime organizations do not keep statistics of their activities. We can only see what we see.”

■ At the request of American customs, Belgium stopped a shipment of dual use goods in early 2011, goods which can be used for both civil and military purposes. In this particular case, synthetic fibers and pressure gauges were on their way from the US to Iran. A delegation of US Custom guards travelled to Antwerp to assess, together with an expert of the Flemish Region, whether the shipment could continue its journey. Eventually, it was cancelled.

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