Death threats against prominent public officials, corruption in politics and big business due to the allure of dirty money, police and customs in the pockets of drug lords.
Two of the largest ports in the world, where organized crime has its fingers in every crevice, are added to the mix, and corrupt officials receive between €50 and €80,000 for providing information to the cartels.
It is not the US-Mexico border or Latin America.
It is the major cities of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium. the busiest cargo ports in Europe, where corruption in law enforcement is becoming more prevalent and is now permeating politics and business.
The head of customs in Belgium, Kristina Vanderwaeren, claims that "they are infiltrating normal economic life. Like in South America, it starts there, then they enter public services and then they influence politicians. If this continues with billions and billions of money, where will we be in five years?"
Europe has stated that it wants to establish the new AML Authority in order to address its significant money laundering issue (AMLA). However, the EU has largely viewed money laundering as an external issue up until this point. The EU and its institutions, on the other hand, are being seen as easy pickings by the US as it increases pressure on the South and Central American drug cartels, posing a clear and present danger to European democracy.
Many wonder how long it will be before the cartel corruption cancer spreads from Antwerp to Brussels, the location of Europe's institutions, which is only 46 kilometers away.
Two of the most stable nations in the European Union are widely regarded to be Belgium and Holland.
Strong economies, large industrial hubs, well-funded police and military forces, and seemingly thriving democracies. Moreover, the majority of the European Union's institutions are located in Brussels, the capital of Belgium.
As you dig a little deeper, you will find bold organized crime and drug cartels that are unafraid of the law. The criminal networks are also so cunning now that they are undermining both countries' democratic and law enforcement systems with their vast wealth.
The number of suspicious transaction reports (SARs), which exploded to 46,000 last year, was reported to have increased by 50% by Belgium's Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), the CTIF.
While across the border in the Netherlands, drug crime has even been referred to as "rotting the pillars of society" by Jan Struijs of the police union, NPB.
The mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, two of Holland's largest cities, wrote to the Dutch government last week to demand tougher action against organized drug crime in order to highlight the severity of the issue. They issued a warning that the problem has taken on mafia-like proportions and is "weakening our democratic legal system."
Derk Wiersum's murder in 2019 and Peter R. de Vries' famous crime journalist murder in 2018 both serve as examples of how untouchable the gangs feel, despite the inevitable law and order crackdowns that follow such high-profile killings.
Following the De Vries shooting, Ferd Grapperhaus, the then-justice minister, issued a warning that "excessive violence" against public officials, attorneys, or journalists was "no longer a taboo".
The letter issues a warning about "a criminal culture of violence that’s acquiring Italian features."
Similar to Rotterdam, Antwerp in Belgium, 100 km to the south, is one of Europe's largest ports and a point of entry for cargo coming from outside the EU. And, like Rotterdam, it has turned into a highway for the importation of cocaine.
According to UN data, organized crime networks that bring drugs into Belgium have a yearly revenue of up to €130 billion.
With a land area of nearly 80 square kilometers and reliable shipping connections to Paraguay, Ecuador, and Panama, Antwerp is regarded as the main entry point for South American cocaine into Europe.
Earlier this year, Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and leader of the New Flemish Alliance, discussed how a new class of wealthy businesspeople supported by shady money was "subtly" infiltrating Antwerp politics.
In order to lure you into making a deal with them, you may be subtly trapped or tempted, the man claimed. "These criminals seek the company of respectable people. " ," he said.
Sometimes it is simple to identify the problem of widespread money laundering. According to a law enforcement official who spoke to MailOnline, while "pitta and barber shops sit empty," they record enormous profits on paper. At the same time, property values in Antwerp are rising due to money from the drug trade, driving away legitimate customers.
"Antwerp is the first port of call for European trade with America. We are proud of this strong trade relationship, which creates close ties between our city and Latin America. In recent years, however, cocaine traffic has increased exponentially. The consequences of this are very tangible, especially for port cities," according to De Wever.
Even in a Belgium that has been scarred by the atrocities of the 2016 Brussels bombing, he believes that the drug mafia poses a greater threat to security than terrorism.
With billions of euros being laundered through real estate development and fast-food restaurants, drug revenues are now "poisoning traditional sectors, such as real estate and hospitality."
The mayor's admonitions came at a cost. As a result of intelligence indicating that the gangs had placed a contract on his head in an effort to silence him, he had to be placed under 24-hour police protection.
"This is going to penetrate all of society," he predicted. "This is going to permeate politics."
It is so obvious that gangsters are a threat to law enforcement in Belgium's front lines that the country's 3,300 customs officers are instructed to avoid being filmed or photographed in order to protect themselves from intimidation or pressure from these criminals, who frequently prey on law enforcement personnel who are underprivileged, have debts to owe, or have other vulnerabilities.
According to Kristian Vanderwaeren, Director General of the Belgian Customs Service, "they look to the weak, the poorest ones, ones who have problems privately, those who are spending too much money."
Investigations, according to Vanderwaeren, have revealed that corrupt officers received €50,000 to €80,000 for each tip-off, enabling the gangs to act before police surveillance or seizures.
"Sometimes as you are filling up with petrol they ask, ‘do you want to earn a little more money?' If people have money problems, they might say 'yes' and it starts," he said.
The "mob infiltration" can start with a friendly loan from a family member, a tap on the shoulder at the gas station, or an offer of a drink.
The chief police inspector on Antwerp's drug team, as well as a customs officer whose security clearances allowed him to see which shipping containers had been identified as potential cocaine carriers, were both arrested last year.
An employee of a bailiff who had access to national financial databases and was using that information to identify indebted customs, police, or other officials as potential bribe targets was detained by police earlier this year.
Other people detained included employees of the public prosecutor's office, law firms, treasury employees, the Antwerp Port Authority, and city hall.
Three customs officers and senior police were detained in March of last year after a police operation aimed at the Sky ECC encrypted phone messaging app resulted in their arrest. They were passing information about drugs interceptions to mobsters.
And the cartels are not just interested in short-term infiltration. In the ranks of law enforcement, they are also adding sleeper agents. According to Vanderwaeren, the police eliminated a number of potential gang sleepers from a total of 341 recent new recruits.
"They deliberately recruit people and put them in the organisation. We have been hiring for Brexit. Once they are in, they try and get the information," he said. "With too much recruitment, it is too easy for the Mob to enter."
According to De Wever, "the head of the drug mafia is in Amsterdam, the arms and legs are in Antwerp."
Particularly concerning is the Dutch drug cartels' influence in Belgium.
Nearby Dutch border crossings allow for the cutting and packaging of four out of every five kilograms of cocaine that enters Antwerp before being shipped across Europe, including to Britain.
The drug dealers come out at night to transfer drugs from red-flagged containers, which are more likely to be scanned, to low-risk containers. According to Vanderwaeren, this method is widely used and obviously depends on the cooperation of dishonest port workers.
Even so, Vanderwaeren's customs team seized a record 89,450kg of cocaine in 2020, more than double the quantity seized in 2017, with a street value they estimated at €12.8 billion.
."The head of customs is concerned about how the cartel and its ill-gotten gains are contaminating commerce. "They are infiltrating normal economic life," he told The Times, "like in South America, it starts there, then they enter public services and then they influence politicians. If this continues with billions and billions of money, where will we be in five years?"
Femke Halsema, the mayor of Amsterdam, and Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam, have now warned of the "increasing wealth and power" of Holland's drug underworld in a joint letter to the Dutch parliament in The Hague. "We are now seeing violence as calculated displays of power, with the intention of weakening our democratic legal system." the letter claims.
Following the murders of crime reporter Peter R. de Vries and attorney Derk Wiersum in 2019 and 2018, they speak of "a criminal culture of violence that is acquiring Italian features."
The letter describes a nation where homes were shot at and people were attacked, where journalists, lawyers, politicians, and those in public office required police protection, sometimes twenty-four hours a day.
The Netherlands' ranking in the Reporters Without Borders index measuring the safety of journalists dropped from six to 28 last month.
The mayors assert that "The fact is that international drugs trafficking and the money laundering that goes with it are hugely increasing the wealth and power of the drugs underworld, with violent consequences."
"We are now seeing violence as calculated displays of power, with the intention of weakening our democratic legal system."
Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegeriusilan, the minister of justice, and D66 MP Franc Weerwind visited Rome this month to research the security measures put in place by the Italian government in the wake of the 1992 murders of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in Sicily.
The outrages' 30th anniversary has been observed in Italy. The Dutch justice minister emphasized how the mafia killings marked a turning point in Italian society's rejection of the organization.
However, she claimed that the Netherlands had not yet reached that tipping point. The response to the outrage was ineffective, and no similar action was taken.
What is to stop the spread of corruption to the EU institutions and its decision-making at the center of Europe in Brussels, if Holland and Belgium are warning of the sneaky rise of cartel influence and dirty money that is poisoning their institutions?
By fLEXI tEAM