By Indranie Deolall
In this record year of a raging and deadly viral pandemic, the Belgian authorities were on secret alert, awaiting for weeks, the Guyana scrap metal shipments that came in five separate containers aboard a loaded transoceanic vessel.
But even the most experienced officers ended up astonished by what they finally found behind the rusting mass of wheels, axles and gears that tumbled out, from a suspicious crate, on to the hard paving of the sprawling Antwerp port one cold, grey day, in late October.
Carefully joined in sections, a massive steel box loomed, its six sides welded shut. It fitted so snugly into the 20 foot-long common red shipping container, the only other space remained at the top. Deliberately jammed within that dark gap was an ugly jumble of this country’s metallic detritus thrown together in countless anonymous pieces ripped from shuttered factories, damaged vehicles and broken buildings.
In what is termed a “Trojan-horse” trick usually used by terrorists and named after the famous Greek war-winning subterfuge, the sealed inner crate, of about 1,000 cubic feet or 33 cubic metres in volume, when cut open, revealed crammed columns of hundreds of neatly-wrapped silver packages stacked to the ceiling. Big blue plastic bales swathed in coloured tape brought the total estimated find to a historic 11.5 metric tons/tonnes equivalent to over 25,000 pounds or 11,500 kilograms (kg) of high-quality cocaine.
Ten days later the “absolute top catch” was publicly announced by the Belgian Federal Police, following discreet coordinated investigations. They stated in a tweet that “never before has such an amount of cocaine been found in one sea container.” Valued at a conservative estimate of €450 million or US$530million, but double that when prepared for the streets, the unprecedented bust was then the latest advance by the country’s Customs department in its 2020 seizures of 54,543 kg of cocaine, as against last year’s entire total of 61.8 tonnes or 61,800 kg. A gram of pure cocaine sells in northern Europe for around €100.
Some 90 percent of the world’s cargo is transported in these ubiquitous maritime containers, but on average, due to the sheer volume, a mere two percent is physically inspected by customs officials, making them the ideal smuggling choice. The “Trojan horse” container had been supposedly pre-checked and scanned at Port Georgetown, like the four others sent across the Atlantic Ocean by the local scrap metal dealer and documented shipper, Marlon Primo, 41, formerly of Atlantic Ville, East Coast Demerara, who remains on the run and is still missing, having so far failed to accept the repeated reassurances of official protection.
Primo, a slight, likeable fellow with a big smile enjoyed a bit of flash, so he publicly sported in the style of his well-to-do countrymen, the visible success of his small-time trade, wearing a pair of chunky gold rings and his favourite protective chain in the style of the European plague crosses of medieval times.
Yet, despite knowing the dangers, he is believed to be another willing transport medium through which Guyana’s big-time players operated, secure in the knowledge that only one percent of all shipping containers arriving at Antwerp are currently screened. While some top brass there would like to scan every incoming container, to stem the rising flood of cocaine entering the country, but lack the technological spread and support, their Guyanese counterparts apparently have the embarrassingly opposite perennial problem, with no similar major drug discovery here in any of the numerous checked cargo containers or ships scheduled to depart Port Georgetown. Scanners have inexplicably remained down, and others that worked too well, have mysteriously led to deleted images, no arrests and more questions than all the seasons of “Who wants to be a millionaire?” gameshow.
Just last August, investigators in Hamburg found over €300 million worth of cocaine in a container of fine Berbice rice sent by the leading producer from Guyana, that local authorities later conveniently put down to being compromised while in transit elsewhere, in this case the Dominican Republic.
Antwerp is Europe’s second-largest goods port after the Netherlands’ Rotterdam, but it remains the more favoured cocaine gateway to the continent, thanks to less automatized features and close trade links with South America. No other seaport within the northern continent is found so far inland, and this central location offers fast and cheap connections through waterways, rail and road. It covers about 195 ships daily, and is known for its high rate of container handling, with 40 moves per crane per hour. Port stats indicate Antwerp dealt with 8.7 million tonnes of metal products alone last year, as Europe’s leading breakbulk port, ranking ahead for steel and fruit, and as the world’s largest for the storage of coffee.
Containers dream option
In many ways, containers are a dream smuggling option, enabling traffickers to quickly and easily transport huge amounts of drugs. Compromised law enforcement and other figures also help make fast-paced and high-pressure ports like Antwerp irresistible to traffickers with illicit drugs slipped into all types of cargoes. While risks are high, colluding employees can earn €75,000 to €125,000 (US$85,000 to US$142,000) per drug shipment they help move, the Dutch morning newspaper De Volkskrant said.
However, the Guyanese attempt to disguise the “Trojan-horse” consignment failed this time, not because of any tip-offs from the South American end, notorious as well for widespread corruption and the glaring absence of accountability by the high and mighty including compromised officers and wealthy drug lords. Late last year, the Belgians launched an investigation into the criminal network behind the “Trojan horse” shipments following the seizure of 2,800 kg of cocaine in a South American container bound for the Maasmechelen village home, in the Limburg province, of a prominent crime family group, the Aquinos with links to the neighbouring Netherlands.
This October, the Federal Prosecutor’s office announced at a press conference the disbanding of the international, well-structured criminal network that was able to ship regular large consignments of cocaine from South America with the assistance of dishonest Belgian lawmen. There appeared to be high-class involvement including by a disgraced former head of counter-narcotics, media reports said. A total of 3.5 tonnes of cocaine and €2million (US$2.3M) about €1.3 million of it in cash, were confiscated. Authorities also seized weapons, about 40 vehicles and stocks worth €62,000, in 54 raids in Belgium, and over a dozen searches in the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Prosecutors disclosed 29 people were arrested, charged with importing drugs, money laundering and participating in a criminal organisation. Backed by the European Union (EU) agency for criminal justice cooperation, Eurojust, the investigation established that the network managed to import at least 10 shipments of 650kg of cocaine each, with an estimated street value of around €325 million.
During the probe, investigators learnt about the container ship already en route from Guyana to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Upon arrival, the five containers addressed to Lotraco Recycling BV, in the Netherlands were transferred and transported by barge to Antwerp for examination.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor, Frédéric van Leeuw, stressed how much drug trafficking was penetrating modern society, declaring, “It’s very worrying to see how criminals can get involved in the highest spheres and try to make the legal world dirty with crime money.”
“The quantity we seized can seem gigantic, but it’s infinitely small compared to what really goes through,” Van Leeuw pointed out, noting “It’s not only cocaine that is imported.” He warned, “criminal organisations also lodge themselves in our countr(ies), bringing along their violent and ruthless methods. We have seen what this led to in South American (states).” Given Guyana’s recent bloody and violent criminal past, when suspected and known drug honchos were openly gunned down by disappearing rivals who were never caught, we have to wonder where they and all of our lessons went, and why the powerful establishment is only looking for poor Marlon.
ID likens drug trafficking to the bubonic plague when a red or black cross was placed on the doors and walls of homes with the infected, often with the words “Lord have mercy upon us.”