How a sleepy port became Europe’s new drug hub
Bullet holes riddle the wall of a modest house in a rundown village home to generations of dockers working in France’s biggest freight port, Le Havre.
“I was woken up by what I thought were fireworks. In fact, it was a shoot-out,” recalled one local when asked what had happened.
He declined to be named. “If you do, the next bullet will be for me,” he warned.
An uneasy law of silence reigns in Les Neiges, a dockers' district just yards from the tightly-guarded container port whose giant cranes can be seen plucking multicoloured cargo from ships.
And the omertà is understandable.
The biggest drug trafficking case Le Havre has ever seen opened this week in nearby Douai; all six defendants, who face sentences of 30 years to life, lived or operated in and around Les Neiges.
The men - one of whom is being tried in absentia - are accused of helping South American drug cartels smuggle 1.3 tons of cocaine into the northern port.
It is just the latest case fuelling fears that Le Havre is turning into the French version of its northern European counterparts Antwerp and Rotterdam and succumbing to a “tsunami” of hard drugs flooding the continent.
The number of containers offloaded has risen from 1.5 million in 2004 to more than three million last year. As the legal shipments of bananas, shrimps, sugar or tinned food have increased, so have the hidden drugs - 10.5 tons were seized last year, triple the amount detected in 2019.
“We have neither the staff nor the infrastructure to deal with such trafficking,” warned Alaine Lemaire, a customs worker and CGT union rep, who said the number of surveillance officers had dropped from 180 in 2004 to 90 today. “Many now live in fear,” he told The Telegraph.
“We check one per cent of containers that enter Le Havre and you can assume that we prevent a tenth of the cocaine coming in. This trial is anecdotal and won’t stop the flood.”
Le Havre now regularly sees scenes reminiscent of television show The Wire: one instance saw a drug gang smash its way out of the port in a lorry loaded with cocaine under police fire; in another a criminal group stormed a closely-guarded depot to grab a hidden shipment of the drug.
Customs officers are regularly spied upon by drug traffickers via overhead drones emitting live images of their loot or through binoculars from nearby rooftops.
With Europol now estimating that Europe’s cocaine market is worth up to €10.5 billion at street level, pressure is rising on French dockers to collaborate with cartels in Le Havre - an embarrassment to mayor Edouard Philippe, who was Emmanuel Macron’s prime minister and is widely tipped to run to succeed him as French president in 2027.
Several dockers have been jailed for working with drug gangs in Le Havre, with police saying some have been forced into helping the traffickers.
Around 30 have been kidnapped or held hostage in the port since 2017 - some by drug traffickers but others by small-time criminals who assumed they had profited from trade. However, almost none has pressed charges.
France was shocked in June 2020 when docker Allan Affagard, an influential CGT 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 port - a claim he denied.
In the weeks leading to his gruesome death, he had been bombarded with encrypted threats, including one saying: “You owe us a favour. We know where you live.”
Watch: Police Take Down European Cocaine 'Super Cartel'
'It is very hard to get out'
Lawyer Valérie Giard is representing one of the men facing life in the Douai trial who pleaded guilty. She said many dockers fell into the “trap”.
“Some are tempted by financial gain, others initially refuse as they have pretty good salaries - often around €4,000 per month - but then they receive threats, photos of their wife and kids. Drug traffickers tell them there’s no point telling their bosses or the police because some are corrupt, so they feel trapped,” she told The Telegraph.
“Once they are caught in this spiral, it is very hard to get out,” said Le Havre prosecutor Bruno Dieudonné.
But some locals in Les Neiges were less forgiving.
"All the dockers are unionised with the CGT, which is a kind of mafia-like sect," said a lifelong resident of Les Neiges.
"They rule the roost here and as well as high salaries, there's always been a bit of pinching from the port. But the drugs have changed everything and I would say that now 10 per cent are squeaky clean, 40 per cent not too bad and 50 per cent downright rotten."
According to an unofficial salary scale established by prosecutors, truckers receive a cut of between €10,000 and €20,000 for taking out the goods while a crane driver can expect €50,000 and the docker in charge of recruiting labour €150,000 to €200,000.
Some dock workers are paid to authorise the exit of containers or move ones full of drugs out of range of security cameras. Others loan their security badges to the gangs.
In this week’s trial, none of the defendants are dockers - who were tried separately in 2021.
They face charges of importing illegal drugs in a criminal gang. Among the six, three remain in custody suspected of being “order-givers” working for the local branch of international drug syndicates.
Defendant Louis Bellahcene, 56, alias “Doudou”, officially lives on his pension of €977 per month. However, prosecutors said that did not tally with his penchant for Louis Vuitton, trips to Thailand and cash deposits of several tens of thousands of euros.
While he is accused of being a kingpin, he clearly faces competition. In 2017, he was abducted and had to pay a €600,000 ransom. Prosecutors said he had to fork out another €2.5 million when his partner was kidnapped, which he duly paid.
The case is largely based on bugged conversations that began in 2017 and helped police net 1.3 tons of cocaine shipped into Le Havre from Brazil and the Dominican Republic and almost half a ton of cannabis resin destined for Martinique.
A new Antwerp?
While Le Havre has been targeted by cartels, it has not yet reached the levels of violence seen in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The main gateway of illegal drugs into Europe, Antwerp has recorded more than 200 drug-linked violent incidents in the last five years, with an 11-year-old girl killed last month after bullets were fired into a house in the Merksem residential district.
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 said to have been targeted late last year. The country could soon “be regarded as a narco state” warned Johan Delmulle, Brussels’ chief prosecutor.
“We have gone to another level of violence entirely,” said Belgian police chief Snoeck. “They have no qualms about torturing someone for information or simply executing someone who has not kept to a contract... it sends shivers down your spine.”
But "things could get bad here too,” warned Le Havre prosecutor Mr Dieudonné.
“We are not yet at the stage of attacks with assault weapons like in Antwerp, but the danger is not far off."
An anonymous tract has circulated around the district bemoaning the dockers' "untouchable status", which it said had created "fertile ground" for drug trafficking.
"The state should have reacted earlier to this mafia-style situation in a strategic port that is indispensable to the economy of the country," it said.
Frédéric Desguerre of the Unité SGP Police union said the situation is "very worrying".
“We are debutants and are going to have up our game here in Le Havre. We lack a kind of US-style Drugs Enforcement Administration. The Paris equivalent only has a few civil servants. We need at least 30 or 40 given the traffic in Le Havre,” he said.
“We cannot let the South American mafia set up shop here.”