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Case study: Belgium customs

ASTRID helps fight cross-border drug traffic between Belgium and the Netherlands.


 The A16 motorway stretches from northeast Rotterdam toward the Belgian border near Breda.

Motorists like the A16 because they can tool along at 100 km/h — even as fast as 130km/h in some sections. Drug trafficers love the A16, too: It's become a popular route for running cannibis and heroin between the Netherlands and Belgium.

But police and customs officials from Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France cooperate in joint operations designed to interrupt this cross-border drug traffic.

Among the key players in one of the stings: ASTRID, the operator of the national radio communications, paging and dispatching network designed for emergency and security services in Belgium.

Code name: Star

During the four-day operation in 2011 — code named "Étoile" (Star) — authorities checked:

  • 2,000 vehicles
  • 33 trains
  • 4,000 people

The operation was a success: Officials seized 8.2 kilograms of cannabis and nearly 7 kilograms of heroin along the A16.

Customs officials couldn't have done it without ASTRID.

"Good communications made an enormous difference," said Chief Inspector Jean Neelen.

"During the intensive checks, communications between the teams had to be flawless, and I also needed a clear overview of the situation. We operate across the whole Belgian territory and must be able to communicate without a hitch with other investigation teams, for example during a pursuit."

Needed: communication networks for public safety

Étoile brought together professionals from many disciplines, including:

  • Police
  • Customs
  • Defence

These professionals worked simultaneously on actions in:

  • Arlon
  • Ostend
  • Mons
  • Brasschaat
  • Eeklo
  • Sint-Niklaas

ASTRID supported this diverse, dispersed team with 10 multi-organisational or MPOL talk groups. The result: Each operative team had its own group during the simultaneous actions.

Customs and police also had several multi-police communications groups to help coordinate activities in each location.

"These talk groups are very practical because we can scan them on the ASTRID radio wherever the teams may be," says inspector Frederick Vanneste, from the National Directorate of Investigation of Customs and Excise."At the same time, the teams can contact us any time, thanks to a dedicated contact talk group."

TETRA systems for in-country chases

Belgian customs officers use 340 handheld THR880i radios from Airbus. Plus, leaders use 17 TMR880i mobile radios in fixed installations and control rooms.

Investigating inspectors each have personal handheld radios they use in their cars via a car kit. The motorcycle customs officers also have ASTRID radios of their own.

These radios are essential, said Michele Gorga, a motorcycle officer who had been with Belgian customs since 2007. During the operation, he was a liaison officer, communicating between the vehicles on the road and colleagues who checked the cars.

"When we divert a vehicle, one biker will drive in front of it and another will follow," he said. "This is when we need reliable communications. Communications are also important if there is a chase. If another team happens to be close by, they can come in as reinforcements. We can also communicate all offences, such as speeding, over the radio."

More recently, Gorga was involved in a chase that started in Minderhout, a town in the Antwerp province on the Dutch border, and ended at the northern Belgian-French border.

"In this kind of situation, seamless communications with a liaison officer are extremely important," he said. "He can also call for backup from the federal police, for example to put up a roadblock. In this case, the chased vehicle turned out to be carrying 35kg of drugs."

One driver had on board half a kilo of cannabis for his "personal use." He was arrested.

images: ASTRID