Once in a while, a photo of the Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte on his bike goes viral on social media. A prime minister cycling to work is, for most outside of the Netherlands, a novel and perhaps unnerving picture: ‘’doesn’t he have a security detail?’’
The familiar image of Rutte cycling to work in typical Dutch fashion, often while eating an apple, might be becoming a thing of the past. A recent report revealed his security detail is getting an upgrade after abduction or even murder have been deemed imminent threats. This probably means the end of Rutte’s casual commute, something for which he has been lauded, as it makes him seem relatable and approachable. The source of these threats isn’t entirely clear but it is likely that they are coming from organised crime.
Concern over Rutte’s safety comes at a time when the impact of organised crime on Dutch society has become increasingly visible. Over the last couple years, it has been connected to two high profile murders. In 2019, the lawyer Derk Wiersum was shot dead in front of his house, and in 2021 the famous crime reporter and investigative journalist Peter R. de Vries was also shot after leaving a television studio, passing away in the hospital a few days later. What both of these people had in common was their involvement in the trial of one of Europe’s largest cartels leaders
Figure 1 The port of Rotterdam is a major point of entry for drugs from, amongst others, South America
The Netherlands, while known for their social tolerance of drug use, is not often associated with the darker side of the drug industry: smuggling, cartels, and corruption. But thinking the Netherlands can be a crime-free drug haven has proven to be an illusion. For instance, Rotterdam is not only the largest harbour of Europe, but also a major gateway for drugs to get into the continent. Frequently, trespassers are arrested at the port who are trying to retrieve drugs, mostly cocaine, from the containers in which they are hidden. In 2020 alone, 350 were arrested. However, because most of them get caught before they get to the drugs, their worst crime is trespassing, and they are let go after only paying a small fine.
But the drugs do not only come from abroad. The Netherlands is also one of the major hard drug makers in Europe. It is a hotspot, for instance, when it comes to amphetamine production. And while growing weed yourself and buying it from coffees shops is tolerated, criminal gangs often cultivate it on industrial scale to sell to coffee shops as a way to make easy money, which finances other drug-related activity.
Already in 2018, the Head of the Dutch Police Union, Jan Struijs, published a report titled ‘’Noodkreet’’ (A crying need) detailing how the police is mostly powerless against the drug cartels, whose presence and influence have made the Netherlands ‘’into a real narco-state’’ Struijs also calls for the Dutch government to increase spending on the police force, and to make fighting drug cartels a top priority. But his approach to this issue only focusses on catching criminals and dismantling supply lines. Other authorities are calling for a different method of tackling the drug cartels.
In September 2021, majors of nearly 40 Dutch cities signed the ‘’Manifest ondermijnende criminaliteit’’ (Manifesto on Undermining Crime) in which they detailed concrete actions the government should take to fight against the cartels. Amongst others, they suggest legalising ‘’soft drugs’’ such a marijuana. According to them, growing weed on a large scale is one of the first steps on the ‘’golden escalator’’ where small time criminals get in touch with drug trading. After having made some initial capital, they transfer to smuggling and dealing hard drugs, which, while riskier, is also vastly more lucrative.
What the next government is going to do to fight organised crime is unclear. Coalition talks are still ongoing, and two of the largest parties, the liberal conservative VVD (lead by Mark Rutte) and the Christian Democrats (the party of the current justice minister) have typically favoured a ‘’War on Drugs’’ style zero-tolerance policy and are not in favour of any kind of legalisation. The progressive Democrats of D66, the second largest party, are in favour of so called ‘’weed experiments’’ where municipalities are allowed to give out licences which allow companies to grow large amounts of cannabis legally. Taking away the business with which small time criminals make their money to prevent them from transitioning to organised crime would tackle the problem at the root. The last party currently involved in the talk, and crucial for reaching a majority of seats in parliament is the Christian Union, a party which has stated they want to close all coffee shops with the end goals of completely eradicating all drugs from Dutch society. If these coalitions talk succeed, it will be very unlikely that the Dutch government will vastly alter the way they are fighting against the drug cartels.
Edited by Floris Cooijmans