Ports andNarco-Terorrism

By Lina Kolesnikova, Security Expert

Last October the Dutch Crown princess Amalia, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and a Belgian Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne were placed under state security protection after threats from a mafia group. The Mocro mafia threatened to kidnap and even to kill these people during the so-called Marengo trial – the Netherlands’ highest profile mafia trial, which has been going on since March 2021.

Dutch and Belgian authorities took the menaces very seriously as there were already high-profile assassinations, kidnappings, torture and acts of urban violence in both countries. Investigative journalists, lawyers, witnesses, relatives of witnesses and passers-by were among victims of narco cartels. This violence even pushed the mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to warn on “culture of crime and violence that is gradually acquiring Italian traits”. The buzzwords narco state or “narco state 2.0” filled the headlines in Dutch, Belgian and international mass media.

The definition of narco-state says that it is “a nation, where all legitimate institutions become penetrated by the power and wealth of traffickers” (IMF, 2003). The current situation in both countries are not at this stage yet but there are visible traits of narco-terrorism, when “attempts of narcotics traffickers to influence the policies of government by the systematic threat or use of violence” (Canadian Security Intelligence Service Commentary, 1991) are present in the picture. There are not only threats to Royal family and politicians, influential news channels, but assassinations and proven infiltrations into management of ports, customs and police by corrupting their officers and personnel.

Overall, some elements of narco-state are obvious, as well as the emergence of the parallel economy. “The Netherlands fulfils many characteristics of a narco-state. Detectives see the parallel economy emerge…Criminals develop into wealthy entrepreneurs who establish themselves in the hospitality industry, housing market, middle class and travel agencies” (Dutch Police Union). Approximately €15bn to €30bn a year are laundered into property, cannabis “coffee shops”, tourism and bars. So, the underworld is now increasingly turning to the “upper world”. “It’s a battle for power and billions. It’s about killing, to avoid being killed” says the well-known Dutch lawyer Vito Shukrula.

When we are talking about similarities between internal operating structure of modern terrorist organizations and narco cartels, we might mention the use of widespread small cells, comprised of few individuals, that run day-to-day operations. The cell-structure represents a shared concern by both types of entities about prioritizing security, since the use of a cell structure significantly limits information available to law enforcement in the case of arrests or infiltration into a cell, thus ensuring the survival of a whole organization. The cell structure also helps to leaders to avoid arrests or being directly connected to the actions.

The narco business in both countries is directly related to two biggest ports in the world – Rotterdam (The Netherlands) and Antwerp (Belgium). The level of infiltration and operations of cartels at these ports appears, nowadays, beyond capacity of authorities to control them.

Ports are part of national and international critical infrastructure. Some of them are enormous entities and, as they have restricted access, present parts of cities which are fertile ground for their “own” hidden activities.

We talk a lot about the risk of criminal activities to CIs, typically, assuming threats come from outside of CIs. But we have to constate that some ports ARE the places of crime with a high level of infiltration by organized crime groups. Even more – ports have become one of the most valuable parts of complicated criminal schemes with billions at stake. European biggest ports – Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and La Havre have become the Eldorado for drugs traffickers and contrabandists and, consequently, contributed to the skyrocketing increase of drugs consumption, drugs-related crimes and urban violence in Europe.

Maritime ports in the EU handle some 90 million containers each year, and authorities are only able to inspect 2% -10% of them. This leaves a door wide open for traffickers. It was estimated that in the last few years, at least 200 tons of cocaine have been trafficked trough the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam alone.

Port of Rotterdam is 42 km long and receives 8,5 million containers every year. There are around 100 container ships (each ship can accommodate thousands of containers) arriving to the port every day, and such high volume makes the security check a pretty difficult business. Control procedures, without looking how effective they are, manage to cover only fraction of the volume, with about 1-2% of containers.

The volume of cocaine is colossal in the recent years as only around 40 tons was seized via checks in 2022. Only on 13th of July this year Dutch customs officers could seize more than 8 tons of cocaine, which cost 600 million euro. The drugs were placed in container from Ecuador (via Panama) and contained bananas. The cocaine was sorted in 8 064 packets (1kg each).

Most of the cocaine is distributed in the Netherlands where most of the gangs are based. Different types of harbor workers are involved in this crime activities on a daily basis. A crane driver, for example, can earn hundred thousand euros if he moves a container in the “right” direction. A regular dock worker can pocket 20 000 euro for just looking the other way, when it is necessary, and so on.

As a way of recruitment, mafia uses methods of subtle threats, when people are threated not directly but via hints and pressure combining details of private lives, and generous payments for the services. The punishment of rivalries and/or people who voice the mafia activities or oppose them are streamed in social media for further intimidation and threatening. Going online is a distinct trait of Mocro mafia.

Not surprisingly, Rotterdam is called “a bastion of organized crime”.

Dutch police carried out 268 arrests in 2020. Investigators managed to infiltrate the mafia communication channels. For a long time, criminals communicated using the encryption software PGP until the authorities managed to hack the channel and track mafia activities in real time including murder plans, addresses of safe houses, names. Another encryption software used by the mafia was EncroChat.

Antwerp is the Europe’s largest physical port and second busiest in terms of cargo after Rotterdam. The port is more than 130 km square and bigger than city of Paris.

The Port of Antwerp has been in the spotlight since 2018 as a prominent entry point for illicit drugs shipped to Europe from Latin America. The data reported to the EMCDDA from the Belgian authorities indicated that cocaine seizures in Antwerp had risen from 91 tons in 2021 to close to 110 tons in 2022, making Antwerp the leading port for cocaine seizures in Europe.

This year more than 100 ton of cocaine have already been caught by police. Most of the cocaine shipped to Antwerp comes from Colombia, via the port of Guayaquil in Ecuador.

Meanwhile, the port has seen a massive rise in cocaine trafficking since 2012 as Moroccan cartels began to dominate the trade in northern Europe. The bloody rivalry between cartels started the same year. Stolen load of cocaine in the harbor of Antwerp led to and resulted in a violence between cartels.

As a side effect of the criminal operations in ports and the rivalry it entails, violence often spills out of major transportation hubs onto the streets of Antwerp and other Belgian cities, where competition for distribution takes place. This has already resulted in the death of innocent bystanders, including children. There were proved cases of kidnappings (including children), more than 50 buildings’ bombings, gun attacks and death threats to journalists and police officers.

Antwerp as a city of world diamond and gold trade offers suitable opportunities for money laundering to drugs traffickers. The perfect geographical location of Belgium, and the role of Antwerp as an international gate to Europe, facilitates transporting drugs to other European countries as well.

Belgium represents a special case, as the country always struggles with its deep division between rival French- and Dutch-speaking factions, weak federal government institutions and low political will to solve the drugs-related violence, in particular, seeing Antwerp problem as internal problem of one city, to some extend of Flanders, and not as a problem at national level.

Things might start moving a bit, though. In February 2023, Belgium appointed Ine Van Wymersch as the country’s first drug commissioner. The government’s measures include a bolstered police presence in ports and a ramp-up of scanning infrastructure to allow customs to screen all suspicious containers passing through Belgian ports. The initiative also includes permitting local authorities to decide on closing businesses identified as involved into laundering drug money.
Another initiative – to screen all port workers’ criminal records as well as their financial status – shows that the situation is already very gloomy. The number of people in question is about 16 000 as the screening should cover workers in all of Belgium’s ports, including inland ports, and staff, including dockworkers, but also IT workers.

Infiltration into the messengers’ network used by mafia in 2021, allowed to arrest 1230 persons in 2022. Among arrested were people working for ports, customs, port managers and police officers.

Trials on drugs mafia are extremely expensive due to required security and other special measures. Not every city might afford such expenses. Only one city of Liege had to spend 700 000 euro investing into protection of the hall of trial – bulletproof glasses, police protection etc.

Europol Report
As an acknowledgement of a high-profile problem, on 30th of March this year, Europol published a Report “Criminal Networks in EU ports. Risks and Challenges for Law enforcement” in partnership with the ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg/Bremerhaven.

The Report claims that European ports become “vulnerable to infiltration by criminal networks”.

In 2018, law enforcement authorities of the port of Rotterdam detected a new modus operandi used by criminal networks involved in trafficking of illicit goods: the misappropriation of container reference codes. Criminal networks arrange the infiltration of ports by coordinating local networks of corrupted port insiders. Europe’s three biggest ports, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg, are among the most targeted by criminal infiltration. Criminals infiltrate the companies involved in the logistics processes and procure reference codes of the containers where their drugs are concealed, preferably without the knowledge of the lawful owner. The codes are given to the driver of a transport company working for the criminal network, who retrieves containers from the port terminal while pretending to be the legitimate client. Outside the port, the drugs are extracted from the container. Often containers are then left along the roadside, or they simply disappear.

The Report states that one of the most effective measures to close loopholes/gaps in the logistics process is the principle of access to data and data systems on a need-to-know basis.

The report recommends that further enhancement to the international information exchange on the criminal networks’ activities in ports between Europol and EU Member States. Continuous attention must be paid to the integration of security features in the design of port infrastructure, and public partnerships should be implemented to tackle the infiltration of criminal networks in EU ports.

Framing the approach
Let us take the situation as a crisis and apply typical crisis considerations. The Crisis Management Framework would suggest, for example, the following activities:

  • Identify
  • Protect (including Prevent and Deter)
  • Detect
  • Respond, among others.

Activity “Identify” looks at assets requiring protection – work force in docks and other personnel, information and systems, control points and related equipment, decision-making processes and etc. Here, the important role belongs to devaluation of such assets, for example, personnel can be rotated more unpredictably, algorithms in information systems become less public and based on ever-changing criteria involving good degree of randomization.

Activity “Protect” might include a wide range of economical, physical, and other measures.

“Prevent” and “Deter” aim at avoiding an incident, for example, of trafficking a container containing drugs into a port. “Deter” is easier to understand, as it is about creating a possibility of defence systems inflicting unacceptable economical and other losses to a single delivery, as well as to continuous delivery route operation. Basically, “Deter” makes the balance of benefit and cost (to traffickers) shifting towards perception of decreasing benefits and increasing costs and risks (of experiencing unacceptably high losses, or a risk of being caught and punished). Given high profitability of drugs and trafficking, this is not easy to achieve a level of “unacceptable” losses; this should be accounted for.

Activity “Prevent” looks at making efforts to prevent a container even entering the port by, for example, requiring positive authorisation and authentication of content prior to the port. Ships with containers that do not pass through such control, may go to a separate area for “special treatment”.

Such activity may involve significant efforts to establish cooperative assurance of correct accompanying information: origins of a container and its content, possibly involving container footage exchange, route and container tracking and surveillance, etc. Though difficult and costly this might be, there are industries which found a way to progress such joint initiatives (for example, airlines communicate basic passengers’ data to the destination country beforehand). The key here is to setup collection, exchange and processing of related data in a way that would be acceptable for various parties involved and would be economically viable.

Activity “Detection” is about selecting containers for inspection. This will involve detection systems and controls, including triage/suspected containers’ selection, and shall be funded and improved to have adequate capacity AND adequate quality of control, not being susceptible to manipulations at scale.

One might expect that when a container is being physically inspected, with modern technics and equipment, the chance of correct identification of presence of drugs can be very reasonable, with limited false negatives and false positives. However, given the small share of containers that can be checked, one of the core games is about triage and sampling – i.e., making decisions on which containers to inspect. The customs may apply various rules- and other criteria-based decisioning (e.g., country from where the container and its content originate), while traffickers will try to manipulate data to play against such criteria. Here, secrecy on full detail of criteria, and unpredictability in sampling, might become one of the better approaches by the customs.

Drawing experience from some other industries, one can even expect that when the customs start gaining over, containers (overtaken and mis-used by traffickers) can even be delivered to the expected destination, thus, making it even harder to detect which containers and parties were involved in trafficking (as the legitime owner will not notice anything “wrong” comparing to its expectations).

Also, very important is strong cryptography-grade randomization in sampling containers for review. Neither of high, mid or low risk groups are excluded from inspections. This would make the whole process less predictable and more difficult for traffickers to account for it in their logistics.

Finally, such sampling should account for possible patterns. Each mass delivery would probably involve a “test” container delivery first, then some further tests varying load, routes, reference codes, etc. Only when a route is proven to be “manageable”, i.e., being a route where losses can be reasonably estimated and calculated, the route will be employed to its potential.

One can expect that traffickers will continue innovating too. That is where unpredictability and randomness of inspections would play a significant role; in particular, when a decision to inspect certain container is taken and communicated at the very last moment prior to the inspection teams taking a control over a container.

Respond – fast moving forces, aiming to eliminate the seized goods and, thus, stop the value chain. For example, as goods are promptly destroyed, there will be less interest in the so-called follow up activities – e.g., trying to recover the seized goods via threats, theft, etc.

Ports like major ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam are gates to Europe. Security in their operations is paramount to the well-being in Europe.
Current situation of insecurity and lack of control needs to be addressed. However, as this is a creeping crisis, it might be difficult to make the very first step – recognise that there is a crisis and to assess at which level the crisis must be dealt with. Political will is a key here.