By Luuk Kuiper
— Big weapons caches, kilos of drugs, executions in broad daylight, and operations made possible by infiltration of local governments and companies. When summed up, this sounds like the work of Italian mafia families or the Yakuza of Japan. However, this scale of organization is far from exclusive to these areas, in fact, some of the largest and most successful drug empires are run from within the Netherlands. This article will dive into the history of the Dutch narco empires in light of the attention gained by the murder of crime-reporter Peter R. de Vries and the subsequent renewed political will to combat the Dutch narco empires.
Why the Netherlands?
The European Union estimated in 2016 that around 25% to 50% of cocaine in Europe is imported through the Rotterdam port.
How exactly did a small, and on the world scale often overlooked, country like the Netherlands become an international bigshot in the drug trade? The answer is threefold.
Firstly, the designer drug industry. Central to the success of the Dutch designer drug industry is the relatively highly educated Dutch population, and subsequently the large number of professionally trained chemists. This makes rapid growth, as well as refinement, and innovation of drug labs possible. Most of these operations are run from within the southern provinces of Brabant and Limburg, and it is thanks to the expertise of the Southern Dutch that the entirety of Europe is nearly self-sufficient when it comes to XTC and MDMA. This expertise is not only appreciated in Europe but around the world, allowing the Dutch designer drugs industry to expand into consultancy. Foreign organizations can hire the Dutch to help them with how to set up labs and run them in a profitable manner. The illegal practices of the Dutch mirror the legal in this way, proving that the Netherlands is primarily a knowledge economy in all types of its industries.
Secondly, the cocaine trade. Here, the Rotterdam port plays a central role. The port receives about 8 million containers each year, an amount that is impossible to effectively police against smuggling, as scanning every single container would slow down international trade significantly. Customs does random sampling, checking about 50.000 containers each year, but even this takes so much time that the cocaine will often already have disappeared. The main strategy adopted by the industry for extracting cocaine resembles that of the Troyan Horse: Containers with ‘removers’ (‘uithalers’) inside are hauled onto the port where at night the removers go out and get the cocaine out of neighboring containers and flee the port. The scale of these operations is massive, with port police recently reporting that in a 10-day span they arrested over 110 of these removers, as well as a record week catch of 7851 kilos of cocaine worth about half a billion on the street. The European Union estimated in 2016 that around 25% to 50% of cocaine in Europe is imported through the Rotterdam port. The reporting of these numbers is quite a recent development, with port officials historically favouring secrecy around smuggling finds and corrupt workers to avoid damaging the image of the port.
Lastly, the weed and hash industry. This is a dual industry, where the success of weed plantations is due to the knowledge of the sophisticated Dutch agricultural sector, similar to the designer drug case. This leads to the Netherlands being self-sufficient in terms of the weed that is sold to coffee shops, with the surplus being sold around the world. The hash industry functions mainly through import, primarily from Morocco. Once the hash arrives in the Netherlands it is dispensed similarly to weed; with a part being sold to coffee shops and the surplus being distributed around the world.
The Scale of the Dutch Drug Trade
Precise amounts are of course impossible to come by, but experts agree that the total sales volume of the Dutch narco empires must be at least in the dozens of billions.
The synthetic drug industry largely centers on the creation of XTC and amphetamines mostly for export to the rest of Europe, Australia, and the USA. Within the cocaine trade, the Netherlands is predominantly a middleman between Colombia and Italy focussed on the import and cutting of pure cocaine. Lastly, the weed and hash industry preoccupies itself with weed farming and the importing of, mostly, Moroccan hash to sell to both Dutch coffeeshops and neighboring countries. The estimated turnover of these industries is 18.9 billion, 9.3 billion, and 6.8 billion respectively. Precise amounts are of course impossible to come by, but experts agree that the total sales volume of the Dutch narco empires must be at least in the dozens of billions.
Police Operations against Organized Crime
The in total 20 million intercepted messages led to over 100 arrests and the seizure of over 9000 kilos of drugs and 20 million euros in cash.
The scale and rapid advancements within the Dutch drug sector do not go unnoticed by the government and police. Over the last few years, the Dutch police have created and closely participated in some of the largest drug infiltration operations in European history, the two most notable missions being ‘26Lemont’ and ‘Marengo’.
The operation ‘26Lemont’ came about due to the cracking of the encrypted messenger app Encrochat, which allowed police to read messages between high-profile criminals in real-time for multiple months. The in total 20 million intercepted messages lead to over 100 arrests, the seizure of over 9000 kilos of drugs and 20 million euros in cash, and the dismantling of 16 drug labs and one torture chamber, which makes this one of the most successful cyber-based drug investigations in history. The national unit of the police even released footage of some of the most bizarre raids they conducted towards the end of this operation.
The Marengo process is focussed on a series of murders allegedly ordered by Ridouan T., one of the biggest players in the Dutch drug trade and for many years the Netherlands’ most wanted criminal. This case once again got started due to a hack of another encrypted messenger, PGP, but came to fruition due to a witness. Nabil, B. was a getaway driver of a so-called ‘mistake murder’, the murder of an innocent civilian instead of a rival gang member in 2017. Fearful of what this mistake would mean for him Nabil turned himself in and is now testifying as the crown witness against Ridouan, T. and 16 others in return for a sentence reduction. The prosecution based on this operation is still in full effect and sentences are not expected to come in for another year.
On the ninth of March 2016, a severed head was found in front of a shisha lounge, the body was found in a burning car a few blocks away.
The presence of large-scale drug operations brings more than its fair share of violence with it. Both in retaliation against police operations as well as against rival operations. The list of these types of escalations is long and ranges from murder to kidnapping, both of people involved in the industry and mistake cases. A few notable cases will be addressed here.
The first high-profile retaliation against someone not directly inside the drug industry was the murder of attorney Derk Wiersom in 2019. This was characterized as an “attack on the rule of law” by the public prosecutor. Wiersom was in all likeness killed due to him being the attorney to the aforementioned Nabil, B.. The two alleged perpetrators are currently facing life in prison in an uncompleted prosecution.
The most recent high-profile retaliation was against famous Dutch crime reporter Peter R de Vries, who was shot dead a little over two months ago in Amsterdam. Again, this retaliation was linked to the Marengo process as de Vries was a confidant for Nabil, B.. This solidifies why Ridouan, T. was the Dutch most wanted for so long and demonstrates his influence even whilst behind bars.
Retaliations are of course also commonplace between rival organizations. A good example of this is the ‘Mocro War’ that has been taking place since 2012 in Amsterdam. A common practice in this war is the placement of explosives and grenades in houses and stores affiliated with a certain group. But intimidation is also accomplished by more lurid tactics. For example, on the ninth of March 2016, a severed head was found in front of a shisha lounge, while the body was found in a burning car a few blocks away.
Renewed Political Will to Combat the Problem
In light of the murder of de Vries the drug empires of the Netherlands came under the spotlight of politics once more. Although the entire political spectrum agrees that something must be done against large-scale organized crime, there is no consensus on how to combat the problem. Opinions differ from suggesting the legalization of more drugs to blaming the relatively lax attitude towards drug use in the Netherlands for causing the problem.
There has already been a response from Justice and Security Minister Ferdinant Grapperhaus who introduced a multidisciplinary team to combat organized crime. However, this plan has already faced harsh criticism from within the law enforcement community, which fears extensive bureaucracy. With the leading Dutch criminologist, Cyrille Fijnaut, even calling the plan “a massive blunder” and nothing but “big misery.”
Seeing the internal disagreement both within the law enforcement community as well as within politics on how to combat the issue, it seems as if there is still a large road ahead of the Netherlands if they wish to truly impact the drug industry and cleanse the Netherlands of the label ‘Narco-State’.