Does Brussels have a drug problem?

Recent media headlines have painted a rather alarming portrait of Brussels, now having to cope with an increased presence of drug gangs. As a direct consequence to this influx, there have been shootings in the street between youths and the matter is supposedly quite serious.

We are not talking about a few street corner “weed deals” but of organized criminality of the highest order. Some of the reports even mention the so-called “Marseilles mafia” stepping in – heavy hitters from the South of France. (I have not personally verified this, but anyone called “Marseilles mafia” is probably not in the trade of selling cupcakes)

This isn’t to say that Brussels has suddenly become a torn-down, post-apocalyptic city with shattered glass, graffiti, and fur-coated pimps on every corner. But we are at least speaking of a meaningful rise in the availability of harder drugs and a dispute for the rights to sell them.

Brussels to me used to be home. I left over 8 years ago, after having lived there for a good 20 years. I rented in the center of Brussels, worked, hung out, bathed in the atmosphere of the city and feel I have at least somewhat of a claim to an informed opinion.

My reaction when I read the headlines is that I was honestly surprised it didn’t happen earlier. More to the point, I’m actually worried about the business acumen of the criminal element for not spotting Brussels much sooner. “Where were you?” I would ask them, outraged. “Do you not keep informed of such things?”

When I moved to Brussels at the young age of 22, I was briefed (and sometimes learned the hard way) that there are areas you simply do not go. They are dangerous, you are not needed there, and you will stick out like a sore thumb if you do. One of these areas is, surprisingly the subway. Every adult who was a youth at some time in the 90s will have their own story to tell of how unsafe they felt and how they dreaded stepping out of certain subway stations in Brussels. (for those who know, anything past De Broukère going towards Heysel was a potential issue)

The free access to the subway meant the possibility for street youths to hang out and spot the weakest zebra in the herd. I was surrounded several times by such thugs, my fellow guitar player once came into our rehearsal room in a state of shock after having been slapped around… everyone will have a story from that particular era in Brussels, trust me.

We could argue that I was young, impressionable and that things were not as bad as they seemed. If only it were so, many French lives would have been saved. You see, central to the problem of Brussels is the fact that it is divided into 19 administrative suburbs. Some of the less welcoming areas were, are, and always will be Molenbeek, most of Schaerbeek, a lot of Saint Gilles, and Anderlecht. The 3 “nice areas” of the 19 are Boitsfort, Ixelles and Auderghem. All the rest is a sort of sleepy “nothingness”, which the media now tells us has grabbed the interest of the new criminal element. So, no more sleeping for them I’m assuming.

Particularly in the case of Molenbeek, the elected mayor had a constituency of over 90% of non-Belgians. What we observed in the 1990s was made public 30 years later on all news channels of the world after the terrible Bataclan shootings in Paris. It turned out that Molenbeek was a breeding ground for hardline Muslims because of its unregulated territory and its many clandestine mosques. Who was preaching and what were they saying, nobody knew. Why did they not know? Because it would have been perceived as very insulting to the locals, so they did nothing, And let it fester. For 30 years.

As I write this article, I quickly looked up on Google to see if the forever-mayor of Molenbeek mister Philipe Moureaux ever made a statement as to his responsibility in this development. It is then that I learned that one Nadine Ribet-Reinhart intended to prosecute the Belgian state for “inactivity” despite their full knowledge of radicalized youths in Molenbeek. Tragically, Nadine lost her 26 year-old son to gunshots in the Bataclan. Her lawyer stated that “Moureaux could not have been unaware” And she is right.

Still on Molenbeek, more recently in 2022 my American father-in-law called me to the TV news and said “look at that! It’s all fun and games in Brussels!” I said: “Yes, I knew it would happen since last week. That’s what they do. There was a football game between Belgium and Morocco so the youths of Molenbeek celebrate by burning the cars.”

There is nothing new under the Belgian sun and it will happen again at the next football game. It seems that only the Brussels police was surprised, while I somehow knew how the events would unfold some 3000 miles away and a week before they happened. Perhaps it’s my crystal ball.

My description of the Brussels subway and of the area of Molenbeek is a premise to understanding why the drug trade has so easily exploded in Brussels. I could pinpoint three reasons: the lack of a police strategy between the 19 areas of Brussels, a “laisser-faire” cultural attitude typical of Belgium and the fact that it is not expected of anyone to speak any of the national languages. Does this sound like an ideal undercover marketplace for illicit substances? Perhaps it does.

Looking at the city as a gangster from a strategic point of view, we have a small, decentralized city in which it is easy to go unnoticed, in which few people share the same language, where unemployment benefits come easily, and where the regrettable presence of the EU buildings act as a magnet for all nations of the world to flock together in anarchic cultural melting-pot. “Why would anyone not want to sell drugs in Brussels?”, I would beg to know.

Americans reading these words might suddenly think “But don’t they have police over there? Don’t they have guns to keep people in line?” They certainly do, but we must remember that Belgians are not “hard” people. Whether a person works as a police officer or not will not change this cultural trait. We are speaking of a tiny divided country with 3 languages and no frame of mind equivalent to an “America First” or “England Belongs to Me”. Belgians are not natural-born warriors. They like their peace and tranquility and are not bred to be combatants, either through school sports or other similar programs.

The perception of the Belgian police by the locals can easily be verified independently on Youtube. In 2016, the Chief of Police Vandersmissen was KO’d in the street by a protester. When the youths of Brussels decided they were tired of Covid lockdown, they simply organized an open-air party in the largest park of Brussels. Police were called in, the middle-class youths provoked and danced in front of them. They simply did not care. And when Morocco wins a football match, they riot in the streets and burn cars.

In my days hanging out and partying in the nightlife in Brussels (pre-2010), I saw the ridiculous availability and trivialization of powdered or chemical drugs. “It was everywhere” might resonate as a cliche, but the fact is that a person could legitimately scratch their head in wonder if they’d heard “Oh dear, I have a problem, I can’t get my hands on any drugs”. What do you mean you can’t? Where have you been living? Here, use this number.

To speak factually, people did harder drugs in plain view. They went into the toilet cubicles together to snort, they sometimes did it on the counter at a bar… no one blinked an eye.

It could be that this sort of thing stems from a cultural pre-disposition where the senseless pouring down of hard beer is perceived as the most natural thing ever. Certain foundations may have also be laid with the decriminalization of so-called “soft drugs” for which no one seemed to have any definite answer whether they were legal or not and in which quantity. Marijuana might or might not be seized at the discretion of the individual police officer, it seemed.

The youths always look for the “latest thing” in an effort to appear different and create envy. If hard beer and marijuana are the norm, it makes sense for party-goers to look for something more “exclusive”. Why be boring?

Looking towards the future and what Brussels can expect, I have the instinctive assurance that the situation will stay put. Drugs will go on being sold across all social classes of Belgians and the suppliers will from time to time “battle it out” to remind the competition who sells what on which street.

To implement any sort of change, the laws of the universe have long taught us that a situation must become sufficiently intolerable before a change occurs. If I am cold and wet, I step out of the rain. If I get wet regularly, I make the effort to build some sort of shelter. If I just get partly wet, I don’t bother doing anything.

Looking at the interests of the different parties involved, we can make an educated guess as to what will happen in the years to come. The youths of Brussels could be inconvenienced by the appearance of a few more dangerous areas, a small price to pay for a steady supply of fun substances. The local politicians will blame it on the EU or the lack of coordination of the police, and the police will likely do the same. Local residents of less desirable areas will be the most inconvenienced and will complain to the police who will occasionally make an arrest.

Perhaps the ray of light in this grim picture is that we shouldn’t expect to see Brussels escalating towards a 1920s Chicago-type situation and open warfare. If the drug people do their homework, they should be able to steer a steady ship clear of unwanted attention. The natural size of Brussels and the demographics will act as natural limitations to the growth of the underground narcotics trade. Easily available but not too crazy.

So, not unreasonably bad, but not good either.

The Brussels way.

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