The EU on Wednesday launched a "European Ports Alliance" to harmonise methods in the fight against drug smuggling and to combat the hubs' infiltration by criminal groups.
The initiative -- inaugurated at Belgium's Antwerp port, the main gateway for cocaine into Europe -- was attended by EU interior ministers and representatives from 16 of the bloc's ports, as well as sea transport organisations.
"We need to create this network to fight a network," EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said.
Europe's major ports are dogged by violence from local mafias determined to maintain the lucrative illegal trade by any means.
The groups include criminal gangs in the Netherlands with Moroccan roots, and in Belgium with links to Albanian and Italian mafia rings.
Their tactics involve efforts to bribe or coerce dock workers, port officials, truck drivers, and customs and police officers to allow their minions to grab the drug consignments.
Cocaine, coming from Latin America, is flooding the European market.
In Antwerp, annual seizures keep increasing. In 2023 authorities intercepted 116 tonnes, and the city is frequently rocked by gang violence as rival groups vie for control of the lucrative illicit trade.
"The complexity of the criminal landscape is only increasing. And it's evident to me that we cannot be successful if we only focus on the national level," Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said at the port alliance launch.
The rise in narco-gang activity at Antwerp follows a security crackdown at the Dutch port of Rotterdam, Johansson told AFP just ahead of the event.
As Antwerp steps up its own efforts against smuggling, "it seems that also now they (criminal groups) are coming to smaller ports, like for example, there are indications that more drugs come to Helsingborg in Sweden", she said.
"So they seem to be very quick to adapt."
The same phenomenon is being seen at the departure points for the drugs, she said.
Reinforced security at Colombian ports has prompted gangs to turn to Guayaquil in Ecuador, which has become the main exportation hub to Europe for cocaine produced in Colombia and Peru, she said.
- 'Huge risk' for ports -
In the European Union, nearly 70 percent of drug seizures by customs services are made in the bloc's ports.
That shows the need for more cooperation, not only between police and customs services but also with private operators in the ports, Johansson said.
France's interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, said that establishing the same level of security across all EU ports was needed to avoid unfair competition among them, because of the added time and money involved in extra layers of checks.
The ports alliance aims to step up the sharing of information and models that work, while mapping out drug flows and dismantling the criminal gangs.
The adaptability of the gangs means the focus cannot be only on containers arriving from Latin America.
Smugglers also send drug shipments to West and North Africa, where they are loaded onto small boats that mostly go to Spanish ports, officials said.
And alongside the battle to curb the cocaine trade is rising concern about synthetic drugs.
Darmanin said these drugs -- such as ecstasy, amphetamines, MDMA -- are giving rise to new European crime networks.
He has called for a joint strategy to ensure that fentanyl does not become a major problem in Europe as it already has in the United States.
That synthetic opioid, cooked up from chemical agents often legally imported from China, has become a scourge in the United States, where tens of thousands of overdoses are recorded every year.