Belgium says dozens arrested in 6-country drug sting

Brussels (AFP) - Dozens of people were arrested on Tuesday (Feb 15) in a police operation coordinated by Europol in six European countries targeting international drug trafficking, Belgian prosecutors said.

Thirty arrests were made in Belgium, where the investigation began in 2020, and "a small number of arrests abroad", according to a statement from the prosecutor's office. It cited a total of 109 searches in Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

The targeted network is active in cocaine trafficking from South America and the investigation was helped by the hacking of an encrypted phone network used by organised crime groups.

The latest case involves Eastern European traffickers based in the Brussels area as well as "nationals from Southern Europe, belonging to the Limburg mafia" - a reference to the province of Limburg, bordering the Netherlands in the north of Belgium and that is known for drug production.

The investigation in Belgium began at the end of 2020: during a search in the Brussels region, the Belgian police discovered "a large quantity of acetone, several kilos of cannabis as well as counterfeit police clothing", the statement said.

The Belgian authorities then discovered that the network was already under investigation in Spain, which led to the cooperation between the two countries.

The investigation was helped along in 2021 by the hacking of the SKY ECC network which helped identify contacts in several South American countries, the statement said.

In addition to container ships transiting through the ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, Le Havre and Hamburg, transport methods also included road vehicles, transport companies, cargo planes and private jets, the press release said.

The case illustrates the "agility of criminal organisations" which "are no longer exclusively family or clan-based" but operate as "joint ventures... based on the model of classic commercial companies", it said.

Belgium has become the main gateway to Europe for cocaine with almost 90 tonnes seized in 2021 in the port of Antwerp, a new record, according to the authorities.

In early February, one of the country's most senior magistrates, Ignacio de la Serna, sounded the alarm that the police no longer had the resources to deal with the threat.

He said the SKY ECC-linked cases had already led to more than 600 arrests in 41 operations since February 2021.

"The workload is so heavy that we can't keep up," de la Serna told the Belgian daily Le Soir.

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