South American drug kingpins attempted to flood Europe with cocaine last month in hopes of getting ahead of the coronavirus shutdown that has closed one of the trade's biggest markets, a top Belgian official said on Wednesday.
The theory is from Belgium's top customs official, Kristian Vanderwaeren, after a series of extraordinary seizures in a country considered Europe's main import hub of cocaine through the sprawling port of Antwerp.
"In recent days there has been a substantial increase in seizures," Vanderwaeren, Belgium's customs administrator general, told AFP.
Whether by air or ocean, cocaine moved in massive quantities between South America and Belgium, as narco-dealers seized a window of opportunity before the slowdown in travel and trade in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The mafia in South America organized itself and placed as much product as possible in containers, knowing that shipping traffic to Europe will decrease in the coming months," said Vanderwaeren.
At the port of Antwerp, a total of more than 1.6 tons of cocaine was intercepted in just three seizures.
"Three times the jackpot," said Vanderwaeren as seizures of 300 and 700 kg of cocaine are rare so many months from the summer and New Year peaks of consumption in Europe.
In another surprise, a stash of nearly 350 kg of the white powder was seized on March 16 at Brussels national airport on a flight from the Dominican Republic.
"Normally, we spot 1 kilo, 1.5 kilos, 2 kilos... Never have we ever had such a quantity" in luggage, said the head of customs.
The local prosecutors office said the drugs were hidden in "eight pieces of luggage" placed in the hold, and were not claimed on arrival so there was no arrest made.
The rapid spread of the new coronavirus has severely disrupted air transport since mid-March, particularly in Brussels and Charleroi, Belgium's two main airports.
The port of Antwerp is Europe's second busiest shipping hub after Rotterdam, which is just a few kilometers away in the Netherlands.
The docks are less busy because transport companies are partly teleworking, said Vanderwaeren.
Customs checks have dropped off too, "following instructions from the government," he added.
In 2019, cocaine seizures in the port of Antwerp had reached a new record of almost 62 tons. Nearly 60 percent of this amount came from three countries: Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia.