How a sleepy haven became Europe’s new drug hub

Drugs are smuggled into France through the largest cargo port, Le Havre - SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP

Drugs are smuggled into France through the largest cargo port, Le Havre – SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP

Bullet holes pierce the wall of a modest house in a ramshackle village where generations of longshoremen work in France’s largest cargo port, Le Havre.

“I was woken up by what I thought was fireworks. It was even a shooting,” recalls one resident when asked what had happened.

He declined to be named. “If you do that, the next bullet will be for me,” he warned.

There’s an uneasy law of silence in Les Neiges, a dockworkers’ neighborhood just meters from the heavily guarded container port where giant cranes can pluck multi-colored cargo from ships.

And the omertà is understandable.

The largest drug trafficking case Le Havre has ever seen opened this week in nearby Douai; all six defendants, who face sentences ranging from 30 years to life in prison, lived or operated in and around Les Neiges.

The men – one of whom will be tried in absentia – are accused of helping South American drug cartels smuggle 1.3 tons of cocaine to the northern port.

Shipping container in Le Havre - CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

Shipping container in Le Havre – CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

It is only the latest case that has fueled fears that Le Havre will turn into the French version of its northern European counterparts Antwerp and Rotterdam and succumb to a “tsunami” of hard drugs sweeping the continent.

The number of unloaded containers rose from 1.5 million in 2004 to more than three million last year. As legal shipments of bananas, shrimp, sugar or canned food have increased, so has the number of hidden drugs: 10.5 tons were seized last year, three times the number in 2019.

“We have neither the staff nor the infrastructure to deal with such trafficking,” warned Alaine Lemaire, a customs officer and CGT union representative, who said the number of security officers had fallen from 180 in 2004 to 90 today. “Many now live in fear,” he told The Telegraph.

“We check one percent of the containers that come into Le Havre and you can assume that we prevent one tenth of the cocaine. This trial is anecdotal and will not stop the flood.”

Le Havre now regularly sees scenes reminiscent of the television program The Wire: once saw a drug gang make their way out of the harbor in a truck loaded with cocaine under police fire; in another, a criminal group stormed a highly guarded depot to obtain a hidden consignment of drugs.

Customs officers are regularly spied on by drug traffickers via drones broadcasting live images of their loot or via binoculars from nearby rooftops.

A customs officer and a sniffer dog check a container - CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

A customs officer and a sniffer dog check a container – CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

With Europol estimating that the European street-level cocaine market is worth up to €10.5 billion, pressure is mounting on French dock workers to cooperate with cartels in Le Havre – an embarrassment to Mayor Edouard Philippe, who was Emmanuel Macron’s prime minister and widely tipped to succeed him as president of France in 2027.

Several dock workers have been convicted of working with drug gangs in Le Havre, with police saying some have been forced to help the traffickers.

As of 2017, about 30 have been kidnapped or held hostage at the port – some by drug traffickers, but others by petty criminals who believed they had profited from the trade. However, almost no one has reported it.

France was shocked in June 2020 when longshoreman Allan Affagard, an influential CGT trade union boss, was found beaten to death behind a school in a suburb of Le Havre. The 40-year-old father of four had been investigated two years earlier, accused of helping to get a ton of cocaine out of the docks – a claim he denied.

In the weeks leading up to his gruesome death, he was bombarded with coded threats, including one that said, “You owe us a favor. We know where you live.”

‘It’s very hard to get out’

Lawyer Valérie Giard represents one of the men who pleaded guilty and pleaded guilty to life in the Douai trial. She said many dock workers have fallen into the “trap”.

“Some are tempted by financial gain, others initially refuse because they have a pretty good salary – often around €4,000 a month – but then they get threats, pictures of their wives and children. Drug traffickers tell them there’s no point in telling their bosses or the police because some of them are corrupt, so they feel trapped,” she told The Telegraph.

“Once they are in this spiral, it is very difficult to get out,” said Le Havre prosecutor Bruno Dieudonné.

But some locals in Les Neiges were less forgiving.

“All the longshoremen are affiliated with the CGT, a kind of mafia-like sect,” said a lifelong resident of Les Neiges.

“They rule here and in addition to high salaries there has always been a bit of pinching from the port. But the drugs have changed everything and I would say now 10 percent is squeaky clean, 40 percent isn’t too bad and 50 percent is downright rotten.”

According to an unofficial salary scale drawn up by prosecutors, truck drivers receive a discount of between €10,000 and €20,000 for taking the goods away, while a crane operator can expect €50,000 and the longshoreman responsible for recruiting workers €50,000. 150,000 to €200,000.

Some dockers are paid to authorize containers to leave or to move containers full of drugs out of the reach of security cameras. Others lend their security badges to the gangs.

In this week’s trial, none of the defendants are longshoremen – who were tried separately in 2021.

They are accused of importing illegal drugs into a criminal gang. Of the six, three are still in custody suspected of being “commanders” working for the local branch of international drug syndicates.

Shipping containers in Le Havre - CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

Shipping containers in Le Havre – CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

Defendant Louis Bellahcene, 56, alias “Doudou”, officially lives on his pension of €977 per month. According to prosecutors, however, this was not true with his fondness for Louis Vuitton, travel to Thailand and cash deposits of several tens of thousands of euros.

Although accused of being a protagonist, he clearly faces competition. In 2017 he was kidnapped and had to pay a ransom of 600,000 euros. Prosecutors said he had to pay a further €2.5 million when his partner was kidnapped, which he duly paid.

The case is largely based on wiretapped conversations that began in 2017 that helped police transport 1.3 tons of cocaine from Brazil and the Dominican Republic to Le Havre and nearly half a ton of cannabis resin destined for Martinique.

A new Antwerp?

Although Le Havre has been targeted by cartels, it has not yet reached the level of violence seen in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Antwerp, Europe’s main gateway for illicit drugs, has recorded more than 200 drug-related violent incidents over the past five years, with an 11-year-old girl killed last month after bullets were fired at a house in the residential area Merksem.

Last September, Belgian police uncovered a plot to kidnap the country’s justice minister, and in the Netherlands, Crown Princess Amalia and Mark Rutte, the prime minister, were allegedly targeted late last year. The country could soon be “considered a narco state,” warned Johan Delmulle, chief prosecutor of Brussels.

“We have gone completely to another level of violence,” Belgian police chief Snoeck said. “They have no qualms about torturing someone for information or simply executing someone who broke a contract… it sends shivers down your spine.”

But “things could go bad here too,” warned Le Havre prosecutor Mr. Dieudonne.

“We are not yet at the stage of attacks with assault weapons such as in Antwerp, but the danger is not far off.”

An anonymous tract circulates in the district complaining about the “untouchable status” of the dock workers, which he says has created “fertile ground” for drug trafficking.

“The state should have reacted sooner to this mafia-like situation in a strategic port indispensable to the country’s economy,” it said.

Frédéric Desguerre of the police union Unité SGP said the situation is “very worrying”.

“We are debutants and will do our best here in Le Havre. We lack some kind of American-style Drug Enforcement Administration. The Parisian equivalent only has a few officials. We need at least 30 or 40 given the traffic in Le Havre,” he said.

“We can’t let the South American mafia settle here.”

Leave a Comment