Small Wars Journal

Field Report: The Netherlands as a narcostate and the emergence of a methamphetamine industry

Thu, 05/27/2021 - 7:00pm

Field Report: The Netherlands as a narcostate and the emergence of a methamphetamine industry

Teun Voeten

Many people associate Holland with a lovely but brave country that for centuries has managed to put up a heroic fight against the sea. It exports cheese, grows tulips, and has an easygoing attitude towards prostitution and soft drugs, making it a rather relaxed and adorable place. What most people do not realize is that the Netherlands, a trading nation for centuries with an excellent infrastructure, has become a major drug hub in Europe. Drug related violence is also on the rise. Holland is even becoming the major European production center for crystal meth.

In February 2018, a Dutch police report called the Netherlands a narcostate. The report said that due to a lack of manpower and money, organized crime is expanding with impunity and is infiltrating the legal economy.[1]  The report was a shock for the Netherlands and was met with disbelief, rejection and denial. The Dutch pride themselves on their tolerant stance towards drugs and attribute even a moral superiority to this attitude, considering themselves a shining example for the rest of the world to follow.

But the report was correct. Many people interpret a narcostate as a dysfunctional failed state, where thugs armed with Kalashnikovs are roaming the streets, with high levels of chaos and violence. But explicit violence, bloodshed and terror on every street corner are not the essence of a narcostate. Violence is used by sophisticated drug syndicates as well as most organized crime groups in a very selective way since it alerts authorities and is a waste of human and financial resources. Therefore, it is not conducive for smooth business operations. The true essence of a narcostate is an important parallel drug economy, corruption, impunity, and infiltration. Holland scores high on all these points and therefore can be rightly called a narcostate, albeit a functional one.

The growth of the drugs industry in the Netherlands

The story of the Dutch drug industry starts with Robert Jasper Grootveld, the rather idealistic figurehead of the 1960s Provo movement, a fluid group of artists and activists with a rebellious streak.[2] Their libertarian idea was that marijuana consumers should grow their own pot on their balcony without interference from the government or the capitalist free market. Inspired by the Provos, the Dutch authorities started to develop a lax and tolerant attitude towards drugs that gave rise to the so-called coffee shops where sales of small quantities (30 grams) of cannabis were tolerated.

This system was meant to decriminalize cannabis use, but actually was a rather schizophrenic policy; production remained illegal and soon a huge underground pot industry emerged. Also, the quantity tolerated, 30 grams, was in fact a nice stockpile for a dealer and Dutch coffee shops were flooded with clients from neighboring countries such as France, Germany, and Belgium who drove just across the border to stock up a serious stash they intended to sell back home. In the 1990s, there were around 2,000 coffee shops in Holland. The most notorious was coffee shop “Checkpoint” in the Southern border town of Terneuzen that at one point boasted 5,000 clients a day, mostly foreigners. The city had placed traffic signs to guide visitors to the coffee shop and had made a special parking place, as a proud mayor showed flabbergasted foreign delegations. In short, Dutch policy makers looked the other way when a large underground cannabis economy started to flourish. A whole generation of criminologists did not see, or chose not to see, this inconvenient side effect and a self-congratulatory attitude reigned.

Actually, most people did not take this illegal agribusiness seriously, in much the same way poppy plantations were condoned in the early 20th century in Mexico. Soon however, the Dutch marijuana sector started to professionalize and became a profitable million-dollar industry, using the latest agricultural techniques and branching out into grow shops and seed banks. In the early1980s, the Dutch cannabis sector lost its innocence definitively when it diversified into synthetic drug production. Holland became Europe’s biggest amphetamine producer. In the late 1980s, the Dutch also started to produce MDMA, the psychedelic ingredient in Ecstasy pills. This was a very profitable export business. A pill that would have a street value of $2 US in Holland, would fetch sometimes $30 US in Australia. To this day, Holland remains the biggest Ecstasy producer in the world. In the 21st century, illegal drugs have become a huge parallel economy with escalating violence that could no longer be ignored. Over time, Holland started to develop the traits of a narcostate, with a considerable narcotic sector.

Meth

Crystal meth from Michoacán, MX © Teun Voeten, November 2009

Booming Drugs Business

The drug economy is booming in the Netherlands. Holland is a significant consumer country, for nationals as well as tourists. It is also the most important production center in Europe for marijuana and synthetic drugs and it exports MDMA and Ecstasy pills on worldwide. Holland is also a trendsetter in agricultural innovation. Thanks to cross breeding and enrichment techniques, Dutch marijuana has a THC content that is 4 to 5 times as high as the pot sold in the 1960s and can be classified as a hard drug.

As a transit country, Holland processes considerable amounts of Moroccan hash and Afghan opium. The Netherlands is also the biggest import country in Europe for cocaine, that goes either through the harbor of Antwerp in the neighboring country of Belgium, or through its own port of Rotterdam. It is estimated that 90 percent of the cocaine that enters through Antwerp is recuperated by a skilled class of middlemen, and goes straight to the Netherlands where it is distributed throughout the rest of Europe.[3]

Over the last decade, there has been a steady yearly increase of between 10 and 25 percent in cocaine confiscated in the two port cities. The latest numbers for 2020 confirm this trend. In 2020, authorities discovered 40 tons in Rotterdam, and 65 tons in Antwerp. With its lenient tax laws for big corporations, Holland is an attractive country to launder and reinvest money. According to Roberto Saviano, who wrote the classic exposé Gomorra on the Italian mafia, Amsterdam is actually worse than Naples since it has become an international hub for several international drug syndicates to launder money.[4]

Regarding consumption, the Netherlands ranks at the top in Europe. The pungent odor of strong weed (called “skunk”) hangs in nearly every street in the center of Amsterdam. At dance parties, it is common that everybody is high on drugs. Hundreds of thousands of drug tourists visit Amsterdam every year and thousands of dealers from Belgium, Germany and France come to Dutch cities where they are guided by local drug runners to drug houses. The Dutch government spends considerable energy and money to educate the public on the dangers of tobacco and alcohol. No such campaigns exist for drugs and a generation of adolescents waste their brains and descend into apathy smoking harmful, ultra-strong weed in coffee shops. Thanks to free methadon hand-outs for heroïne addicts, the conspicuous junkies that in the 1980s roamed the touristic centre of Amsterdam have disappeared from public view. However, a new generation of problematic drug users, most from the lower social economic strata, get high from home-made GHB or other synthetic drugs that are freely available on the internet, but this time out of sight, behind closed shutters of their rent-subsidized apartments. 

In Mexico, narcotics provide an estimated 10 to 20 percent of GNP. In the Netherlands the exact number remains a guess, but Dutch researchers Pieter Tops and Jan Tromp estimated in 2017 that marijuana cultivation is the biggest economic sector in the southern city of Tilburg.[5] With a yearly revenue of 800 million, this industry is larger than the total city budget. In 2018, these researchers presented shocking numbers that the synthetic drugs industry in the Netherlands had grossed nearly 20 billion, just as much as the largest Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn.

Impunity and soft sentences

Dutch law is very soft on drug offenders. Possession of a kilo of heroin carries a twenty years sentence in Greece. In Holland, this is only one year. Drug dealing goes on undisturbed in most parts of the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, a class of couriers—mostly with an immigrant background—delivers packets of cocaine throughout the city without any interference from the authorities. These kids are lured into making thousands a week resulting in a whole generation that has dropped out of high school to chase short term materialistic goals. This growing class of small drug couriers provides a fertile recruiting ground for people aspiring to mid and high-level positions in the industry.

2010 was the most violent year for Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, when over 3,000 people were killed, 98.5 percent of these murder cases were never resolved. In Holland, district attorney Greetje Bos stated that the 400 drugs cases she prosecuted in her jurisdiction, resulted only in six convictions, due to procedural and stalling techniques from lawyers. This percentage of 1.5 percent of convictions is coincidentally the same as in Juárez. Like in Mexico, many Dutch people have little confidence in the legal apparatus and only 20 percent of crimes are reported. According to the Police Union, officers are overwhelmed by bureaucratic procedures and have the manpower to investigate only one out of nine serious cases. Just like multinationals that establish themselves in countries with the most lenient tax laws, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) base themselves in countries with the most liberal drug laws, another reason why DTOs prefer to operate their business out of the Netherlands.

Violence on the rise

Regarding violence, the Netherlands is relatively peaceful compared to Latin America. The total number of murders is actually decreasing in the Netherlands, but the percentage of drug related murders is steadily increasing to a few dozen victims every year. Not yet, the 30,000 yearly killed in Mexico, but there is absolutely an escalation in extreme violence in the Netherlands in some cases similar to that seen in Mexico. In 2016, a young man, 23-year old Nabil Amzieb, was tortured and subsequently beheaded. His head was placed in a box in front of a shisha (water pipe) lounge in Amsterdam. Liquidations with automatic weapons where innocent victims also fall have become common.

In February 2018, a commando armed with an AK-47 stormed a youth center, also in Amsterdam, and killed 17-year-old Mohammed Bouchikhi accidently. This sounds like Juárez where, at the height of the drug war, many liquidations took place in social clubs frequented by teenagers. In the Netherlands most of these murders have been committed by Moroccan crime groups, dubbed the Mocro Maffia, who started out in the 1970s when first migrant workers smuggled hash from their home country to sell in Holland.

These days, the Mocro Maffia (Dutch-Morrocan Mafia) has become notorious for its hard-core violence, which was unprecedented in the Dutch criminal underworld. In 2018, Rotterdam police uncovered a hit squad of killers for hire that were still in their teens. Prices to hire sicarios have dropped from 50,000 to 5000 euros, sometimes even lower. A watershed moment was September 2019 when lawyer Derk Wiersum, who defended a key witness in court proceedings against the Mocro Maffia was murdered on his doorstep in Amsterdam. The incident rudely awakened the public and politicians from their complacency and confronted them with the fact that Holland indeed had developed traits of a narcostate. In July 2020, Dutch police raided a drug trafficking ring in the southern village of Wouw, and discovered several containers in an industrial shed that had been transformed into torture chambers.[6]

Intimidation of the media

In Mexico, on average 8 journalists are killed on a yearly basis. In the Netherlands this does not happen, except for the murder of crime blogger Martin Kok in 2016—himself a former criminal. But it is telling that crime reporter Paul Vugts who wrote a book on the Mocro Maffia was threatened and had to go into hiding. District attorney Greetje Bos also had to go into hiding after threats from the underworld, from people allegedly involved in the synthetic drugs industry. There have been attacks with RPGs and vehicle-borne arson at publications like De Telegraaf and Panorama.[7] On a regular basis, crime reporters, in the Netherlands as well as in Belgium, receive threats. In most case, they have to keep a low profile and go into hiding for a few weeks.

Corruption and infiltration

In the southern border province of Brabant, traditionally a hotbed of smuggling and drug activity, criminals infiltrate city councils and threaten mayors. In 2012, the town hall of Waalre was set on fire, allegedly by drug criminals whose operations had been hampered by the authorities. Again, this is not on the scale of Mexico where an estimated 40 percent of town councils are infiltrated and where liquidations of police chiefs and mayors have become normal. This year, the outspoken mayor of Antwerp, Bart de Wever who favors a tough approach on drug related crime, received serious threats and had to receive special protection.

Drug syndicates prey on vulnerable people to bribe them into cooperation after which there is no way back. Port workers are paid up to 50,000 euros to help secure contraband hidden in containers. The drug mafia uses small neighborhood shops to launder money, but also luxurious real estate projects in Amsterdam, Antwerp, and on the Mediterranean coast in Morocco or in Dubai, where many drug kingpins hide. Similar to Mexican drug lords, these kingpins subsidize sporting events and even Islamic schools as a form of corporate social responsibility.[8]

In 2020 and 2021 Dutch and Belgian police, with the help of their French counterparts, managed to penetrate the encrypted phone systems used by criminals. This provided an unprecedented look inside of the wheeling and dealing of organized crime and brought home shocking examples of corruption in the Low Countries. Former police officials were involved in narcotrafficking, as well as the highest echelons in the port authorities in Rotterdam and Antwerp. The latter were in a unique position to facilitate maritime cocaine imports.

Holland as a meth-producing center in Europe with Mexicans involved

Crystal meth labs in Holland were unheard of before 2015, when the first one was discovered. In May 2019, Dutch authorities discovered a river barge with a hidden crystal meth lab. Three Mexican nationals from Culiacán were arrested on the boat. It is not clear if the people working on the “narcobarco,” as it was called in the Mexican media were employed to teach the trade of meth cooks, or if the lab was a sign that Mexican cartels were expanding their business.[9] In 2020, a total of 32 labs were discovered. Many drug labs that were producing MDMA have recently switched to crystal meth. This is not difficult, since the same lab equipment and networks can be used. However, profits can be ten times as much producing MDMA. In many cases, Mexican lab cooks, were involved.

Some fear that Mexican cartels are indeed coming to Europe. According to others, European criminal groups would not tolerate foreign organizations establishing themselves in their territory. But there are indeed many mutual contacts. In 2014, El Chino Ántrax, a high commander from the Sinaloa cartel, was arrested at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.[10] Other contacts are made in the decadent Spanish resort town of Marbella which hosts the de facto international summer conference for the international drugs mafia. According to a former top smuggler, criminals visit each other’s parties and exchange knowledge and routes. In a remarkable catch, in 2020 authorities in Slovakia found 1500 kilograms of meth coming in from Mexico, with the rapidly expanding Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) responsible.

Meth Lab

Crystal meth lab near Patzcuaro and Uruapan, Michoacán, MX © Teun Voeten, November 2009

There are different hypotheses about what the Mexicans are exactly doing here. According to the Dutch federal police, brokers in Mexico provide cooks to work in labs in Holland. Sometimes these middlemen have counterparts in Spain, where Mexicans can easily hide. A former meth producer in a Mexican jail told me there are also cordial relations with Mexican groups that are already present in Amsterdam.

For the moment, it looks like the crystal meth produced in Western Europe is for export, mostly to Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. There, retail prices vary between 300 and $ 500 US a gram, compared with $20 US in the USA and between $50 to 90 US in Europe. Except for the Czech Republic, where there has been a meth industry for decades, the European consumer market is small. Western consumers are rather educated and know the dangers of meth and there are many cheaper and less dangerous alternatives. A Dutch speed dealer actually told me not only would his clients never buy meth, he refused to sell it out of principle. However, there is always a risk that the growing underclass of chronically unemployed, mentally ill, and undocumented immigrants in Europe will discover meth once it becomes cheaper. This has been happening all over the world where cheap consumer portions of meth, that sometimes costs just a few dollars, have replaced crack as the favorite drug for the down and out that dwell in the new pockets of despair that are popping up all over on the planet.

This ‘Field Report’ draws from Teun Voeten’s journalistic experience and updates the discussion contained in “Chapter 6, The Netherlands as a narco-state, and Antwerp as its principle cocaine hub” in his book Mexican Drug Violence: Hybrid Warfare, Predatory Capitalism and the Logic of Cruelty (2020). That book is also available in Dutch as Het Mexicaanse Drugsgeweld. Een Nieuw Type Oorlog, Roofkapitalisme en de Logica van Wreedheid (De Blauwe Tijger, 2018).

Endnotes

[1] Daniel Boffrey, “Netherlands becoming a narco-state, warn Dutch police.” The Guardian. 20 February 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/20/netherlands-becoming-a-narco-state-warn-dutch-police and Teun Voeten, Mexican Drug Violence: Hybrid Warfare, Predatory Capitalism and the Logic of Cruelty. (A Small Wars Journal–El Centro Book.) Bloomington: XLibris. 2020, Chapter 6, pp. 330-336.

[2] Teun Voeten, “Dutch Provos,” High Times. January 1990, http://www.marijuanalibrary.org/HT_provos_0190.html.

[3] Teun Voeten, Drugs: Antwerpen in de greep van de Nederlandse syndicaten. Antwerp: Van Halewyck, 2020.

[4] Jarl van der Ploeg, Interview Roberto Saviano. “Auteur maffiaboek Gomorra: ‘De maffia in Amsterdam is erger dan in Napels,’” De Volkskrant. 27 September 2019, https://www.volkskrant.nl/columns-opinie/auteur-maffiaboek-gomorra-de-maffia-in-amsterdam-is-erger-dan-in-napels~b3e90a15/.

[5] Peter Tops and Jan Tromp, De achterkant van Nederland: hoe onder – en bovenwereld verstrengeld raken. Amsterdam: Balens, 2016.

[6] “Dutch Police Arrest 6 Men, Uncover Makeshift Torture Chamber,” New York Times. 7 July 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/07/07/world/europe/ap-eu- netherlands-torture-chamber.htm.

[7]  See “Van is driven into office of Telegraaf newspaper in Amsterdam.” Reuters. 25 June 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-netherlands-telegraaf-car/van-is-driven-into-office-of-telegraaf-newspaper-in-amsterdam-idUSKBN1JM0DU, “Anti-tank weapon fired at Amsterdam office building.” NL Times. 22 June 2018, https://nltimes.nl/2018/06/22/anti-tank-weapon-fired-amsterdam-office-building, and “Second suspect arrested for attack on Panorama building.” NL Times. 11 July 2018, https://nltimes.nl/2018/07/11/second-suspect-arrested-attack-panorama-building.

[8] See Tom Wainright, Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel. New York: Public Affairs, 2016.

[9] Inder Bugarin, “Piden en Holanda 5 años de cárcel para mexicanos de narcobarco.” El Universal. 14 February 2020, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/mundo/narco-exporta-holanda-metodo-para-hacer-cristal.

[10] See “Top Enforcer of Sinaloa Cartel Arrested In Amsterdam.” KPBS News. 8 January 2014, https://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/jan/03/top-enforcer-sinaloa-cartel-arrested-drug-charges-/ and Anabel Hernández, “Netherlands: The possible consequences of liberal drugs policies.” DW (Deutsche Welle). 29 November 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/netherlands-the-possible-consequences-of-liberal-drugs-policies/a-51474578.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Teun Voeten is a cultural anthropologist and war photographer. He has written books on the underground homeless in New York and the civil war in Sierra Leone. In 2018, he obtained his PhD at Leiden University on The Mexican Drug Violence. In 2016, Voeten and Maaike Engels made the documentary 'Calais: Welcome to the Jungle’, a multilayered documentary on a squalid refugee camp in Northern France. For Canvas TV in Belgium they made ‘Sacrifice’ in 2017 as a short documentary on rituals in the Mexican Drug Violence for which they interviewed sicarios in Ciudad Juárez and Culiacán.  His website is at  https://www.teunvoeten.com.