It's 9:50 a.m. on a Sunday morning at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. KLM Flight 785 from Curaçao has just landed. Customs officials call it the cocaine flight, and the narcotics team gets ready for action.
In the disembarking tunnel in front of gate E 24, the passengers arriving from Curaçao are greeted by four customs officers and a large German Shepherd. The dog immediately picks out two young men it finds suspicious. The men are taken to an enclosed area for a full body check. Then they walk another twenty steps and their carry-on baggage is searched.
This is followed by a checked baggage inspection in the underground baggage claim area. Thirty customs officers spend a full two hours taking apart bags, suitcases, umbrellas, cameras and toiletry kits. The big shake-down at baggage carousel 19 takes place behind tall privacy screens, to prevent the dealers waiting outside from making eye contact with their couriers.
In the past, Schiphol hasn't exactly been known for its attentive customs officers. But now its drug searches have become as intense as military inspections. The only difference is that those caught usually face no consequences whatsoever. And that's why the searches do not serve as a deterrent.
Soft laws for hard drugs
Each year, at least 20,000 kilos of cocaine are transported by the so-called "cocaine coolies" along thier preferred route between the Netherlands Antilles and Amsterdam's airport. Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner estimates the supply coming in through Schiphol covers at least half of Europe's demand. He recently announced, with much fanfare, that the government will now be cracking down on the drug smugglers: "Our rule is zero tolerance."
But this iron-clad credo is backed by little substance. In practice, up to three kilos of hard drugs are tolerated in the Netherlands. Anyone who remains below this critical threshold is sent back home without prosecution. And, of course, every smuggler receives a proper receipt from the authorities if he gets caught so he can prove that he hasn't simply sold it on his own. To be put the three kilo rule in perspective, that mass is a hundred times the amount for which the death penalty is imposed in Singapore.
In the derisive words of the opposition, combating the drug trade at Schiphol is like "cleaning a full bathtub with the faucet running." Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende hasn't even been able to get a much-heralded law enacted that could be used to prevent repeat offenders from entering the country.
Holland's neighbors are appalled by this laissez-faire attitude. Every few months, the French government threatens to reintroduce checkpoints at the French-Belgian border if The Hague doesn't finally start cracking down. In Germany, Bavarian Interior Minister Günther Beckstein calls the Dutch drug policy "totally irresponsible." His outrage is understandable -- after all, the lion's share of the cocaine seized in Germany arrives by way of the Netherlands.
Shooting for zero tolerance
And yet, what should Balkenende do about the problem? Dutch prisons are full, and half the inmates are drug dealers. Should he build new prisons after having radically cut social services? He can't afford that politically. People also have a tolerance limit.
In the 41 weeks since the introduction of the "100 percent inspection" system, in which officers search each individual passenger as well as the entire aircraft, Schiphol's narcotics squad has had its hands full. They've made 3,166 preliminary arrests, an increase of more than a thousand over the previous year. The figure would be much higher if KLM weren't sorting out suspicious-looking passengers before its flights take off from the Antilles. In the boom summer of 2003, for example, several thousand passengers were denied access to flights -- 46 on August 14, 34 on August 16, 48 on August 18, and so on. The only consequence for those who were turned away was the loss of a ticket.
Customs officers at Hato Airport on Curaçao accomplished a record catch in August 2002, when Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and his wife Máxima were on board a flight to Amsterdam following a tour of the Antilles. Ninety-nine smugglers had checked in for the flight, expecting that passengers would not be checked if members of the royal family were on board.
Nowadays, coke usually travels in the intestines of the smugglers, who the Dutch like to call the "little ball swallowers." The "balls" consist of two rubber-glove fingers that have been cut off and pulled over one another, tightly knotted, tied together with dental floss, sealed with insulation tape and, finally, dipped in liquid wax. Each ball contains eight to 10 grams of cocaine.
Smugglers who have swallowed the balls are usually easy to recognize by their heavy perspiration, foul breath and yellowish tongues. They usually travel with carry-on baggage only and pay in cash.
Suspects are X-rayed at Schiphol. Anyone who is found to have the balls in their stomach is taken to the so-called "Poop Clinic" in Bloemendaal, north of Haarlem, to empty their intestines. They're kept there until they have excreted their cocaine packets naturally. Then they get deported.
Caribbean white gold
Although the ABC islands of the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) are part of the Netherlands, The Hague has little influence there. The Dutch government was powerless, for example, when all checks at Hato Airport were temporarily cancelled in April 2002 because local authorities feared retribution by the local drug mafia.
They have good reason to be afraid. Last year, police in Curaçao recorded about 50 murders. That's about 25 times as many murders per 100,000 inhabitants as in Germany. And almost all of the victims had ties to the drug trade.
Meanwhile, KLM and the customs authorities on the Antilles are cooperating once again, sometimes effectively, sometimes not so effectively. In the summer of 2002, when customs officials on the neighboring island of Bonaire forced a dozen KLM stewardesses to strip in front of male officers in order to search their genital areas for cocaine, and cooperation subsequently deteriorated. From time to time, KLM has even been forced to cancel the flight altogether because it was no longer capable of handling the flood of smugglers.
The cocaine trade is presumably the island's most important business. The white powder is as important to Curaçao as oil is to Saudi Arabia.
Most of the cocaine is imported from the South American mainland. The trip from the Colombian coast to the ABC islands takes only about three to four hours by speedboat. Until it's ready to be delivered, the cocaine remains hidden under water in watertight packets attached to fishing boats in Willemstad harbor.
The bulk of the business is run by five wholesalers, who supply about two dozen middlemen. The "Big Boys" of Curaçao recruit most of their flying personnel in Fuik, a sprawling housing development in the southern portion of the island, where the typically bright colors of this sunny tropical paradise fade into drab shades of gray and brown.
Fuik is a netherworld of garbage, cactuses, corrugated metal and rusty windmills covered with sheet metal painted red, white and blue. Dirty bits of plastic blown by the wind across the barren landscape flutter in the branches of dry cacti. In the evening, when the sun sinks behind the flat-topped mountain and into the sea, the garbage-draped cacti are silhouetted against the Caribbean horizon like an army of ragged soldiers.
The central meeting point in Fuik is the "Donald Duck Snackbar" along the town's dusty main road. This is where "moles" meet to discuss possible deals over a Coke and chicken drumsticks.
A school for smugglers
Across the street, an old woman sells Kadushi -- a spicy soup of cactus, peppers and meat -- out of an aluminum pot. If you ask the woman where you can buy coke here, she doesn't respond.
The police occasionally drive by, but they rarely stop. Of course, the police know all about this unofficial training site for drug couriers, where the smugglers learn how to ingest the plastic balls without harming themselves. But they ignore it. The police officers don't want trouble.
Couriers who botch a trip two times in a row are unlikely to get a third trip that quickly. That's why they're more afraid of the drug bosses than of Amsterdam customs officials. And that's why they pay attention when they're being taught how to transport drugs.
During their training, candidates have to swallow condoms filled with powdered sugar. The wobbly little objects would certainly go down much more easily with a few swallows of water, but as much of the body cavity as possible is needed for the balls. Beginners can pack 30 to 40, and professionals with large stomachs swallow up to 120, even though it's painful.
The couriers must follow strict dietary rules during the flight. The only beverages couriers can drink are milk and apple juice, and all they can eat is rice or dry bread. The body should remain stretched out during the flight, to the extent that this is possible in economy class seats. Once the couriers arrive, they're supposed to "go through customs with a poker face and report to the waiting contact." If customs lets them through, that is.
If one of the little rubber packets bursts during the trip, the courier will die. Ten grams of cocaine in the stomach are just as deadly as ten grams of potassium cyanide. That's why the couriers pack their own cocaine packets-- like paratroopers who pack their own parachutes.
The plateau above the Bay of Fuik was once a blossoming, prosperous area. Half of the Fuikers sold manioc, mangoes, beans, melons and pineapples in Willemstad. The other half worked in the local phosphate mine. The mine is now closed, and the farms are gone. The young people aren't interested in working in the fields and gardens. In Fuik there are only two sources of income: welfare and smuggling cocaine.
50,000 a kilo
But a black courier can earn 2,000 on an Amsterdam shuttle. Whites are paid an additional 1,000 because they have what the police call a more favorable risk profile.
Even though one out of three or four couriers is caught, the profit margins are enormous. One kilogram of cocaine costs 3,000 in the Netherlands Antilles. Add to that 3,000 for the courier's fee and expenses. That brings the cost to 6,000 once the drugs reach Amsterdam, where wholesalers pay 15,000 a kilo. By the time the same kilo reaches Quadrant 4, the drug market in the town of Venlo at the German border, it goes for 50,000.
The quick cocaine high is becoming increasingly popular all across Europe, which explains the tremendous increase in sales. Crack and heroin, on the other hand, are on the decline. They're not as well-tolerated and less predictable. And then there's another factor that's especially important to the Dutch: You can't drink Heineken with these drugs. But beer and coke go together pretty well. Aficionados call it "wet snorting."
Cocaine also doesn't cause a hangover or watery eyes like heroin. It's a drug for hip young people. Many prefer to overlook the fact that it's a killer drug that draws the user into addiction.
Sympathizers have constructed a sort of Robin Hood-like aura around the cocaine trade on Curaçao, claiming it offers many their only hope to rise out of poverty. But this overly romanticized notion of this misanthropic trade conveys a distorted picture. It is true that the pushers who work for the big cartels that dominate the market become wealthy. But their coolies remain poor because they spend the earnings from their trips to Holland on colorful designer clothes or in musty casinos -- and that's not exactly the image of affluence.
Their mothers are happy when they can pay the soup kitchen dues. Five guilders (2.50) a month for 30 hot meals is truly a pittance. But even that is too much for many. "But they don't let us down. At some point, they come and pay their debts, and then they do it for six months in advance," says retired teacher Franklin Clemencia, founder of a soup kitchen in Fuik. For his customers, the magic formula for happiness on Curaçao is to have been to the Netherlands. But it's not a lasting happiness.
Clemencia tells his pupils that if they have to get mixed up in smuggling, at least they should hold onto their money. But to the best of his knowledge, only one of his pupils has taken his warnings seriously. One day, the boy went to see his old teacher. He was beaming from ear to ear. "Sir, I have been to the Netherlands," he said, showing Clemencia his savings book, with a balance of 3,000. Even though Franklin Clemencia has an aversion to smuggling, this time he was pleased.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan