GESTURING toward the mist-shrouded port of Antwerp, one-time master drug smuggler Paul Meyer insists its security is “leaky as a sieve”.
Known as The Tall Dutch Guy in international drug-trafficking circles, Paul says he once moved industrial quantities of narcotics through the Belgian container port with nonchalant ease.
Sipping an espresso, the 60-year-old former cocaine, heroin and hashish smuggler told me: “Every five or six weeks we did 20 tons. When you deliver, it’s party time.
“Whether it’s cocaine or hashish or something else, if you want it through the port without authorities looking inside the container then Antwerp is the best place to do it.”
Once better known for its cobbled old town and diamond district, Antwerp now labours under the unwanted label of Europe’s cocaine capital.
So much of the so-called white gold was seized at the container port last year that a vast “cocaine-berg” built up, with incinerators unable to burn the drug quick enough.
In its wake has come the bloodshed and mayhem of warring narco gangs using the port as a waystation to get cocaine to the UK and across Europe.
This month an 11-year-old girl, named as Firdaous El J, died in Antwerp after being caught in the crossfire of a suspected drugs feud.
Last year Bledar Muca, 39, an Albanian with false British papers, was assassinated in cold blood, with a shocking image of the gun-toting hitman caught on camera.
And 25 miles across the Dutch border from central Antwerp, a narco gang built a sound- proofed torture chamber to menace rivals or those who double-crossed them.
A court heard last year that a refashioned dentist’s chair, with restraining straps for arms and legs, was found in a shipping container.
One encrypted message from a gang member said of this chamber of horrors: “It’s triple-isolated. Even if you’re standing next to it, you’ll hear nothing.”
Finger clamps, scalpels, pliers, claw hammers, pruning shears, gas burners and duct tape were also discovered in the container, known as “the treatment room”.
Former drug kingpin Meyer, who served seven years for trafficking, says he was not surprised by the torture chamber revelation.
Almost 6ft 6ins, he explained: “In my time they would rent a place, take you there and torture you.
“Or they would put you in the trunk of a car and drive you to the forest and torture you there.
“When you do something wrong, when you don’t keep your promises, when you steal, when you lie, you have a problem.”
Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne tells me of his own ordeal at the hands of the suspected narco gangs, whom he compares to terror group IS.
Also his country’s Justice Minister, he and his family have twice been forced to shelter in safe houses following kidnap threats believed to be linked to drug cartels.
Dad-of-two Mr Van Quickenborne, 49, revealed in a video interview: “In September a car was found 100 meters from our house containing gasoline, guns and things to cuff your hands.
“They had plans to kidnap me. We had to stay in a safe house for a week.”
Six Dutch nationals have been arrested. Then in December, another threat was revealed and the family spent Christmas in protective custody.
The minister said: “Again, there were plans to kidnap myself and my family. We had to hide in a safe house for a longer time.
“It’s tough for me. Then I see what’s happening in Italy when, ultimately, you can crack the mafia, and I believe we can do the same in Belgium. That’s the reason I’m not giving in.”
Locked in a war against what he calls “narco terrorism”, the minister has vowed to go after the cartel bosses hiding in places such as the UAE, Turkey and Morocco.
So why has this thriving and elegant North Sea city of 530,000 been hit with a “cocaine tsunami”?
Driving through the sprawling port area — a sea of cranes, queuing lorries and stacked containers that could fill 16,600 football pitches — it is easy to see why it is so porous.
Last year customs seized a record 110 tons of cocaine, which would have a UK street value of £11billion.
This was up from 16 tons in 2015.
The most popular nations of origin are Panama in Central America, followed by Colombia then Peru, both in South America.
On the face of it, the haul put a sizeable dent in the cartels’ international trade.
Yet according to Mr Van Quickenborne it is just 11 per cent of the drug arriving in the port.
He added: “Experts say if we raise that to 20 per cent we will be able to breach the business model.
“And 90 per cent of the cocaine arriving in Antwerp isn’t destined for the local market, it goes to Holland and it goes to the UK.”
In freezing fog, I joined Belgian customs as they searched for narcotics at the vast container port this week.
Officers use intelligence gathering and intuition to attempt to second-guess the traffickers.
Trucks pass through one of the port’s three X-ray machines.
A few are then opened and checked by hand.
Some seven million containers pass through the port each year but only two per cent can be scanned without causing major delays.
Watching a lorry being checked, customs spokeswoman Florence Angelici, 43, told me: “There’s a lot of cocaine going to the UK. I don’t have a percentage but it’s a huge destination from Antwerp.”
She added that the Belgian port is now expecting another surge in cocaine before the summer festival season starts.
She said: “The smugglers act on demand. The two biggest peaks are at Christmas and before summer because of all the parties and festivals.”
Smugglers will target shipments of bananas and other perishable fruit because they know they must be moved through the port quickly.
Customs officer Sara Van Cotthem, 45, explained: “The criminals try to be very creative.
“They use fake bananas full of cocaine and pineapples stuffed with cocaine paste. They hide it in hollow wooden or metal beams and in false ceilings or floors in the containers.”
Staring out at the snaking queues of lorries leaving Europe’s busiest port, it is clear the odds are stacked in the cartels’ favour.
Sara admits that despite customs’ best efforts, the vast seizures do not seem to be putting much of a dent in street supply.
She said: “Cocaine is still selling for 50 euros a gram. The price would increase if the goods were getting more scarce, but that’s not the case.”
The billions in cash generated mean the 62,000 port staff, and others in the thousand or so companies that operate here, are susceptible to bribes from the cartels.
Workers finishing their shifts are followed to bars by gang members who then earwig their chats.
Stephan Vanfraechem, general director of Alfaport, which represents private companies in the port, said: “They don’t come at you with a gun and tell you to do something.
“It’s more a matter of, ‘Would you like to earn a little extra money?
“It could take just 30 seconds and I’ll give you 50,000 euros’.”
Cops, customs officers and dock workers are all targeted.
Customs spokeswoman Florence added: “We currently have four customs agents in jail.
“It’s a problem but we have 3,000 customs agents in Belgium so it’s a very small percentage.”
Mr Van Quickenborne has pledged to increase searches of high-risk containers from Latin America by ten times and has earmarked more than £60million for scanners and additional staff.
Yet officials face lavishly funded criminals hell-bent on protecting their supply lines.
Antwerp has witnessed 200 incidents of drug-related violence, including threats, beatings and planted explosive devices, over the past five years.
In his flat in the suburbs, narco gangs expert Dr Teun Voeten says Antwerp is a clearing house for cocaine, with Netherlands-based mobsters orchestrating the trade.
The 61-year-old, who has written a book on the cartels plaguing Antwerp, revealed: “Holland is the biggest narco state in Europe.
“It’s a paradise for crime groups. There’s corruption and it’s very easy to launder money.”
The journalist and anthropologist says the so-called Mocro Maffia — crime groups of Moroccan heritage — and syndicates from Holland, Italy and Albania all operate in Antwerp.
Dr Voeten cites a severed head of a drug dealer left outside a shisha cafe in Amsterdam in 2016 as a measure of the ultra-violence.
He said the Mocro Maffia are known for their “excessive and symbolic violence” and that the beheading was “from Mexican cartels’ textbook”.
With Belgium locked in a war with the narco gangs, its Deputy PM believes those snorting the drug at British bars, dinner parties and football matches are culpable in the blood-soaked supply line.
A member of the centre-right Flemish Liberals and Democrats, he said: “Britons should know their drug use isn’t without consequence.
“I’m not only talking about the health impact for them.
“Through their drug use they’re also supporting a network of violent criminals and exploited people.
“There’s blood on the hands of the users, and on their noses.”