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Major police operation uncovers cocaine trafficking network in the Ardennes
A network of cocaine traffickers established on the edge of the forests of the Ardennes has been dismantled by the Belgian federal police. Officers carried out raids on 23 locations on Monday morning, including farm sheds in the municipalities of Modave and Ferrières in the province of Liège.
One location was patrolled by guards with assault rifles, but no exchange of fire was reported, and no one was injured. More than 300 police officers were involved in the operation, with support from military personnel in several of the raids. According to a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, 27 arrests took place.
According to sources close to the operation, a criminal organisation with international connections had used the discreet country buildings to move and process tonnes of cocaine imported from South America for several years. "An industrial production, unprecedented in Belgium" according to the source, which quoted a figure of 15 tonnes of cocaine. The drug was brought into Europe via Belgian and Dutch ports. It is thought that various seizures made in the past can be linked to the organisation.
The investigation into the network was launched three years ago by the narcotics division of the federal judicial police in Liège. The investigators have experienced a boost in recent months following the decryption of messages and photos sent between criminals via the network of secret phones - Sky ECC cryptophones - uncovered by the Belgian authorities in March 2021.
As a result of the digital infiltration of cryptophones by the police, drug traffickers have adapted their methods of communication without ending their activities or moving them.
The operation carried out on Monday uncovered a clandestine laboratory for the processing and packaging of cocaine in Strée, in the commune of Modave. At the end of a remote path, investigators found the converted shed which was filled with equipment and chemicals worth hundreds of thousands of euros. It is possible that this laboratory was used to "cut" the pure drug in huge quantities and to repackage it to be ready to be distributed in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.
According to the prosecutor’s office, the raid in Ferrières uncovered a storage facility where about 580 kilos of "cocaine loaves" (packets of compressed drugs) were seized as well as more than a tonne of bulk product with a street value estimated at nearly €80 million. Investigators also found 10 firearms including five Kalashnikov assault rifles, €80,000 in cash and encrypted mobile phones. They also seized a dozen vehicles, horses, cattle and luxury goods such as watches.
Among those arrested on Monday are Colombian nationals. Investigators suspect their direct participation in the activities of the laboratory discovered in the Province of Liège.
Federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde at the end of September that the Sky ECC file had revealed the presence of "laboratories used directly by Colombians, to repackage the drug hidden in fruit juice or melted into plastic dolls."
While the United States has long remained the preferred market for Colombian cartels, Europe now also seems to occupy a prominent place on the cocaine distribution map. InSight Crime, an investigative and analytical site dedicated to organised crime in Latin America, states that “from a commercial point of view, cocaine trafficking to Europe offers a much more interesting prospect than the United States. Resale prices are significantly higher, and the risks of arrest, extradition and seizure of assets are significantly lower".
However, the criminal landscape in Colombia is much more fragmented than in the past, resulting in the loss of monopoly of some organisations over the supply of cocaine. According to Europol and UNODC, this development has given European criminal networks "the opportunity to establish new contacts with providers in South America," allowing some traffickers to buy large quantities of cocaine directly at the source, eliminating intermediaries.
While the Colombian nationals are suspected of being the "chemists" of the group carrying out cocaine processing operations, the transport of the drugs, as well as the organisation of laboratories, storage sites and redistribution points, were in the hands of local criminals. According to investigators, a Liége man identified by the authorities only as D.L. acted as the mastermind and leader of the structure.
The man, said to be in his 40s, is known to the police in relation to past offences including cannabis trafficking. He is said to have surrounded himself with accomplices from the region with whom he has long-standing contacts.
The federal prosecutor's office revealed that the criminal association based in the Liège region has also carried out activities in Limburg, East Flanders, the Netherlands and Spain, where a network for the distribution and resale of the drug has also been uncovered.
A spokesperson for the federal prosecutor's office said that a coordinated and simultaneous intervention was carried out in Spain after a request was transmitted by the investigating judge in Belgium. The Guardia Civil carried out two searches and arrested a suspect who was the subject of a European arrest warrant issued by the Belgian judicial authorities.
Work will continue in the coming days to dismantle the laboratories found in the Ardennes and continue the investigation based on evidence found in the raids.