Authorities have blind spots in fighting drug trafficking in Rotterdam port

Containers in the port of Rotterdam
Containers in the port of RotterdamPhoto: designf21/DepositPhotos

The Dutch investigative authorities like customs and the police do not work well together in combating drug trafficking in the port of Rotterdam, researchers at Erasmus University concluded after an extensive study commissioned by the Rotterdam municipality, police, customs and Public Prosecutor. Information is not always shared and the authorities mainly focus on so-called "retrievers" of the drugs, which means that the organizers of the drug shipments remain out of reach, the researchers said, NOS reports.

Securing the Rotterdam port - one of the largest ports in Europe, roughly the size of 25 thousand football fields - is a very complex operation. Some 180 thousand people work at the port every day, and thousands of containers move through it on a daily basis. According to the researchers, a quarter of the cocaine that enters Europe does so through the port of Rotterdam. In the year 2000, an estimated 40 thousand kilos of cocaine was smuggled in via Rotterdam, and that has only increased since then.

It is an impossible task to stop even a small part of these drugs. Only a very small number of the 7.5 million containers that annually pass through Rotterdam are checked. About 40 thousand containers go through a scan, and only 6,500 are actually opened during a check. The amount of drugs seized at the port in the past years ranged from less than 5 thousand kilograms to nearly 19 thousand kilograms.

Fast handling of the containers is important for the economy, but this is at odds with proper checks. According to the researchers, drug smugglers know and anticipate that. They prefer to hide drugs between shipments of fruit and vegetables, because they are handled quickly because of the risk of spoilage. Moreover, exotic fruit often comes from the same countries as the smuggled drugs. 

In order to retrieve drugs from a container, criminals make use of bribed port staff. For a fee, these bribed employees lend their access cards to criminals or search the digital systems for information about where containers are located. These systems are not well protected. Interviewed port workers told the researchers that too many people have access to the computer systems, making it easy to trace and locate specific containers. In some cases, the corrupted port workers go even further, also telling drug retrievers how to circumvent patrols and checks. 

Companies that come into contact with bribed employees do not always report this. For years, there was a culture of tolerance, the researchers note. "When observing suspicious activities, people often looked the other way." That is slowly changing due to political pressure, the researchers said, but there is still no real openness because this could lead to a loss of image. 

The drug retrievers are sometimes spotted by port workers and surveillance cameras when they go looking for their containers at night, according to NOS. They are seen moving through the countless containers, ships and terminals, Kalashnikov in hand. They gain access to the terrains from the water, which form a blind spot. 

There is also too little cooperation when it comes to information from the countries where cocaine is smuggled from. Countries like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom invested cooperation with, for example, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia in the past years. The Netherlands is behind on this front. Interviewed administrators also said that there is too little awareness about how drug crime undermines society. 

Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb wants the Netherlands to collect more information in countries where drugs are smuggled from. He will be going on a working visit to Colombia, where most of the cocaine smuggled through Rotterdam comes from, later this year. "As government, you can never quite win, but it must be manageable. An approach in Rotterdam alone is not enough. You have a port in Antwerp, Spanish ports. It also requires European cooperation", he said. 

Drug trafficking through the port is also a nightmare for companies that operate there, Bart Jansen, director of entrepreneurs' association Deltalinqs, said to NOS. "If there is a drug action by the police, everything is halted", Jansen said. "Something like that costs the company tens of thousands of euros and we can't claim that damage anywhere." That security at the port must improve is clear, but this should be done in a smart and not too costly way, he said. "Traders go where their cargo can be transported the cheapest. It's a tough world, so entrepreneurs are always faced with the consideration: what do I do to prevent drug transport and what do I not do?"