When people think of the Netherlands, they usually think of windmills, tulips, wooden shoes, cheese and traditional Dutch costumes; of a country that is mostly flat, with an extensive dike system and many polders; of Amsterdam’s wonderful canals and Rotterdam’s very large port. Its tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, euthanasia, soft drugs and foreigners also often comes to mind. But lately, headlines that mention the Netherlands are often about drive-by shootings, drug seizures at the port of Rotterdam or the so-called “Marengo Case” – a trial of leading members of the Moroccan mafia. Even cases as gruesome as severed heads being found on sidewalks and soundproof “torture containers” being located have occurred in a country that is otherwise known for being friendly and tolerant.
As the name suggests, this Moroccan mafia mainly consists of Moroccan men. Their main activities are importing, transporting and selling drugs – usually cannabis, cocaine and heroin, with some synthetic drugs also thrown into the mix. It is a very lucrative trade. In 2021, €5 billion worth of cocaine had been seized in the port of Rotterdam, which likely represents only a small fraction of all drugs smuggled into the Netherlands via the sea, air and land borders. This Moroccan criminal group differs from the Italian mafia and Germany‘s Arab clans in that the latter two are strongly based on family ties, whereas the Moroccan mafia is a rather loose union of individuals and small criminal groups, with almost no familial ties. As a result, levels of loyalty are much lower too, which is one of the reasons for the high levels of violence.
For many decades, this group has managed to remain mostly under the radar. But in 2012, a gang war broke out after a shipment of drugs ordered by multiple groups disappeared in Antwerp, Belgium, with each group blaming the other. The next stage involved several high-profile murders related to the aforementioned Marengo Case. In 2019, Derk Wiersum, a lawyer who represented the Crown Witness in the Marengo Case, was killed. Two years later, one of the most prominent Dutch media figures, crime reporter Peter R. de Vries, was shot in broad daylight in the city centre of Amsterdam. Leadership vacuums as a result of the following arrests also often led to battles between rival factions.
How did it all go so far? The main reasons for this seem to be the Netherlands‘ lax attitude towards both drugs and immigration, helped by its ideal location and important transportation hubs.
Tolerating Cannabis: Paving the Way for the Importation of Hard Drugs
The Dutch are known worldwide for tolerating the sale and consumption of cannabis in the 1970s. Less known, however, is the fact that it has actually remained technically illegal. Therefore, the “coffee shops” that have sprung up to satisfy the increased demand for the drug had to buy their supply from criminal gangs who usually supply their product from Morocco (with some of it also coming from Lebanon, India and Pakistan). This has led to permanent cannabis smuggling routes being established, which are now also being used for smuggling in drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In the last few decades, hard drugs and synthetic drugs have also become more popular in the Netherlands, with many young people visiting raves (of which synthetic drugs are an essential part) or simply wanting to escape from today’s sick and decadent society.
Moroccan Immigration: Economically Beneficial at First, Now a Huge Burden
In the 1960s, the Netherlands – much like Belgium and West Germany – decided to hire “gastarbeiders” for the many manufacturing jobs that were available in its booming – but not yet fully automated – economy. In addition to Southern Europeans and Turks, large numbers of Moroccans also found employment in the Netherlands. They were expected to leave after a few years, but many of them decided to stay. The consequences soon became clear, mainly in the form of higher crime rates. Regardless of the reasons for it, it is a simple fact that Moroccans commit, on average, more crimes than Dutchmen do. During the 1980s and the 1990s, when the Netherlands had already become a well-known drug hub, young Moroccan men from deprived neighbourhoods were lured by the attractive drug trade. They also profited from the fact that several smuggling routes for cannabis from Morocco’s Rif Mountains pass through Spain, France and Belgium, which by then already had well-established Moroccan communities. Soon, the Dutch drug smuggling trade became more or less a Moroccan monopoly. Later, Dutch-Caribbeans also joined this group.
The Netherlands as a Strategic Location & Transport Hub
These criminal gangs profit from the Netherlands’ ideal location as a drug hub. Within a radius of 500km from Amsterdam and Rotterdam, 60% of the EU’s purchasing power is concentrated, including the entirety of Belgium, most of the Western Germany, Northern France and Paris. A large part of the cocaine and heroin that is destined for the European market is imported through Rotterdam’s ports, which, in terms of cargo tonnage, is larger than Europe’s second and third largest ports – Antwerp and Hamburg, respectively – combined. The Port of Amsterdam on the River IJ is relatively unknown, but it is also attractive for smugglers, being in Europe’s top 5 in terms of cargo tonnage. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is also the EU’s second-busiest airport, after Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. Because of the Netherlands’ colonial past, it also has excellent connections with the Caribbean, which is an ideal transit point for South American cocaine. The island states of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten are, in fact, still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, as overseas territories.
Drug smuggling gangs use all kinds of tricks to hide their high-margin imports – using high-priority fruit containers (to reduce the chance of the cargo being subject to extensive scanning procedures), bribing customs officials and security personnel (who, given Rotterdam’s ethnic composition, are often of immigrant background themselves) and equipping the containers with GPS trackers, so that the “uithalers” (“collectors”, who are young men smuggled to the port area, who then, during the night, take the drugs out of the containers) can find the containers more easily.
The Consequences of Tolerance & Decadence
It seems that the Netherlands is finally paying the price for its famed tolerant attitude. Tolerating the use of soft drugs while punishing traffikers might seem reasonable on the surface, but is actually the worst of both worlds. It increases the demand for drugs, with smuggling remaining in the criminal underworld, and being tolerant towards foreigners has resulted in high levels of non-European immigration that has massively changed the face of society, with increased crime being only one outcome. The solution is not an easy one to pinpoint. Trying to bring down the criminal gangs does not bring much in the way of results when the borders are still open and members can easily be replenished. Reversing the decision to tolerate cannabis consumption and being tougher on hard drugs will not change much either, as the demand from other European markets will remain there. One should also ask the question as to why are drugs so popular in the first place? Of course, some people simply become addicted by accident, but today’s sick society – with a lack of traditional culture, increasing social atomisation and youngsters growing up without a sense of purpose – is probably the root of the problem. Fundamental social change is needed first before the drug problem can truly be resolved
ETN Guest Writer