The murder of an accused drug kingpin’s niece in Antwerp on Monday night came just hours before a joint Belgian-Dutch announcement that 2022 was, once again, a record-setting year for cocaine seizures in the port of Antwerp.
The 11-year-old girl died after unknown gunmen fired into a garage in the quiet neighborhood of Nieuwdreef on Monday night, according to police and local media reports. She was the niece of Othman el Ballouti, 36, Dubai-based man Belgium accuses of trafficking large amounts of cocaine through the port of Antwerp. The UAE has, so far, rebuffed extradition requests.
The young girl’s death was the latest in more than 50 shootings, bombings and other attacks to strike Antwerp since August as the cartels that control most of this record-breaking cocaine business began campaigns of violence and intimidation against each other in a battle for control of the multi-billion euro industry.
Antwerp, Europe’s largest physical port, seized a record total of 110 metric tons of cocaine in 2022. Making the announcement alongside his Dutch counterparts was Kristian Vanderwaeren, the head of Belgium customs, who last month announced the arrival of a “White Christmas” in Antwerp with a year-ending ten metric ton bust.
"It was my naive idea that this year we wouldn't have a lot of seizures,” Vanderwaeren told Gateway in an interview last summer. “But that's not the reality."
Antwerp’s seizures have risen an average of 36 percent a year since 2013 as Europe’s northern ports became the focus of trafficking cartels over the last decade.
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Dutch officials, on the other hand, reported just over 50 metric tons in cocaine seizures from Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port. This was a slip down from last year’s record of 70 tons. With Dutch cartel kingpin Ridouan Taghi now on trial for multiple murders and drug trafficking in a specially built courthouse in Amsterdam, nicknamed ‘Ze Bunker’, police officials said the power center for the cocaine trade appears to be moving south across the Belgian border into Antwerp.
“The Dutch guys from the ‘Mocro Mafia’ used to be bosses and the Antwerp clans would specialize in getting drugs out of the port,” said a Belgian police official, who does not have permission to be quoted in the press, using the Dutch term for the Moroccan mafia. “There’s been a lot of arrests of Dutch traffickers, so the Antwerp clans have stepped in to replace them.”
After the killing of his niece, Ballouti issued a statement from Dubai denying any role in drug trafficking and saying his family would not respond to the killing with more violence.
“We will respond, but not in the way the mayor of Antwerp thinks,” Ballouti said cryptically.
Ballouti and another trafficker hiding in Dubai, Nordin al Hajjoui, have been indicted in Belgium for moving metric tons of cocaine through Antwerp based on evidence developed from a hack of Sky ECC encrypted phones in 2020 by law enforcement in Belgium, Netherlands and France.
Last year, Belgian officials suggested to Gateway that the hundreds of cases built from the Sky ECC evidence had been partially responsible for 2021’s record cocaine seizures, but that the increase in 2022 numbers makes clear that the northern ports remain the key method of entry for Europe.
“Probably half the cocaine in Europe is currently coming through Antwerp, Rotterdam or nearby ports controlled by the same cartels,” said the official. “There’s a lot of money and power at stake in Antwerp, so there’s more tension in the drug environment.”
Antwerp has seen repeated shootings and explosions - one property linked to an Antwerp-based cartel has been bombed at least a dozen times - usually intended to intimidate more than kill. Monday’s shooting of Ballouti’s niece was a tragic exception.
“These bombings and shootings aren’t designed to kill people but rather intimidate rival gangs,” said the police official. “So this is a tragic consequence, when you lose control of a port to a cocaine cartel, as it feels Antwerp has done, it is logical that you would next lose control of the streets around the port. I fear that’s where we are now.”
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