A hit squad compared to a “well-oiled murder machine”. A lawyer and journalist shot on the streets of Amsterdam. A blasé approach to killing the wrong person — there’s even slang for every accidental victim: a vergismoord. Welcome to the Marengo trial, where 17 men stand accused of involvement in six murders, four attempted murders and preparing for six others between 2015 and 2017.

Fear hangs in the air around this court case, telling a tale of a country where the hydra of organised crime has so many heads that it is threatening the very rule of law. When the trial resumed this month, journalists were asked to sign agreements not to name judges or prosecutors, for fear of them being targeted. After reports that co-chief suspect Ridouan Taghi was planning a jailbreak, the streets around the fortified courtroom known as the Bunker are ringed with police cars and trained teams made up of police and soldiers.

The Marengo is only the latest in a series of organised crime trials to shake the Netherlands. This year, Dutch courts are also trying alleged criminal druglord Roger P., accused of turning shipping containers into an underworld prison, with its own gruesome “torture chamber”. Meanwhile, a Marengo side-trial involves motorbike club Caloh Wagoh members charged with shooting dead five people, preparing three other murders and “putting another seven people on the waiting list to be killed”.

“I call The Netherlands a ‘narco-state 2.0’,” says Jan Struijs, chairman of the Nederlandse PolitieBond police union. “We aren’t Mexico, with 14,000 dead bodies, but in our parallel economy, there is an attack on public order and unprecedented numbers of people with personal security — politicians, judges, prosecutors, police staff, journalists — because there is still a serious risk from organised crime. It is a huge problem, being tackled on every front, but we have a long way to go.”

Struijs first raised concerns that this small, well-connected trading nation has “characteristics of a narco-state” four years ago. At the time, there was a muted political response. But then the brother of the Marengo crown witness Nabil B was shot dead and the crown witness’s original lawyer, Dirk Wiersum, was gunned down outside his house. Finally, last July, celebrated crime reporter Peter R de Vries, who had unconventionally agreed to act as Nabil B’s representative, was shot in the head on a busy central Amsterdam street and died of his wounds.

Today, few would argue that increasingly violent crime has clawed its fingers deep into civil society. But as Lieselot Bisschop, criminologist at Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam, points out, before you can combat the crime, it is important to understand who is involved and how. She and a team of researchers have been looking at the key drug runners’ entry and exit point of Rotterdam port, where last year a Hit and Run Cargo team (HARC) confiscated a record 72,808 kilos of cocaine plus another record of 1,500 kilos of heroin. “Whether it’s a good thing that they are catching more, I don’t know — is more going through anyway?” says Prof Bisschop. “The quantity aspect is always very challenging. It’s a dark number, guesstimates.”

Meanwhile, the Netherlands is apparently a centre of synthetic drug manufacture, with regular busts of “professional” crystal meth and MDMA labs, especially in Noord Brabant. When international police decrypted millions of messages on devices criminals thought were secure — such as Sky and EncroChat, and the Dutch decoded Pretty Good Privacy software for Blackberry’s in the Marengo case — they lit up a web of crime.

Experts agree the Netherlands’s infrastructure is key for both legal and illegal trade. In their 2020 book, Nederland Drugsland, Dutch police academy professor Pieter Tops and journalist Jan Tromp explored how criminals exploit its efficient ports, good roads, and strong financial and digital infrastructure. “The Netherlands has long been a trading country — not just the harbours but also our high-quality internet environment. We have huge numbers of bankers and our country is central in Europe in terms of all kinds of transport and transit,” says Struijs. “We have huge numbers of imports, which means a lot of drugs are mixed with legal trade, coming in containers of fruit or liquor. Organised crime takes advantage of the legal infrastructure.”

Corruption is another factor. As a nation, the Dutch are keen to make a deal — and regular businesses haven’t always been too fussy about carrying out background checks, as various banking money laundering cases and high tax haven rankings show. The NVB Dutch banking association says an estimated €16 billion in illegally-earned cash washes around each year.

Personal corruption is also a problem in a port 40km long and with 180,000 employees, says Bisschop. “Within Europe, it is definitely the gateway for any kind of trade and probably for cocaine. Over the years, the port has become more physically and digitally secure. We think this has contributed to more pressure on the people in the port. Basically, you need corruption to pull it off — both public and private, not just police and customs but also planners in container terminals. You need someone on the inside.”

So in court, says veteran crime reporter Saskia Belleman, there has been a spate of cases against allegedly corrupt customs staff, shipping and port employees, partly as a consequence of a Dutch gedoogcultuur of looking the other way. There are also concerns about so-called “collectors”, often young men who trespass into the harbour and collect drugs.

Nobody knows if the Netherlands is worse than other European port countries in terms of international organised crime, but its soft drug culture is undoubtedly a weak spot. Although smoking cannabis and coffee shops selling the drug are tolerated, it is illegal to grow commercially. This means that cafes offer a legally tolerated channel for criminal activity, and a training ground for young criminals.

In the Netherlands, it’s become increasingly common to read about the ethnic aspect of organised crime — the so-called “Mocro Maffia” Moroccan-origin mafia which inspired a true crime book and spin-off television series. But Peter Schouten, one of the new lawyers for the crown witness in the Marengo trial, says: “It’s not true that it’s only people with another ‘heritage’. Certain gangs have a kind of micro-organism, a gangland where there’s a lot of the same culture, but there are other gangs arrested, and you read stories saying that the new kingpin is ‘Bolle’ Jos from Brabant.”

It’s hard to measure organised crime, partly because victims don’t always make reports, but ethnic minorities are overrepresented as crime suspects. Statistics Netherlands researcher Maarten Bloem says, though, that “if you correct for age, education level, socio-economic category, there is not much difference between different ethnic origins”. He concludes: “It’s not so much about someone’s colour but the situation in which they find themselves.”

It is unclear whether the segregated, Dutch grammar school system helps contribute to excluding certain groups, too: critics say it selects too young, hammers in socio-economic difference, and makes no account for innately-talented children who speak Dutch as an additional language.

Crime, after all, can be seen as a way out of poverty and an equal opportunities recruiter. So there’s a widespread recognition that long-term crime prevention needs to offer other options, especially to young men in problem districts. There’s a new drive targeting “vulnerable” areas in Utrecht, and projects such as working with the “top 600″ criminals and their families in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, international efforts have been led by the mayors of Rotterdam and Belgian Antwerp — where a record 90 tonnes of smuggled cocaine was found last year. They have visited South American counterparts and lobbied governments to ramp up international efforts against organised crime, increase barriers in harbours, and confiscate criminal assets.

In Rotterdam, there are promising signs of public-private cooperation, with busts by the multi-agency HARC, a new Information Sharing Centre, a business integrity initiative, and a “training container” to coach harbour staff in combatting corruption. A long-awaited law banning civilians from the container area is in place to help apprehend those vital ‘collectors’ picking up drugs from containers, while Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb is also enforcing a €2,250 anti-nuisance penalty. The new Dutch coalition hopes to add to these initiatives. It will start investing specifically in combating crime that “undermines” public order from 2023, ratcheting up to a €100m yearly investment by 2025. In the meantime, the last budget put aside an extra €434m to increase annual budgets for police, judicial organisation and subversive crime prevention, though experts warn that money must not be used to add to the layers of bureaucracy.

Instead, some want a shift in public attitudes on drug taking: as the prosecutor said in the torture container trial, show users the “abhorrent” consequence of their habits rather than perpetuating the permissive, hippy culture of the Seventies. “It’s not done in the Netherlands to point in the direction of drug users,” says Belleman. “If you don’t use drugs, there’s no market. But people who use cocaine at the weekends don’t make the connection between organised crime and their drug use — and if you tell them, they are really offended.”

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, lies in how to prosecute those alleged criminals who are caught. In the mega-Marengo trial, hearings are currently mired in details such as whether the co-chief suspect Saïd Razzouki left his reading glasses behind when he was extradited from Colombia in December, and whether due process was followed in his subpoena.

The accused in the trial deny the charges, and Schouten doesn’t expect a verdict until 2023. “This trial is under an enormous amount of pressure,” he says. “This is about the rule of law, the dyke against injustice, and we must continue to protect this. But there is a lot of fear.” Even when the trial verdict is reached, until words turn to action, that fear is unlikely to go away.

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