AMSTERDAM—On the morning of Sept. 18, Derk Wiersum, the public defender for a key witness against the international drug kingpin Ridouan Taghi, was walking to his car with his wife in a quiet suburb of Amsterdam when he was shot and killed.
The murder of the 44-year-old Wiersum, who left two children behind, represented a new and dangerous threshold of violence here that shocked not only the public, but the entire judicial system. For the first time in Dutch history the criminal world murdered a legal representative of the state itself.
This is the Netherlands 2019, not Sicily 1992, but the assassination of a dedicated public servant like Wiersum attests to the sense of impunity gangsters in Amsterdam currently enjoy, and appears to be part of a strategy to intimidate not only Dutch state representatives but Dutch society as a whole.
Ironically, the Netherlands has seen a decrease in murders and overall violent crime, but there is a deep sense of urgency among Dutch police as they face the growing power of criminal networks on Dutch soil.
“The Netherlands is at risk of becoming a narco state,” Dutch Minister of Justice and Security Ferdinand Grapperhaus warned in August. The cops are concerned they are losing their grip. Some say they have lost it already.
Amsterdam, with a population of fewer than one million inhabitants, traditionally has been a tightly knit, largely affluent community. But on its narrow cobblestone streets and along its picture-perfect canals targeted killings have been taking place in broad daylight, some on cafe terraces, in restaurants, or among tourist attractions in the busy city center. Occasionally, innocent bystanders get hurt in the process.
In the past seven years there have been at least 50 homicides directly related to the criminal networks in greater Amsterdam.
Even when there’s no shooting, the threats of violence are none too subtle. Hand grenades have been left on the doorsteps of hotels, or hanging on the doorknobs of bars and so-called 'coffeeshops' where soft drugs are sold.
This year alone the police have counted 15 ‘hand grenade incidents,’ almost three times the number last year.
Three and a half years ago there was an even more gruesome warning when the severed head of a small-time criminal was left in the gutter facing a shisha lounge frequented by mobsters. At the time, in March 2016, it was as though Islamic State was visiting town as its much-publicized bids for attention through atrocity were imitated by local gangs.
Criminal networks usually do not appreciate press coverage, and in Amsterdam they made that point abundantly clear in June last year with two direct attacks. In the first a rocket launcher was fired at the windows of Panorama magazine, an attack for which a member of the motorcycle gang Caloh Wagoh mc Main Triad was arrested. In the second incident a van was driven into the building of the national newspaper De Telegraaf and set alight.
The violence would be bad enough, but the bigger picture is even worse. As documented in “The Underside of Amsterdam,” a report commissioned by Mayor Femke Halsema, the city is a financial hub where the criminal world has become interwoven with legitimate commercial organizations and enterprises.
Journalist Jan Tromp and police academy lecturer Pieter Tops, authors of “The Underside of Amsterdam,” see these incidents in the context of a key development that might serve as cautionary example as more governments around the world consider “decriminalizing” soft drugs as the Dutch have done.
“The Dutch authorities completely missed the transition from a country of users to a country of producers,” Tromp tells The Daily Beast, referring specifically to the extensive hothouse cultivation of cannabis and manufacture of synthetic drugs.
It should have been a predictable development for a country like the Netherlands. After all what the Dutch have always done best is international trade.
According to official figures, an estimated 18.8 billion euros ($20.75 billion) worth of ecstasy pills are produced yearly in Amsterdam. Making one pill costs only 17 cents but they are sold for 15 to 25 dollars a piece,so the profit margins are enormous and the trade is vastly and almost instantaneously globalized.
An example: Immediately after Donald J. Trump was elected in November 2016, the “xtc” producers in the Netherlands thought it funny to market a pill with the new president’s head stamped on it. In less than two days that pill was sold in Sydney, Australia. (The humor may also reflect the producers’ sense of impunity.)
In “The Underside of Amsterdam” Tromp and Tops describe a development that started rather prosaically in provincial southern towns near the Belgian border. It’s an area where people often feel ignored by government, a region where people and businesses can easily fly 'under the radar.'
Under ‘decriminalization,’ as opposed to legalization, the production of marijuana to this day is not controlled by the Dutch state, and growing and selling quickly became a business opportunity, especially for the poor.
“In the south they discovered marijuana and how enormously profitable it could be,” Tromp says. When asked by a friendly neighbor to loan their garden sheds in exchange for a little side money, many jumped at the occasion. Someone would come in and set it all up, putting in some heat lamps and sowing some seeds. It seemed innocent enough. But it didn’t take long before the whole business was thoroughly professionalized.
“After the marijuana came the heavier drugs; to this day the Netherlands is the world champion when it comes to the production of ecstasy and speed,” Tromp says. Now, the Netherlands is a big player internationally; its location, infrastructure and trading culture makes it good for any business and Dutch libertarianism, its politics and legal system, make it an ideal spot for illegal trade of this kind. “What started as a lenient regulatory drugs policy had spun completely out of control.”
Weed plantations and chemical labs popped up everywhere around the countryside while officials looked the other way. It was out of their sight and the authorities feared it was a problem too big to tackle.
“What you don’t know, you can’t be held responsible for,” says Tromp. If the problem is acknowledged, the government would have to spring into action. “So the government chose to lull itself asleep with the idea that it didn't really do any harm.” But it did.
A lively drug scene with an easygoing drug policy to match has been part of Amsterdam’s international appeal. It is a part of the liberal stance the city has embraced since the ‘60s. But as the drugs got harder and the profit margins bigger, the criminal networks started to infiltrate everyday life. A new generation of highly volatile and extremely callous drug crime lords has taken over without even the semblance of an honor code.
When Dutch minister of Justice and Security Ferdinand Grapperhaus admitted the risk of the Netherlands becoming a “narco state” in August, he was facing facts he’d hoped to avoid.
Only a year ago, when the police union came with findings similare to those in “The Underside,” Grapperhaus vehemently denied the gravity of the situation.
Meanwhile the police have complained that they are understaffed and not up to the task of facing the enormous international criminal networks operating here. Only a fraction of all the current cases can be picked up, they warned.
National Police Chief Erik Akerboom told the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant in an interview early last month that you can’t maintain a legal system if you are not willing to finance it. Only four years ago police staffing was cut back by 25 percent, a decision that would come to haunt the current government.
After the murder of attorney Wiersum, Minister Grapperhaus suddenly called for a thousand new officers and a specialized narco team. But that sounded like whistling in the dark. “To conjure up a thousand men in one year,” Akerboom told De Volkskrant “is not possible.”
In any case it may be too little too late. The lack of police staff is a major issue, but not at the root of the problem, a lack of government commitment is. There are just too few civil servants securing the checks and balances of the state. If, for instance, there are no border police checking the cargo and no civil servants doing background checks on entrepreneurs, criminal elements can work with ease. It’s a tragic byproduct of the years long political call for small government. Where small government rules, it turns out, criminal networks can flourish.
The gangsters became businessmen, invested in real estate, various other enterprises and in the hospitality business. With those investments they are gaining legitimacy and are creeping up in the system. Hence Grapperhaus’ belated admission that he could no longer deny the severity of the problem, and the Netherlands is on its way to becoming a “narco state.”
Today Amsterdam is riddled with hawala banks; an informal system developed in the Middle East and South Asia in which amounts of cash are transferred from person to person in a fashion that becomes virtually untraceable.
Of the money that can be tracked, one third of all ‘unusual’ Dutch financial activity traces back to Amsterdam. According to Tromp, even the soaring prices of Amsterdam real estate may be due to the impact of criminals investing in the city’s property market.
The international drug trade route runs through Amsterdam as easily as the water in its canals. It is a center for brokering deals and a distribution hub for marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine. Then, from within the Netherlands the drugs are redistributed throughout Europe.
Most cocaine never even reaches this city in fact. It arrives in the ports of Antwerp, a Belgian city right on the border, or Rotterdam and is transported right through to its final destination.
Last year, 19,000 kilos (about 21 tons) of cocaine was found in Rotterdam port. This year the number already is up to 28,000 kilos (about 31 tons), and seizures usually indicate much greater quantities are getting through. The situation is so grim that the mayor of Rotterdam recently traveled to Colombia to see if coke shipments could be stopped more effectively at the point of departure, but that is, to say the least, unlikely.
“In Rotterdam 14 million containers arrive each year. Only 0.6 percent of those are checked,” Tromp says. “Again that's the [Dutch] trader’s spirit: a container arrives in Rotterdam and there is only one economic interest, getting it shipped through ASAP. We can be pious about it, but that doesn't pay the bills.”
Rotterdam harbor has been plagued by corruption, as several police investigations have established in recent years, but it’s been an uphill slog. Just a month ago, news broke exposing the sabotage by custom services of an extensive three-year police investigation. The problem in the Dutch harbor is so widespread the police themselves have asked for a parliamentary inquiry.
At an international drug enforcement conference last year, a Dutch delegation of police chiefs headed by Minister Grapperhaus was confronted by the perception of police forces from around the world that view the Netherlands as one of the main producers of drugs for the global trade.
“Drug revenues are estimated at some 3 billion euros a year, and we, the authorities, recover less than a tenth of that,” Grapperhaus acknowledged in his speech at the conference. “In the meantime, the price of a hit job on our streets has fallen. For a few thousand euros, young amateurs in the Netherlands are willing to unload heavy automatic weapons into each other, police officers, and innocent bystanders.
“One of many recent innocent victims was a young man of 17,” said Grapperhaus. “I have grave concerns about the disruption that addictive drugs are causing. The drug economy undermines every aspect of society and threatens the legitimate economy. But it also threatens our standards, our values and our security.”
Grapperhaus concluded his speech by claiming the problem was half-solved; the killings were mainly perpetrated by one gang, he said, and those men, due to “excellent law enforcement work” were mostly behind bars.
At home, for a Dutch audience, Grapperhaus downplayed the problem and another year went by. Now even Grapperhaus admits there is only one conclusion left to draw: the Netherlands is well on its way to becoming a narco state.