The Flemish Peace Institute is an independent
institute for peace research at the Flemish Parliament.

Study confirms: Antwerp and Rotterdam hotspots in vicious cycle of European drugs and firearms violence


A new study by the Flemish Peace Institute commissioned by EMCDDA (The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) shows the central role of the Rotterdam and Antwerp ports in the problem of drug-related violence. The study links – among other things-  recent firearm violence in Europe to the nature of the cocaine market and the criminals involved in it.   

According to the study, the cocaine market changed fundamentally after the conclusion of the peace agreement in Colombia in 2016. Many new players – some with a clear background in violent environments – have since taken their place in cocaine smuggling to Europe.  As a result, the centre of gravity of smuggling shifted from the Iberian Peninsula to Antwerp and Rotterdam. New, more loosely organised criminal organisations, fierce competition between (often young) offenders and a long supply chain with many intermediate stations are characteristic of cocaine smuggling today. These characteristics create many opportunities for conflict and are part of the explanation for the current wave of violence near major European ports, especially now that firearms are increasingly readily available to criminals: 

Astrid De Schutter, researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute: “Due to an enormous influx of firearms even young or petty criminals nowadays have relatively easy access to converted or reactivated firearms, even outright weapons of war, for example from the Western Balkans. It leads to a deadly, vicious circle in which many drug criminals – from high to low – start arming themselves better, for their safety or to protect or expand their ‘market’.” 

Partly because of this easy availability of firearms, firearm violence is no longer limited to high-level, scarce conflicts. Even at street level, violent incidents involving firearms – often in socially vulnerable neighbourhoods with young dealers seeking status – are no longer an exception in Europe. The phenomenon of “Near repeat” shootings – the scientifically based finding that one shooting dramatically increases the likelihood of the next – makes the situation in certain neighbourhoods even more dire. 

“Drug-related shootings do not only affect those directly affected such as port personnel. They also undermine trust in the rule of law.  In affected neighbourhoods, shootings cause long-term trauma and social and medical costs. If we want to move towards an effective approach to drugs, attention to the role of firearms is essential. The European Union has had this as a real policy priority for years, but unfortunately some member states, such as Belgium for example, haven’t. This urgently needs to change,” said Nils Duquet, director of the Flemish Peace Institute.