A dark night sky hangs over Amsterdam as Peter Schouten drives home on Nov. 2, 2020. The lawyer is coming from a TV talk show, where he appeared with his colleague Onno de Jong and with Peter R. de Vries, a well-known crime reporter. He is traveling in an armored car, complete with bodyguards, their automatic weapons in the door compartments. Such has been Schouten’s life since he and the other two began working with the country’s most important witness – a criminal who has testified against the Dutch cocaine mafia. The man’s brother has already been shot and killed for this reason, as was his first lawyer, Schouten’s predecessor.
Who is next on the kill list? Schouten? De Jong? De Vries? Schouten looks out through bulletproof glass and sees De Vries walking alone on the street. The car drives up to him and Schouten asks: "Peter, what are you doing here alone in the dark?” De Vries: "I am walking to my car.” Schouten, according to his recollection of the conversation, replies: "But that’s insane.”
Cees, a police investigator in Amsterdam
Eight months later, on July 6 of this year, De Vries was again walking through Amsterdam’s city center. It was to be his final walk – and would end in another 250 paces. He had become a living legend. As a journalist, he had not only reported on criminal cases, but had also solved many of them through his TV show, "Peter R. de Vries, Kriminalreporter.” A one-man special commission, de Vries was, for his millions of viewers, proof that a single person could accomplish more than the entire law enforcement apparatus. He was brave. Fearless.
And he never used bodyguards.
On that July 6 evening, de Vries was again coming from a TV appearance, strolling along Lange Leidseswarsstraat from the studio to the parking garage where his BMW was parked. On his right and left were typical Dutch brick facades topped with hoisting beams from the old gable lifts. Below them, the kitchens of the world: an Indian restaurant called Bollywood, an Italian named O Sole Mio, a Thai place. There were tables set up outside for people meeting to eat, talk, laugh. Indeed, De Vries’ final steps led him through a street that embodied the country’s self-image: Cosmopolitan, light and lively, safe. A nice façade.
Then the street grew quieter, more residential. De Vries could see the entrance to the parking garage ahead, but he didn’t see the young man lurking on the staircase leading up to the right, to building numbers 176 and 178. The man had been waiting for De Vries. When the reporter walked past, the man fired five shots. One of them hit de Vries in the head.
He collapsed in front of a window plastered with advertising, one of them for a place called Cooldown Café 'De Kleine’ – a bitterly ironic coincidence in this horrific story. "De Kleine” was the former nickname of Ridouan Taghi, the suspected drug kingpin against whom the chief witness had testified.
»Woooooooooooooppppppppwoooooooooppppppppppp hahahaha insch’allah!«
Decrypted text message
There is no proof that Taghi sent the killer, even though he is the prime suspect. His lawyer says that her client had nothing to do with the De Vries murder. Formerly the most-wanted man in the Netherlands, Taghi has been in custody since his arrest in 2019. At first, he told his interrogators that the state should save its money and just "give me a life sentence.” He has since clammed up, however, and instructed his lawyer to deny all accusations. Still, the testimony of the chief witness isn’t the only thing incriminating him. There is also evidence provided by encrypted messages that have been decoded. These include an excited "Woooooooooooooppppppppwooooooooooppppppppppp hahahaha insch’ allah!” after another murder. His lawyer claims these messages weren’t from Taghi or from his cell phone.
A sea of flowers at the site where journalist Peter R. de Vries was murdered in AmsterdamFoto: ddp
But the shots fired on De Vries were about much more than intimidating a witness. They were a demonstration of power, a show of who has the say in the Netherlands and who can force others into silence.
And if Taghi, the boss in the high-security wing, isn’t behind the murders – the killings of the witness’ brother, of the chief witnesses’ first lawyer, and of De Vries – then the situation would be even more horrific. Because that would mean that other bosses in the international drug trade have gone to war – a war over cocaine, of which billions of euros worth is moved through the Netherlands into Europe every year. And in which a person’s life is only worth the equivalent of a few hundred grams. An execution costs an estimated 50,000 euros – a package deal that includes surveillance, an escape vehicle, a weapon and the killer himself. "In the problem areas of southeastern Amsterdam, young men are queuing up to commit murder on behalf of the gangs,” says Cees, a Dutch investigator who requested that his real name not be used in this story.
The primary suspect Ridouan TaghiFoto: Dutch Police
The De Vries murder is forcing the Netherlands to finally take stock. How bad has the situation become in the country, and how could things have devolved to this degree? The attack has shaken the country’s sense of itself and laid bare how absurd the cliché was of a supposedly cute, peaceful Netherlands in which a commitment to tolerance allows for people to calmly coexist – a tolerance that extends to soft drugs, because a joint doesn’t hurt anyone.
For a long time, nobody was bothered by the fact that the country’s permissive approach to hash and marijuana had helped brutal mobsters become powerful, and that the gangs had also begun carting tons of hard drugs through the country alongside the soft ones. That every year, 20 people were being killed in that underworld. But then, the gangsters stopped caring about the public peace.
In 2012, a gang war broke out, and ever since, the underworld has been extending its fingers towards the world up above. There was a shooting during which bullets flew into a children’s bedroom. In 2016, a severed head showed up on the sidewalk in front of a café. There have been killings of and threats to people who don’t belong to that milieu and are living a normal life, or to people who have had the courage to stand up for rule of law and freedom of the press. Or simply people who had the misfortune of being mistaken by a contract killer for his target.
The Netherlands, which wants to be so very permissive, is learning how un-free life can be in the grips of the mafia. The Taghi gang’s motto is supposedly "Wie praat, die gaat” – whoever talks, must go. Every journalist who reports about the Moroccan-dominated Mocro gangs. Every prosecutor who investigates them. Every lawyer who represents their opponents. Every witness who testifies against them. They all should be checking under their car for bombs and looking around to see who might be trailing them. They must be prepared to submit to police protection and give up their old lives, and for their family to give theirs up too.
Minimum annual value of synthetic drug sales in the Netherlands in 2017, according to a report
"All boundaries are gone,” says Cees, the investigator. Even Prime Minister Mark Rutte has supposedly fallen into the sights of the Mocro killers. Earlier this month, the police arrested a cousin of Taghi’s. The cousin is a lawyer who is part of the defense team and had constant access to Taghi – and, as indicated by intercepted communications, allegedly acted as Taghi’s channel over the course of several months, helping him deliver orders to the outside. Nothing seems unthinkable, nobody seems safe. DER SPIEGEL has spoken with people who are living under this constant threat and don’t know when it will stop or if it ever will. For them, there is no safety – it’s like living in a narco-state. For many people, living in Holland has become comparable to living in drug-ridden countries in Central and South America.
The Drug State
When the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) presented its 2019 situation report on organized crime, one figure stood out above all others: 161. That’s how many of the BKA’s organized crime investigations had links to the Netherlands. According to the report, the country was, "by a considerable margin,” ahead of other countries. "This demonstrates the status of the Netherlands as an important hub … in the sector of narcotics trafficking.” German investigators speak of it as the "largest hub” for drugs in Europe.
Who might have been surprised? As ever this summer, the smell of marijuana hung over the city – a pre-rolled joint from the coffee shop, "soft easy stoned” for 3 euros, is part of the standard tourist program. The country has managed to make soft drugs part of its folklore, like cheese and tulips. Just that it hasn’t stopped with soft drugs.
Synthetic ones too – Made in The Netherlands – have a first-class reputation: great quality, great price, and they fly off the shelves. The Dutch are global leaders, especially when it comes to the drug ecstasy. In a high-profile study, the criminologist Pieter Tops from the University of Leiden estimated that the country produced around a billion pills in 2017, and that revenues from synthetic drugs alone are 18.9 billion euros. At least.
Then there’s also the domestic cultivation of cannabis (every year, thousands of plantations are uncovered) and the country’s well-known talent for breeding new varieties. The product coming out of greenhouses these days makes the hippie generation’s joints seem like candy cigarettes.
"The Netherlands is Europe’s drug supermarket,” says Frank Buckenhofer, the head of the union representing customs officers in Germany. As an investigator at the Customs Investigation Services in the city of Essen, located not far from the Dutch border, he knows what he’s talking about: "The professionals for the import, the cultivation, the manufacturing and the distribution of drugs are all based in Holland.”
The import of drugs into the Netherlands, of course, is also related to its location on the coast. After Antwerp in Belgium, the port of Rotterdam is the second-largest point of entry for goods in Europe. But according to a current report from Europol and UNODC, the UN’s anti-narcotics authority, even the drugs that arrive in Antwerp mostly go to the Netherlands, and only later to the other countries on the continent. The most common substance these days is cocaine. The coke business is booming, and so too are the coke kings. "Cocaine is the problem,” says Cees, the Dutch investigator. "Cocaine has changed everything.”
Cocaine seized by customs officials in Hamburg in August 2019Foto: Hauptzollamt Hamburg / dpa
The most recent figures available indicate that more cocaine arrived from the fields of South America in 2019 than ever before: According to the UN authority, it was 1,784 tons, twice as much as in 2014. And the more of the stuff is harvested, the more it snows in the Netherlands, then in Germany. "We have seen a massive increase when it comes to cocaine,” Daniela Ludwig, the narcotics commissioner of the German government, said when presenting the BKA’S situation report about narcotics crime. "There is a continuous trend in the last few years,” said BKA head Holger Münch, who was sitting alongside her. The investigators are coming across ever larger shipments: The most recent record-breaking discovery in the port of Hamburg weighed 16 tons, with a street value of up to 3.5 billion euros. The primary suspect was, yet again, from the Netherlands.
But even if more drugs are being found, to the police it just means that even more is getting through. Cocaine is flooding the market, with the UN estimating that the number of coke-users in Western and Central Europe is 4.4 million. And growing.
Gangs can potentially earn billions, which brings to mind a phrase quoted by the State Criminal Police Office of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia: "The willingness to carry out violence increases along with the potential income.” With this in mind, says Thomas Jungbluth, who monitors organized crime for the Düsseldorf-based office, one must simply look to the Netherlands. "If these groups are killing an investigative journalist on a public street, that is a declaration of war. They apparently feel invincible.”
The De Vries case reminds Jungbluth of Italy in the 1990s, and of the murders of the mafia-hunters Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. That something "has developed in a civilized country with solid structures” like the Netherlands, he says, "is worrying to us all.” Today the Netherlands, tomorrow Germany? "We don’t want to have to go through that,” says Jungbluth.
An office building in The Hague, more cannot be written about it. Silent men are standing behind the entrance, their eyes hard and empty, their jackets bulging around their holsters. They are police bodyguards. Outside, in the courtyard, there is an armored limousine, and more policemen.
Lawyers Onno de Jong and Peter SchoutenFoto: Marcus Simaitis / DER SPIEGEL
The lawyers of the chief witness are sitting next to another for their conversation with DER SPIEGEL. Peter Schouten looks not unlike teddy bear that has been squeezed into a suit: a slightly portly man with a gray beard and smileys on his socks. He looks like a man who isn’t easily impressed. Onno de Jong, on the other hand, is ascetic, reserved. He lets Schouten do the talking, partly because Schouten was first involved in the case, the friend of a dead legend.
The case began for Schouten on September 18, 2019. That day, at 7:30 am, Derk Wiersum was walking to his car, parked outside his front door, when a man came up to him and shot him. Wiersum was the first lawyer of Nabil B., the chief witness, and the killing set off shockwaves that reached all the way up to the government, with Prime Minister Rutte called the attack "extremely disturbing.” Nobody could have imagined something like this happening in the Netherlands. Nobody? Nabil B. could.
A photo of Derk Wiersum, the lawyer who was murdered for representing the chief witnessFoto: Jeroen Jumelet / picture alliance / ANP
In early 2017, Nabil B. had shadowed a man who was to be murdered. He also procured the escape vehicle. At that point, he says today, he was still part of the Taghi gang. But the killer shot the wrong person, something that happens time and again in the Dutch liquidation business. The perpetrators are young men who want to move up in the gang and have itchy trigger fingers. They are not especially smart and use too many bullets, according to a publication by the Justice Ministry, a volume dedicated to contract killings. One time, they executed an intern at an Amsterdam neighborhood center with a Kalashnikov because he looked similar to their target. Another time they hit a DJ, then a dishwasher. And in early 2017, a man who was coincidentally standing at night on the veranda of a house where the target person also lived.
The problem for Nabil B. was that the accidental victim himself belonged to a well-known family-run gang – one that, it was said, shouldn’t be messed with. And it didn’t take long for that family to hear a name: Nabil B. Suddenly, he was stuck in a trap. And after a few days, he was more afraid of being killed by his own gang, because he knew too much, than by the family of the victim. He approached the latter, then allowed himself to be arrested by the police under a pretext and began to talk, talk and talk. Forty-one statements. The man who supposedly hired him was Ridouan Taghi, whom the police had previously believed to be the head of a Mocro gang. Nabil B. claimed that Taghi was behind a whole series of killings in that world.
Two months later, the police presented its star witness. Nabil B. had warned them not to out him too soon because at that point the "bodies will fall.” And he was right. Not even one week later, a man arranged a job interview with Nabil B.’s brother, who was the head of an advertising agency, had two children, no criminal record and no contact with the criminal world. The man pretending to be a job applicant shot him from behind. It was the first message from the mafia, or at least that’s how it was understood: that if Nabil B. is unreachable, they’ll just take out someone close to him.
The next year, Wiersum, the lawyer, was killed, a day that Onno de Jong still remembers well. It was, after all, the last day he set foot in his own home. At the time, he was representing the leading witness in a different gang trial. There were, though, connections to the Taghi gang and widespread concern that De Jong could also be murdered. He was sitting at his office desk when the State Prosecutors Office called: Don’t go outside until you are picked up, they told him. "They brought me home so that I could pack.” Since then, he has lived under police protection at a secret location.
After Wiersum’s death, the judiciary asked 20 lawyers if they could take on Nabil B.’s case. Nobody wanted to. The 21st, though, agreed. To avoid becoming a target, he remained anonymous, was never on camera during video questioning and his voice was digitally distorted. But Nabil B. didn’t get along with him.
The casket of the murdered Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de VriesFoto: Bruno Press / abaca pess / ddp
So the witness got in touch with Peter R. de Vries, hoping that the famous reporter could help him. De Vries told him: First you need a lawyer. And De Vries had one in mind: Peter Schouten. "If everyone runs away, all of society suffers,” Schouten told DER SPIEGEL – and he says that it was clear he wouldn’t retreat.
Peter and Peter. One Peter is now dead, the other is risking his life. He, too, is under police protection 24 hours a day, but doesn’t want to live in a safe house like De Jong. "If you are placed in a barracks, your whole life becomes unbearable,” Schouten says. Does he regret accepting the job? "Not for a second.” De Jong, who joined him as co-counsel, says no, "never.”
Schouten still clearly remembers one particular conversation with De Vries. "I told him that it would become dangerous for us, for him more so than for me. 'You have the famous name. If they want attention, terror, chaos, then you are the primary target.’” But De Vries refused to be intimidated.
In October, Schouten received a tip from inside the milieu that all three of them were now on a hitlist. Schouten and De Jong, the lawyers, already enjoyed the highest degree of protection, but not De Vries. He didn’t want to constantly have a bodyguard with him, saying that such a situation would make it impossible for him to work as a journalist. Plus, in the eyes of the judiciary, he was just a reporter and not a key element in the legal proceedings. Even just over a week before the murder, when the police received information that De Vries had been shadowed by an unknown man on his way to the parking garage on Lange Leidsedwarsstraat, he remained without protection. The unknown man, as would later become clear, was apparently the driver of the getaway car on the night of the actual assassination.
The Crime Boss
Since March, Taghi has been sitting in the docket in "De Bunker,” the colloquial name for the highest security court in the country, located in the Amsterdam neighborhood of Nieuw-West. It is the site of the "Marengo” trial – a fantasy name produced by the judiciary’s computer system. The primary accusation against Taghi and 16 others: six contract killings. The murder of the chief witnesses’ brother is not among them, nor is the killing of Wiersum, the lawyer. In both those cases, only the alleged killer has been identified. Wiersum’s killers were each sentenced to 30 years in prison last week, but the trial was unable to clarify who put them up to it.
Criminal investigators at the site of the de Vries murderFoto: DPG / action press
The chief witness -- along with the encrypted chats that the police were able to decode starting in 2016 -- were able to connect Taghi to other killings. Before the attack in which the wrong man was shot on the veranda in Utrecht, he wrote: "I’ll have heads on it” – "heads” being underworld slang for assassins. After a killer shot an old Taghi associate who had talked too much, he wrote: "Haha … I’m the best … I’m on the hunt … and I need blood …. Soon, another scumbag.” Taghi’s lawyer claims that her client didn’t write those messages either.
Ridouan Taghi was born in Morocco in 1977 and grew up in Vianen, a town not far from Utrecht to which his parents had moved as guest workers, as migrants who arrived as part of a temporary work program were called. Newspapers in the Netherlands have described his rise to public enemy No. 1 in detail – from dealing on the streets to solidifying his place as one of the kingpins in the international drug trade.
By the age of 17, Taghi had had enough of school and started selling hashish on the streets. He was part of a youth gang that called itself BAD Boys, with BAD being an acronym for "black and dangerous” or "black and deadly.”
were the victims of contract killings in the Netherlands from 2013 to 2019
Taghi apparently had plenty of ambition and decent business acumen. He is thought to have bought hash by the kilo from a large-scale dealer and sold it on the streets in and around Utrecht. His Moroccan roots apparently also gave him a boost. The country is a primary source of cannabis, and Taghi is thought to have set up a supply chain from there, including fast boats to Spain, from where the goods would be sent further north. Once the chain was set up, he was perfectly placed to be the prime beneficiary of a 2006 strategy shift by the South American cocaine cartels: They started sending more of their product into Europe via West Africa and Morocco. The supply chain allegedly established by Taghi could handle both hash and cocaine, but the latter was more profitable.
Taghi, who changed his place of residence to Morocco in 2009, nevertheless remained an unknown to the Dutch police. And he was still largely unknown in 2012, when the killing started. That year, investigators managed to seize 225 kilograms of cocaine in the Port of Antwerp, a laughably small amount by today’s standards, but back then, it was significant. Two gangs had been waiting for the delivery, but neither of them knew of the secret police raid and they accused each other of having stolen the cocaine.
That’s how it began. In 2012, two people were killed in Amsterdam in a wild shootout in a residential district. Then came retaliatory murders, and more murders to avenge those murders. Preventative murders, paranoid murders, statement murders. There were murders to save face, and murders of people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. And the killing just kept on going. Justice Ministry statistics list 178 contract killings resulting in 189 deaths, though not all of them had to do with this one gang war. A typical indicator of such "liquidations” was a burned-out getaway vehicle, torched to destroy evidence.
Who was fighting against whom? Apparently the killers themselves didn’t always know, a confusion that can be seen in the text messages. But the killing continued, and in 2014, the bosses of two rival gangs were murdered, creating a vacuum that Taghi was happy to step into, along with two other cocaine mobsters. The police were so unfamiliar with his name that they initially wrote it as Redouan instead of Ridouan.
They only found his trail after a special unit took a closer look at some of the burned-out vehicles. A BMW led them to a group that had apparently become specialists in contract killings. They trained with Kalashnikovs and were conducting surveillance on five men. The alleged team of assassins was made up of former members of the BAD Boys, the gang from Taghi’s youth – and their prospective targets included a man from Morocco. He was driving when the police got ahold of him: Don’t drive any further! Get out now! the police told him. The police had learned that the assassins had attached a tracking device to the vehicle. After that, a friend of the Moroccan target began talking to the police, telling them that a certain Taghi had targeted his friend and many others.
This informant, known as "the Butcher,” was the first witness to mention Taghi’s name. Then came Nabil B., the chief witness, and soon after that, investigators were able to decrypt more and more mobile phone messages. For the police, all the puzzle pieces came together to reveal a man who was so powerful and simultaneously so distrustful that he saw potential betrayal lurking everywhere. A man who preferred just to kill those in whom he had lost trust.
In a meeting in early August in Amsterdam, Paul Vugts, a journalist with the daily Het Parool, is wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, a perfect outfit if you want to avoid attracting attention. How old? "Forty-seven,” he responds. And will he still be 47 in the fall when the article will appear in DER SPIEGEL? "Yeah, I hope so.” It’s the kind of black humor which could potentially double as a sort of morbid premonition.
Vugts writes about Taghi and other "Mocro” kingpins. In 2017, he received a tip that a different gang – not Taghi’s – wanted to see him dead and that a couple of things would happen before he was killed. Each of those predictions wound up coming true, aside from a bullet in his head. For that reason, he has been living under the highest level of police protection since October 2017. He says he is the first journalist to be protected by the same commando responsible for keeping watch on the royal family.
Het Parool reporter Paul VugtsFoto: Marcus Simaitis / DER SPIEGEL
Vugts hadn’t written anything that seemed obviously dangerous. But the gang had come to believe that he knew more about murders in the milieu than had been printed and would soon be publishing the details.
He and his girlfriend moved into a safehouse together. He sold his own home because he knew that he would never be able to return. He also sold his car, since rental cars are safer if you swap them out often enough. After a couple of the criminals ended up in prison, others fled or ended up in a pool of blood, he hoped that the worst was over. Maybe, with a bit of luck. "Nobody ever just tells you that it’s over.”
Vugts, in any case, released himself from personal protection half a year later, after consulting with the police. He was aiming to regain something of his old life. The first time he went to a street fair, he says, it felt like he was jumping into the void. Never before, he says, had he been so touched as when his girlfriend – after all that they had endured – asked him if he wanted to get married.
Vugts’ parents were social workers and always had foster children in their home, youths from difficult backgrounds. Today, in the city where he lives, Vugts sees drug dealers use such kids to either smuggle cocaine or work as spotters and report to the gang where a target is currently located. Or as killers. "It is important to write about it,” he says. And even though, as a police reporter, there isn’t much room for pathos, he says: "If I were to stop, the others will have won. And this isn’t a game. It’s about our democracy.”
Paul Vugts, crime reporter for the daily Het Parool
For Vugts, things started happening when Taghi rose up to become the name and face of the "Mocro” mafia, when the police slowly beginning to understand who they were dealing with – and Taghi’s name first became public thanks to a blogger by the name of Martin Kok. Kok, whom Vugts knew well, had spent a fair amount of time in prison himself. He drank, took cocaine and tried to launch an escort service. On his website Vlinderscrime.nl, he would write about the underworld, posting whatever information he ran across without spending too much time checking it. Including the name Ridouan Taghi.
Taghi, as Vugts recalls, filed a legal complaint against Kok, a civilized approach, but lost. Then, one day, an explosive device appeared under Kok’s car. A passerby luckily noticed the device, which had the explosive power of 40 hand grenades. There is a decrypted message from April 2016 that has been ascribed to Taghi: "This sick, sick Vlinderscrime has to go to sleep Sir!” The term "sleep,” investigators have come to realize, is code for "die.” And it appears frequently in the text messages.
On Dec. 8, 2016, Vugts met with Kok and a few others for lunch. "Kok knew that he was a target, but he didn’t do anything about it,” Vugts recalls. "He said he would probably be killed by bullets before he was killed by cancer.” That same afternoon, a contract killer tried to assassinate him, but the man’s weapon may have jammed and Kok escaped. The same evening, in front of the Boccaccio Bordello, his luck ran out.
Since then, the rules of survival for police reporters in the Netherlands have changed. In June 2018, a delivery van slammed into the headquarters of De Telegraaf. A man climbed out, lit the van on fire and blew it up. The paper had committed the sin of comparing the Netherlands to a narco-state. Two crime reporters from the paper now apparently have round-the-clock protection after credible information turned up that their lives were in danger.
"It is clear to everybody: They are killing journalists,” says Vugts. "It would be a ridiculous lie to claim that you don’t think about it.” Nevertheless, he is not about to stop. "But everyone has to make that decision for themselves.” Like a journalist colleague of his, who prefers to remain anonymous. His first rule: "My life is more important to me than my job.” His second rule is to only write what the police already know. Which is why he still hasn’t published a story for which he has completed the reporting. "If it runs, I’ll be on TV for a few days, and then it will be forgotten. But these people would never forget me.”
In the Netherlands, some stories that don’t appear because human lives are at stake.
The fact that the study led by Pieter Tops, the crime expert, created such waves in 2018 wasn’t just because of the numbers – a billion pills per year. It was largely because Tops held up the mirror to his compatriots. How can it be, he and his team of researchers asked, that such a small country has been able to maintain a top spot in the global illicit drug industry over the course of several decades?
Because, Tops claims, it is perfectly positioned for the role.
He talks about the policy of tolerance for soft drugs that has been in place since the 1970s. And about the eternal mentality of the Dutch. He paints the picture of a country in which drug consumption is trivialized and the drug trade is seen by many people as a basically normal sector of the economy.
Criminologist Pieter Tops
He sees it as a country walking an extremely thin line between being easygoing and being negligent, between being business-minded and blinded by profit. In Amsterdam alone, there are more than 160 coffee shops raking in decent profits with hashish and marijuana. The study describes the widespread attitude as being: "If people are allowed to use something, why should producing it be such a problem?”
Jan Meeus, a crime reporter for NRC Handelsblad, a daily, who focuses primarily on the economic aspect of the drug trade, says laconically: "First: We in Holland have been smuggling since we have existed. Second: When it comes to drugs, we have the expertise, the technology and the trade routes. And third: To change anything, you’ll have to reprogram an entire nation.”
Tops used synthetic drugs to illustrate the problem. Although countries like Britain and the U.S. banned amphetamines in the 1960s and early 1970s, it took the Netherlands until 1976. The same happened with ecstasy in the 1980s. Even then, the report makes clear, the bans in Holland usually came as a result of political pressure from abroad – from countries being flooded with pills from the Netherlands. But by the time Holland got around to blacklisting the drugs, domestic gangs had long since managed to leverage their extended legality into an advantage on the global market. An advantage they have subsequently been able to defend using their contacts and know-how.
Drug-friendly policies for marijuana and hashish began in 1976 with the Opium Act, essentially a capitulation to the hippie movement. The law drew a strict dividing line between soft and hard drugs, which for the population was essentially a definition of "good” and "bad” drugs. Purchasing marijuana, of course, remains illegal according to the letter of the law. But it isn’t enforced below the level of five grams per person per day.
It was a solution that seemed to fit the country perfectly. And it opened a new business sector. Or, as Tops says of his country: "In the clash between profit and principle, profit usually wins.” It also set a new standard in drug policy, with Dutch governments since then prioritizing national health. Those who take soft drugs shouldn’t be ostracized, according to the prevailing approach, to prevent them from sliding down the slope to hard drugs.
And it is true that one rarely runs into junkies on the streets of Amsterdam, just happy stoners. In 2019, the Netherlands was toward the middle of the field in drug death statistics, comparable to Germany. The strategy, in other words, seems to have worked – were it not for the fact that it "promoted the rise of a large, criminal drug industry,” as Tops’ study notes. That, too, has come with a price. Deaths by murder rather than by overdose.
Coffee shop The Bulldog in AmsterdamFoto: Berlinda van Dam / Hollandse Hoogte / IMAGO
Dutch pragmatism – others call it hypocrisy – is perhaps best illustrated by the so-called "backdoor problem.” Coffee shops are permitted to sell marijuana at the front of the shop – small amounts per person. It actually adds up to quite a lot, since many tourists come just for that reason. But the necessary largescale deliveries to the coffee shops are illegal. They come in clandestinely through the backdoor.
"That was, of course, attractive to gangs, and that’s how it began,” says Robin Hofmann, referring to the narco-war. Hofmann is from Germany but works as a criminologist at Maastricht University. "The drug war is a consequence of the tolerant drug policies,” he says. "The tolerance of soft drugs promoted the trade with hard drugs.” And Dutch gangs sell anything, if it brings in money: hashish, cocaine, whatever. "Later, the drugs grew harder, the profits larger and the battle for the market more vicious,” says Hofmann. "The one thing led to the other.”
It would be interesting to know what pioneers of the soft-drug wave have to say about Hofmann’s theory. One of those is Wernard Bruining, who opened the first coffee shop in Amsterdam, the Mellow Yellow, in 1972 back when it was still illegal. And Henk de Vries (no relation to Peter R. de Vries), who opened the second one, Bulldog, in 1975. These days, Bruining delivers lectures on the healing powers of cannabis. De Vries, meanwhile, leveraged his stoner hangout into a business empire, including two hotels and a chain of coffee shops.
In interviews, the two are full of wonderful anecdotes about the wild beginnings – how Bruining would smuggle cannabis in from America in refrigerators and how De Vries would receive visits from the police up to five times a day. But when it comes to questions about the coffee shops fueling the underworld, De Vries grows quiet. In a statement delivered via his head of marketing, he says that "he doesn’t want to become involved in some discussion about hard drugs.” He does, though, say that thanks to the coffee shops, addiction rates to hard drugs plunged in the 1970s. And Bruining? He also prefers to dodge questions as to whether the coffee shop movement contributed to the growth of the gangs. Instead, he makes a plea for the complete legalization of cannabis. Bans, he says, simply lay the groundwork for higher prices and more crime.
Cees, chief organized crime investigator
Cyrille Fijnaut, a criminologist and former government adviser, believes that the coffee shops are part of the problem. "The people behind this policy of tolerance couldn’t imagine that their policy could lead to a problem with organized crime,” he says. In the 1990s, the situation grew even worse, he says, with the mass production of synthetic drugs and the establishment of large-scale cannabis plantations. The government, says Fijnaut, looked the other way for a long time. For that reason, Fijnaut came forward in 2000 with a rather provocative premise. The Netherlands, he said, "was on course to becoming the Colombia of Europe.” By way of explanation, he said: "We, too, produce huge amounts of illegal drugs.” But the country’s political leaders only began understanding in 2000 all the risks associated with what was happening, he says, and only really did so 10 years later: money laundering, corruption and contract killings.
By then, from Fijnaut’s perspective, it was already too late. If you allow the drug industry to grow to such a size, he believes, you can’t act surprised by "the violence deployed to defend market share and to battle the state.”
The government has now essentially adopted that view. Approximately 500 million euros are to be added to the budget for fighting drug-related crime. And Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus wrote a rather astonishing letter to the country’s parliament in which he called the policy of permissiveness into question. The approach has "often been too naïve,” he wrote, and argued that it had been wrong to believe that the coffee shops would be supplied by the gardens of private citizens. Instead, criminal networks had "discovered an unbelievably profitable business” before expanding it to include cocaine and ecstasy.
Is Taghi then a demon that the Netherlands itself called forth with its lax approach to drugs? Born in the year after the Opium Act, he also got his start by selling soft drugs on the street, thus laying the cornerstone for one of Europe’s most powerful cocaine cartels. That, at least, is what the investigators believe.
Had one visited Amsterdam police headquarters on Elandsgracht 15 years ago, one would not have been met by a "Cees” and a "Robert.” The officers would have used their real names. Holland was an open country, and the police reflected that openness. They also would have allowed themselves to be photographed from the front, and not just from behind. Robert, 48, is head of the special commission looking into the De Vries murder. Cees, 52, is chief investigator for organized crime, which has spent recent years doing all it can to prevent the worst before it comes to pass. The gunfire. The deaths. And the avalanche of cocaine.
These days, the two don’t even appear in court files under their real names – both have merely been assigned numbers. If lawyers and journalists are no longer safe, it is but a small step before judges, prosecutors and police investigators must fear for their lives. "Of course, I look around before I walk to my car. I’m not afraid, but the danger is coming closer,” says Cees.
A state prosecutor with whom he often works has been under police protection for some time. "She has a husband, children. That puts everyone under enormous pressure.” Even tried and tested drug investigators in Germany are shocked by how dangerous the situation has become for their counterparts in the Netherlands.
A police spokesman, who also requests his name not be used, says that because of the danger, they are careful to avoid having the same officer comment to the press too often regarding the Taghi and de Vries cases. They cycle people through so that nobody ends up becoming the face of the police, and thus a target for the next demonstration of power.
One must understand, Cees says, that cocaine changed everything. They used to all celebrate when they confiscated 100 kilograms of cocaine. Now, he hardly even notices. These days, the amounts at stake are measured in the tons, in the hundreds of millions of euros. And that, he says, has changed the criminals as well. At some point, they started seeing themselves as masters of the universe. He explains that this has made everything more unpredictable. "Most criminals don’t want to attract attention,” says Cees. But that is no longer a concern of Taghi’s.
The young gang members have changed as well. They used to just rob stores, one after the other, before moving on to cars and apartments. It took some time before they turned to gun violence. Now, though, they sit out their prison term for burglary, get out, and wham, shoot somebody with a Kalashnikov, Cees says, even if there is a seven-year-old child in the victim’s car. Then, they are caught because their getaway car doesn’t start – because in their panic they forget that automatic cars must be in "park” to start. They are, he says, too young and inexperienced, but prepared to do anything.
Such is the current situation, and the police, Robert believes, is partly to blame. "Between 2005 and 2012, we didn’t initiate a single drug-related investigation.” And what about the narcotics unit? "We didn’t have one,” he responds. Politicians, he says, apparently thought it would be better to invest money and personnel in the fight against violent crime and money laundering.
The Amsterdam Police Department was restructured, establishing an organized crime unit. "Drugs were not the focus of the unit,” the police spokesman confirms. Cees says: "When the war then broke out in 2012, we knew hardly anything about those guys.” Investigators were just lucky that the chief witness came forward. And that law enforcement in other countries was able to deliver several data sets, which is how they received the decrypted text messages sent by the dealers. Otherwise, the Amsterdam police would still be trying to catch up.
The police also had to overcome the fact that a reform had been implemented that reduced the number of police stations, but enlarged the few remaining ones, thus limiting their knowledge of what was going on in the streets. It was a cost-saving measure, but it meant fewer contacts on the ground. Saving money is always a top priority in Holland. Even Taghi derided the approach in his first hearing, according to Het Parool. The fact that the reward for his capture was only 100,000 euros was typically "Calvinistic,” he said, and "stingy.”
Cees says that the public prosecutors’ offices also suffered from the focus on saving money. "The courts are full. We could bring them a number of cases, but what’s the point if they won’t be prosecuted?” Plus, police and prosecutors don’t have a legal mandate to investigate every crime. There is no legal requirement to investigate, as there is in Germany and most other countries. It is known as the "principle of opportunity,” and means that Dutch law enforcement officials focus their attentions on violations that have political priority. Drug offenses have not traditionally fallen into that category.
This is exacerbated by the fact that some courts also continue to approach drug-related crime as though it’s not a big deal. There is a recommendation to public prosecutors that they only ask for sentences of six to eight months for the import of 500 to 1,000 grams of hard drugs. For a time, Holland’s prisons were so empty that cells would be rented out to Belgium and Norway. Last year, Cees’ colleagues busted a cocaine smuggling ring that had brought in six tons of cocaine. Several suspects are still waiting for their trials but are not behind bars. The court decided against putting them in pre-trial detention. For six tons of coke.
When contacted with questions about the impact to Germany of drugs from the Netherlands, the General Directorate of Customs, which is responsible for narcotics smuggling, responded: "We have no reliable data.”
Perhaps the situation in Germany is comparable to that in the Netherlands 10 years ago. Cees, the Dutch investigator, says they haven’t yet found information about drugs that Taghi may have smuggled into Germany. "But there must be something,” he says, given the amount of cocaine that doesn’t remain in Holland.
Daniela Ludwig, the German government’s federal drug commissioner
And gangs from the Netherlands have long since established a foothold in Germany. In July 2020, a group shipped a container carrying 800 kilograms of cocaine from Antwerp down the Rhine River to Karlsruhe, Germany. Even though police watched the smugglers unload the container, they managed to elude the grasp of law enforcement in Stuttgart. Apparently, there was a large network in place to take on the cocaine and sell it onward. When the German police apprehended the Dutch team that emptied the container, they didn’t have a single gram of cocaine in their possession.
Some narcotics investigators in Germany say that their Dutch counterparts "have completely lost control” and claim that the situation isn’t nearly as bad in Germany. On the other hand, though, they say, Germany has for years paid too little attention to narcotics and, more broadly, to organized crime. The fight against terror and extremists took priority.
"I don’t want a situation in Germany similar to the one in the Netherlands,” says Daniela Ludwig, the German government’s federal drug commissioner. "We can still get ahead of the wave,” she says, assuming that the fight against organized drug smuggling is made "an absolute top priority for law enforcement.”
Cees has been at it too long to be particularly optimistic. "Perhaps Germany is lucky at the moment and doesn’t have somebody like Taghi. But I’m guessing you’ll ultimately have it just as bad.”