The shooting of a prominent Dutch crime reporter has prompted a national debate about the country’s reputation as the nexus of the continent’s illegal drugs trade.
Almost from the moment the last bullet tore into the Netherlands’ best-known crime reporter Peter R. de Vries on the evening of July 6, a peculiar debate erupted among politicians, journalists and commentators over how to “frame” the attack.
On one hand, the attempt was condemned as a blow against journalism and the rule of law. Others, often more inclined to the political right, judged it to be a much narrower manifestation of the country becoming a “narco state”.
This might seem like an esoteric and domestic, even parochial, distinction in the face of the outrage that had been perpetrated right in the centre of Amsterdam, the freewheeling and drugs-friendly Dutch capital. But it goes to the heart of the way that the debates over both Dutch drug and crime policy and the safety of journalists have been politicised in sometimes surprising ways.
The narco state label itself might come as a surprise to those who think of the Netherlands as a seemingly well-regulated, law-abiding country, an economic powerhouse and a paragon of political stability. The categorisation is not universally accepted in academic and political circles, but has been increasingly brandished since a series of brutal murders and worrying reports on the country’s role as a hub for the marijuana, cocaine and MDMA trades.
Few would argue that the situation resembles that in, for example, Mexico. But two years ago the Netherlands was shaken by the assassination of the lawyer of the key prosecution witness in a major drugs murder trial, bearing the randomly picked name ‘Marengo’.
The trial involves a leader of the country’s main organised crime group who was apprehended in Dubai and extradited. A (non-criminal) brother of the witness, a former member of the group, had earlier been liquidated. In the wake of the lawyer’s murder, a poll showed that some 60% of the population agreed with the narco state label.
In neighbouring Germany and Belgium, politicians and police officials have voiced concern over the Dutch role as a hub for the drugs trade. One German police official last year called the Netherlands a “post office” for drugs after an increase in the interception of substances sent by mail.
The right wing mayor of Antwerp, Bart de Wever, who leads his own controversial war on drugs, has said: “The Netherlands has become something of a narco state because of its policy of toleration [of drugs].”
The Dutch openness to marijuana since the 1970s has made the country a magnet for both drugs tourism and trade. According to the most recent European drug agency EMCDDA report, it plays a major role in the marijuana and cocaine trades and is a key producer of synthetic drugs, with 20 of the 23 MDMA labs dismantled in 2018 being located in the Netherlands.
Moreover, with two of the biggest ports in Europe, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and one of the busiest airports, Schiphol, the Netherlands has also been a target for smugglers.
De Vries, a long-time crime journalist with a high profile in the Netherlands as well as internationally, remains in hospital in a serious condition. He is both a controversial figure because of some of his methods and a national hero because of his role in solving cold cases, giving victims’ families closure and clearing the names of the innocent.
Earlier this year he took the characteristically bold step of accepting a request from the prosecution witness in the Marengo trial to become his (non-lawyer) counsellor and spokesman. This is what many now point at as the most likely reason behind the attempt on his life, which came as he was leaving a TV studio in the centre of Amsterdam.
Police arrested two suspects shortly after the attack, based on ubiquitous camera footage in the city centre. Among them is the suspected shooter who has been identified in the press as the 21-year old Delano G. A resident of Rotterdam, he is said to have a family member who is a senior figure in the crime organisation targeted in the Marengo trial. The second suspect is a 35-year-old Polish national who is suspected of driving the getaway car.
The Marengo trial serves as a focus for current Dutch anxieties about the reach and impunity of the organised crime syndicates. It involves a series of sometimes gruesome murders and internecine bloodletting in the so-called Mocro Mafia, centred partly on people of Moroccan migrant descent.
The Moroccan migrant identity of many of those involved has figured in some of the rhetoric of right wing politicians linking Dutch Moroccans with crime, which is where some of the politics comes in.
The traditionally tough on law and order stance of prime minister Mark Rutte’s conservative liberals has over the last decade been subsumed by his government’s austerity policies and budget cuts, leading to closures of police stations, under-staffed units and the disbanding of youth intervention teams, among others.
At the same time, the party and the PM remain standard bearers for the kind of laissez-faire financial and tax policies that make the Netherlands attractive to international money laundering and crime organisations.
This has left room for other parties to take up the issue. Almost all argue for some combination of more police, tougher laws or crackdowns on financial irregularities. Far right parties argue for deportation and denaturalisation of criminals with dual nationality, which is often aimed at Moroccan Dutch citizens.
The mainstream Christian Democrat party, one of Rutte’s current coalition partners, played up the narco state issue in its effort to outflank him on the right during the March elections. “By now the value of drugs exports is higher than that of cheese and flowers,” the party’s leader, Wopke Hoekstra, told De Gelderlander newspaper, naming of course two of the items that the Netherlands is traditionally known for.
Their combined export value for 2019 was indeed around 7bn euros, while estimates of the amount of drugs-related money circulating in the Netherlands vary between 16 and 20bn euros, although that’s not all from export.
A large chunk of the money comes from one of the contradictions inherent in Dutch drugs policy: Using marijuana is legal while possessing consumer quantities is tolerated, as is buying and selling it retail in coffee shops. Yet, growing and selling it wholesale is banned. Many argue that this creates an opening for the crime syndicates.
The narco state focus after the attempt on de Vries’s life has overshadowed another aspect of the attack: the increasingly hostile climate for journalists, which echoes a wider European trend where journalists in Greece, Malta and Slovakia have been killed in recent years.
Organised crime in the Netherlands has targeted journalists before, and some have had to seek police protection. In 2018 an RPG was fired at a magazine’s office and a van was driven into the building of the De Telegraaf newspaper.
Non-crime related threats and violence against journalists have also increased, the Dutch Association of Journalists (in which I’m active) noted during its recent annual general meeting, where it presented police representatives with a report. Particularly, but not only, during the pandemic, demonstrators and activists have targeted journalists.
The role of politics in this is notable. Two far right parties, PVV and FvD, are open in their disdain for journalists, with PVV leader Geert Wilders recently tweeting that he considers journalists to be “scum”. The FvD’s leader immediately condoned the tweet.
When reactions after the attack on de Vries mentioned this hostile climate there was pushback from across the spectre, including some newspaper editors but mainly from commentators on the right. They point at de Vries’s role as counsellor to the witness in the Marengo trial and deny any link to journalism. But that ignores the increase in criminal and non-criminal attacks on journalists as well as de Vries’s own rationale for accepting the role: “After 40 years in journalism, I cannot say: ‘Things are getting a bit too dicey for me, I won’t do it’.”