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Amsterdam: The sinister world of gangland coffee shop wars

(ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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

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