Belgium and the Netherlands have overtaken Spain as Europe’s main entry points for cocaine coming from Latin America. The 65.6 tonnes of the drug intercepted at Antwerp port in 2020 nearly doubled in 2022. And Morocco is a crucial link in the chain.
When the Netherlands opened its cannabis market in the 1970s, Dutch and Belgian nationals of Moroccan descent drew on their family ties to cannabis growers in the northern mountains of Morocco’s Rif region. What started as hashish trafficking slowly extended to cocaine, a more lucrative drug. The powerful Mocro Maffia drug cartel emerged from this trade in the 1990s. Working mainly from Belgium and the Netherlands, it controls a third of Europe’s cocaine market.
Latin American drug traffickers have increasingly used Morocco and other Maghreb countries, and dealers with a foothold in Morocco and Europe, like the Mocro Maffia, for their transnational cocaine trade. Colombian and Mexican cartels used the group to facilitate the drug route into Europe via Spain’s southern city of Algeciras.
But since Spanish and Italian authorities tightened their border control and search operations, that route has become risky says criminologist and co-founder of Crim’HALT, Fabrice Rizzoli. Preferred entry points now are ports in Belgium and the Netherlands, where massive volumes of container traffic make it difficult for authorities to address the problem. In its 2021 report, Rotterdam’s port authority said it was ‘working with various agencies in the port to maintain security and combat drugs-related crime.’
Corruption is the key enabler of cocaine trafficking from Latin America to Rotterdam and Antwerp via Africa. For Latin American drug cartels, the Mocro Maffia’s ability to corrupt government officials makes it a strategic ally.
Audio exchanges intercepted through the Sky ECC app reveal how Mocro Maffia members boasted about bribing customs officers in the Port of Dakar, which is used as a transit point. Likewise, dockers in Antwerp and Rotterdam are paid up to €100 000 to relocate containers to avoid police and customs control.
Rizzoli says Belgium and the Netherlands are also both money laundering centres. Antwerp, the world diamond processing capital, is a destination for cleaning drug proceeds (sometimes paid in diamonds). Belgium’s real estate sector is a primary money laundering route.
The Netherlands is an ideal place for drug traffickers seeking to reinvest their money. A reported €16 billion is laundered annually due to the country’s large, internationally oriented highly digitised financial sector and open, trade-oriented economy. The creation of shell companies is a crucial conduit for money laundering in the Netherlands.
The Mocro Maffia uses violence to expand its reach into the cocaine market. In the past decade, over 100 people have died in violence between the Mocro Maffia and Belgian drug traffickers. The group is also suspected of involvement in the murder of a Moroccan judge’s son.
Derk Wiersum, an Amsterdam lawyer specialising in organised crime and drug trafficking networks, and Peter R de Vries, a journalist reporting on drug trafficking, were assassinated in 2019 and 2021, allegedly by the Mocro Maffia. And recently, a Belgian girl of Moroccan origin was killed when her parents’ home was shot at – allegedly by the group.
In September 2021, an alert was raised by Dutch security services, who believed that Prime Minister Mark Rutte was under threat from the Mocro Maffia. Likewise, Dutch Crown Princess Catharina-Amalia is protected by heavy security following kidnapping threats linked to the group. The Mocro Maffia thrives in the Netherlands partly because disorganised public authorities are faced with organised criminality, says Hans Werdmölder, author of Nederland Narcostaat.
The government and law enforcement must raise their game to counter the threat. Adequate modern surveillance equipment such as drones, mobile scanners and robots are lacking in the Netherlands, Belgium and Morocco (and North Africa). Installing or modernising such equipment – and training law enforcement to use it – could enable better detection at drug transit hubs in Morocco and the Rotterdam and Antwerp ports.
Graft must also be addressed. Rizzoli suggests a different approach, saying authorities should change their mindset about drugs. Rather than focusing on stopping the trade, he says, the associated violence must be curbed. In Italy for example, drastic legislation and judicial measures in the 1980s have ended almost all violence related to drug trafficking.
Italian authorities punish drug traffickers financially, targeting their assets. Rizzoli says around US$6 billion in assets are confiscated from drug traffickers yearly in Italy, of which 60% is eventually permanently seized. These resources are redistributed to non-governmental organisations, showing citizens the concrete results of government action against drug dealers and the mafia.
In a short time, the Mocro Maffia has become a major trafficking group in Europe. Its links with organised criminal groups in Morocco and Latin America make it a persistent and growing threat to Europe, North African states and their populations.
Operations such as that which led to the arrest of 49 members of organised crime groups in November 2022 and asset-linked approaches by the European Union and North African authorities must be stepped up. Without this, the Mocro Maffia will have an open road to increasing its trafficking web between the two continents.
ENACT project, Institute for Security Studies (ISS)
This article was first published by ENACT.
Image: © ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP
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