Mob-style killings shock Netherlands into fighting descent into ‘narco state’

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Journalists and lawyers under protection or murdered on the streets, court hearings guarded by the army, witness statements anonymised, and billions in dirty drug money that leaches through society, corrupting as it goes.

This is the Netherlands, where these facts have now inspired a crackdown pitting some €500m a year against a level of organised crime that politicians fear is increasingly “undermining” public order.

The mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are warning of a “culture of crime and violence that is gradually acquiring Italian traits”, with record amounts of intercepted drugs at the port of Rotterdam, extreme violence that often kills the wrong target, and €15bn to €30bn a year laundered into property, cannabis “coffee shops”, tourism and bars. Allegations that the country, better known for its tolerance and fiscal frugality, has the characteristics of a “narco state 2.0” are now being taken extremely seriously.

“We will never have as much money as the criminals opposite us, but there has never before been as much structural money to tackle them, from prevention to disrupting earning models, punishing people and protecting those on the frontline,” justice minister Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius said in parliament.

“Those amounts of cash can only be made if the underworld is infiltrating the legitimate world and nesting there: in streets of shops, business parks, our estate agents and lawyers,” she said.

The Dutch government announced a new international collaboration last Monday against criminals who ship cocaine from South America via the ports of Rotterdam and nearby Antwerp in Belgium. Politicians also want to scrutinise “facilitator” businesses, expand crown witness schemes, delve into opaque financial structures and offer vulnerable young people in 16 neighbourhoods better options than crime.

Paul Vugts, a crime reporter for Amsterdam paper Het Parool, who spent six months living under police protection after getting death threats, said it was high time for action. “It took the killing of a crime blogger, the innocent brother of a crown witness against [alleged drug gang chief] Ridouan Taghi and others, then the witness’s lawyer Derk Wiersum, and last summer my colleague Peter R de Vries, the crown witness’s official confidant. We don’t have mafia like Italy, but this kind of violence is mafia-like. It is terror.”

Hans Nelen, professor of criminology at Maastricht University, agrees. “Let’s face it, when we had the killing of Peter R de Vries, the famous journalist, it resulted in a shockwave,” he said. “Politically speaking, it has woken up. We do not have empirical evidence that corruption has endemically polluted the system [but] we see serious faults.”

Photo – Police and military police have cordoned off and evacuated the Plein for a bomb threat in The Hague, the Netherlands. EPA-EFE/BART MAAT

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