Cocaine City? Gang wars on the rise as drug dealers fight for territory in EU capital Brussels

Cocaine City? Gang wars on the rise as drug dealers fight for territory in EU capital Brussels


Cocaine City? Gang wars on the rise as drug dealers fight for territory in EU capital Brussels

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SAINT-GILLES, Belgium (AP) — Cocaine and crack keep flowing. Shootings among rival gangs rage close to the very heart of Brussels. Police seize drugs and arrest traffickers almost daily. But dealers keep coming back, and the population is fed up.

As record amounts of cocaine are being seized in Europe, drug-related violent crime is becoming increasingly visible in the European Union’s capital city.

“We’re up against mafia-like organizations,” said Jean Spinette, mayor of the Saint-Gilles district, where one man was killed early Wednesday in the culmination of several days of fighting among drug dealers.

One of the Saint-Gilles shootings took place on Tuesday, a day of celebrations before Lent when many schools are closed to allow children to take to the streets.

The series of incidents has alarmed the whole nation.

“We should continue to invest in security,” Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told reporters on Thursday. “The events of the last few days show that this is not an unnecessary luxury.”

With Antwerp the main gateway for Latin American cocaine cartels into the continent, gang violence has been rife in the Belgian port city for years. With drug use on the rise across the whole country, federal authorities say trafficking is rapidly penetrating society.

Nearly every day, the Brussels public prosecutor’s office announces new arrests and large drug and cash seizures.

“It’s clear that these are serious matters that are taken very seriously,” the office said.

The increasing spread of crack cocaine and open dealing and use of drugs in some central neighborhoods over the past year have exacerbated an already bad situation to the point that petty theft, fights and harassment of tourists have become everyday headline news in the nation of 11.5 million.

In 2023, seven people were killed and 131 injured in Brussels in drug-related violence, according to police figures quoted by Le Soir newspaper. Last year, the federal police dedicated nearly 25% of its investigation capacity to drug-related cases across the country, according to new data released Thursday.

Spinette said urgent action is needed to combat criminal organizations with cross-border links. In Brussels, the influence of mobsters from Albania and the French city of Marseille is particularly strong.

“I’m convinced that the police and the justice system can be successful against this problem,” Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt said.

Last year, an alleged drug lord from Marseille was arrested in Brussels. The man was the subject of two European arrest warrants, one of which followed a 12-year prison sentence.

“We’re not talking about a little neighborhood deal, a little side business,” Spinette said, speaking to RTBF media network. He said the problem should be tackled upstream by dismantling networks and urged authorities to prosecute criminals faster to avoid a “feeling of impunity.”

Despite gentrification along some tony streets filled with shops, bars and restaurants, large swaths of Saint-Gilles remain poor. Its central location also makes it a convenient location for dealers, and it is often described by residents and officials as a “drugs drive-in.”

The mayor said traffickers return just a few hours after a shooting, angering residents.

“They have the impression that nothing is being done,” Spinette said. “The dealers move back in a minute. There’s a feeling of total impunity. A feeling that they’re safe from everything, that they’re taunting the police.”

The killing Wednesday took place near a square that has become a gathering point for drug addicts and dealers. Following police operations last year to clean Belgium’s major rail gateway, the Brussels Midi Station, the Porte de Hal zone has seen an influx of users who disrupt the lives of residents and shop owners.

“It really went downwards in the space of four, five months,” said a business owner who asked not to be identified for safety reasons. “The other day, a guy was injecting himself close to my shop. There is another bloke who often comes to the shop with his face bloodied. And so many owners here have had their store windows smashed. This is unbearable.”