Amsterdam: The sinister world of gangland coffee shop wars

PUBLISHED: 15:19 21 December 2016 | UPDATED: 16:26 21 December 2016



2012 AFP

Amsterdam’s coffee shops seem the perfect embodiment of The Netherlands laid back, liberal outlook. But that belies a more sinister reality

Last month, Amsterdam’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, announced the suspension of the city’s long-standing policy of closing down cannabis cafes involved in gun crime. This policy reversal followed a spate of ten shootings in little over a year. During the month of October, there was a sharp increase in shootings at coffee shops, as cannabis cafes are known. One incident involved Coffeeshop Vondel, near the city’s popular Vondelpark. Remarks an employee, “It was doubly unfair to be shot at and then put out of business by the mayor’s office”.

The mayor apparently agreed. In a move that caught many off guard, the prior policy of immediate closure was replaced by a series of other measures designed to improve security, such as the installation of police-approved CCTV systems. The development offers a fascinating window into the high wire balancing act required of Dutch policy makers in this high profile arena.

Amsterdam now claims 175 coffee shops. According to laws passed by national parliament, the sale, production and possession of cannabis in the Netherlands are illegal, yet under the localised policy of ‘gedogen’ – which loosely translates as tolerance – coffee shops are permitted to exist. In this legal grey area, small-scale consumption is effectively tolerated to prevent the trade moving into a shadowy world of street dealers – also, possibly, to generate tax revenue. But coffee shops owners are still considered to be acting illegally when buying in bulk to supply their customers, and this is where the real risks start to surface.

As with many items, where supply is restricted, profit potential surges. And on the demand side, while Amsterdam’s population is just 835,000, more than seventeen million tourists visited the Dutch capital last year. According to surveys undertaken by city hall, a quarter of tourists in Amsterdam intend to visit a coffee shop at least once. Big money is at stake, attracting criminal as well as government interest.

Earlier this year, a severed head appeared in front of the Fayrouz cafe on Amstelveenseweg, a busy street bordering not only the aforementioned Vondelpark but also the salubrious Willemspark district. The head was positioned so as to look into the cafe, as police noted upon arriving at the scene, while requesting that passersby delete photos taken from their camera phones.

Police knew it to be a grudge sign among drugs gangs – something I’d written into my own Amsterdam detective novel, yet not quite to this macabre, medieval level. The police had already found the decapitated corpse of known gang member Nabil Amzieb in a burned-out Volkswagen van on a south east Amsterdam housing estate, identified from his fingerprints. The Fayrouz cafe was a long-time gangland hangout – on the edge of a neighbourhood to which embassies and old money are mostly resident.

Researching my novel, I came to learn about an adage in law enforcement circles that six hundred known criminals account for sixty per cent of the crime committed in the capital. I inferred a certain tolerance of organised crime – precisely because of its organisation. The port cities of the Low Countries are among the biggest in Europe (Rotterdam is the largest); the amount of goods and people passing through them ensures an outsized slice of criminality here. Toppling one criminal element inevitably runs the risk of power vacuums, reprisals and worse.

The drugs war thought to lie behind Nabil Amzieb’s severed head has claimed at least a dozen lives across Holland, Belgium and other countries. It is believed to stem from a £14 million consignment of cocaine that went missing in Antwerp in 2012 and that was probably destined for the UK market. Customs in the Belgian port seized the consignment, but did not make their find public until later.

It transpired that this seizure was only part of a larger shipment, the rest of which was stolen by a Dutch drugs gang. The rival gang behind the original shipment suspected the Dutch gang of stealing everything. In the feud that followed, there was at least one other case of mistaken identity – a married father of one, gunned down outside his Amsterdam home having had the misfortune of driving the same make and model of car as the intended gang member target.

Civilian casualties were not something I had to wrestle with in a climatic scene I wrote for my novel that saw my detective character engineer a confrontation between a coffee shop-owning gangster and a Ukrainian pimp muscling in on his territory. There, in a fictionalised Amsterdam harbour, the two crews wipe each other out very effectively.

While the real world rarely brings such resolutions, I couldn’t help wonder whether there was a tacit tendency to let gangs rein in one another here too. In the bloody feud following the Antwerp cocaine seizure, investigators were open about the technology and sophistication of the gangs and the upper hand it gave them.

The policy of ‘gedogen’ - of not enforcing certain laws – was intended to divide soft drugs from hard; limited personal consumption for adults from other uses; a safe and customer friendly environment from something far more sinister. But for as long as bulk supply to coffee shops is criminalised, criminals will make it their own.

Understandably, city hall won’t comment on whether the shootings at Amsterdam coffee shops over recent months are related to the feud that followed the 2012 Antwerp seizure, nor will they confirm the widely held belief that rogue coffee shop owners were shooting at rivals’ premises with the intent of getting competitor outlets closed down and enjoying a larger slice of this lucrative market. Police investigations are ongoing. However, city hall did comment on the ability of coffee shop owners to source cannabis in bulk legally.

“The mayor is an advocate of making it possible to grow and distribute cannabis for coffee shop use,” said Jasper Karman, a spokesperson. “But this is still not allowed, as national government isn’t for it.”

The high wire act continues

Daniel Pembrey is the author of Amsterdam detective novel The Harbour Master, now out with No Exit Press. @DPemb

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.

Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European

If Yes, Name to appear in The New European

Latest articles

Blow for Hard Brexit as Cabinet ‘unites’ behind transition deal

The Cabinet is “united” in backing a transitional Brexit deal which would mean continued access to migrant labour, Michael Gove has said.

What Euratom really stands for

The Euratom row lays bare the innate flaws of Brexit. But it also gives pro-Europeans their biggest chance yet to regain the initiative

How did Brexit Britain lose the spirit of the 2012 Olympics?

How did Brexit Britain lose the spirit of the 2012 Olympics?

Brexit could force UK to set up new healthcare scheme for tourists

Brussels is holding out on the government’s hopes of continuing membership of the European health insurance scheme post-Brexit.

Fox says UK does not need trade deal with Europe after Brexit

Brexiteer cabinet minister Liam Fox has reiterated the government’s widely ridiculed negotiating tactic of “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

UK and EU clash over ‘fundamental’ differences on citizens’ rights and divorce bill

The European Union’s top Brexit negotiator has demanded the government clarifies its position on citizens’ rights and stumps up a Brexit divorce bill.

Britain’s creative brilliance has taken decades to build... it could be destroyed in months

It is no accident that Britain’s creative sector has grown as borders have become more open. Now, decades of progress are in peril, says one of the world’s leading architects

We can learn from the British motor industry: Our economy needs capital and talent not slogans

The British economy can succeed. But it needs less wishful thinking and a more hard-headed assessment of the facts

Juventus is Europe’s most colourful football club

The club in Turin is a football club quite unlike any other - an institution which combines excellence and ugliness

How climate change is forcing native American culture to change

Just because Donald Trump doesn’t care about it, doesn’t mean climate change isn’t already having an impact in the US.

The Honours system is so corrupt it would be an embarrassment in Zimbabwe

The idea that the British establishment is predicated on civilised values of ‘fairness’, ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ is beginning to unravel.

Somali pirates are back - history shows how we can stop them

The fight against the menace of modern day piracy must start on the land, not the sea

Translating for the enemy: Tempting financial services out of post-Brexit UK

For some in Europe Brexit offers an opportunity to prize business away from London and the UK.

London hit by Brexit ‘wobble’ as fewer Europeans come to work in capital

London’s economy is “wobbling” due to the aftershock of the Britain’s decision to back Brexit, according to a new report.

Online ‘echo-chambers’ are an effect of hate, not a cause

Legacy publishers such as the Mail and the Sun are condemning the environment they create

Oh shit... we’re blowing Brexit

Things are now so grim in Brexit Britain - there is no hero riding to the rescue – but it’s not too late to rethink

Remember this moment from Orwell’s 1984 and don’t let the Tories rewrite history

Really Theresa May? Consensus? With the “saboteurs”, the “enemies of the people”?

BBC and Channel 4’s obsession with so-called ‘impartiality’ is stifling true debate

Forget the social media whirlwinds around media bias, impartiality is overrated

‘EU leaders are willing to consider freedom of movement changes to stop Brexit’

It’s becoming clear what the British people want from Brexit. But they are not being given the option, says former PM Tony Blair

Brexit pathology: Leave’s latest lie shows the trouble they are in

A new Big Lie is currently entering the Big Lie lexicon. It is that 51.9% having voted Leave last June 23 – National Self-Harm Day – the number has now risen to over 80%.

Watch us on YouTube

The rollercoaster ride of Theresa May's plummeting approval ratings

Views: 242

A year of failure and fiasco in May’s Number 10

Views: 200

Tory minister Steve Baker demands the EU is to be ‘torn down’

Views: 400



Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter