The narco-terror of Frau Antje
For once, criticism doesn't offend
COMING FROM GERMANY, Der Spiegel’s recent cover story on narco-terror in the Netherlands might be calculated to annoy. Over nine pages - under the subheader, “How naïve drug policy made the Netherlands a mafia paradise” - the news magazine mapped familiar and gruesome terrain.
The Netherlands with its small land mass and pristine infrastructure is the drugs supermarket of Europe, the continent’s main transit hub for illicit drugs and a favoured economy for gangsters busily laundering their profits.
These facts were not new, but the situation is getting worse. Germany’s Bundeskriminalamt, the national criminal investigation department in Wiesbaden, handled 161 drug cases from the Netherlands in 2019. That's far more than at any other border.
The timing of the German article was not coincidence. A new coalition of red (SPD), yellow (FDP) and Green parties is on the cards in Germany, as I reported here. This so-called "traffic light coalition" could have a big impact on Europe’s green agenda, but a subsidiary topic in the formal negotiations is to revisit the case for reforming drug policy.
And there’s the rub.
The Netherlands is an obvious point of reference in any discussion of the benefits and risks in decriminalisation. The Spiegel blamed liberal drug policy for the rise of a Dutch narco-state.
This kind of causality - between tolerance and organised crime - is hard to prove. The statistics are one thing, but to describe the Netherlands as “a country that wants to be free” but is simply too naïve to contain the drug gangs, felt like a more subjective opinion.
The case made by the Spiegel follows similar claims set out in an August 2021 article for NRC by Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, a searing 2006 exposé of the Neapolitan mafia. Saviano, who lived under police protection before fleeing Italy for the US, blamed tolerant drug policy in the Netherlands for creating “one of the most criminal countries in the world”.
These arguments were illustrated, graphically, by the spectacular barbarism of Dutch drug gangs. Scenes from recent “liquidations” include a severed head left in a cardboard box on a shopping street, and the serial gunning down in broad daylight of an informant’s relative, his lawyer and a famous journalist-turned-aide to the prosecution.
“Mocroterror” - a reference to the Dutch Moroccan gangs known as the “Mocro-mafia” - featured prominently. The incidence of lurid killings has escalated since the December 2019 arrest in Dubai of Redouane Taghi, a Moroccan Dutch national currently facing trial in Amsterdam on charges of ordering the murder of nine people. The Taghi gang’s motto was said to be: Wie praat, die gaat, reported AD - Who talks, goes.
The drug traffickers’ underworld has numerous indigenous white Dutch protagonists too, albeit with a more ambiguous public profile. Their murderous feuds are more likely to be glamorised by a nostalgia industry that has spawned serial bestselling books, television series and films. Once a local phenomenon, their antics are reaching a wider audience - most recently via Netflix. Undercover, a detective series set on a Dutch caravan site, has garnered viewers worldwide.
Narco-state, a brief history
Famous for cheese and tulips and relaxed attitudes to drugs and prostitution, the Netherlands’ reputation for liberalism (albeit exaggerated) is blotted by the term ‘narco-state’.
In diplomatic circles, at least, the label dates from a French government assessment in 1996. More recently, Nederlandse Politiebond (NPB), the Dutch police union, deployed the term to highlight dangers posed to serving officers from increasingly well-connected gangs.
According to an NPB survey published in February 2018, only one drug case in five was adequately investigated, due to resource constraints. Based on interviews with more than 400 serving officers, the report was entitled Noodkreet recherche! which can be translated as a Distress Call to criminal investigators. “In the last 25 years I have seen small dealers grow into large entrepreneurs with good contacts in politics and into so-called respected investors,” said one detective quoted in the report.
The murder rate in Dutch drug wars isn’t comparable to Columbia or Mexico, but a May 2021 ‘field report’ for Small Wars Journal by author Teun Voeten argued that a narco-state can be defined more closely:
Many people interpret a narco-state as a dysfunctional failed state, where thugs armed with Kalashnikovs are roaming the streets, with high levels of chaos and violence. But explicit violence, bloodshed and terror on every street corner are not the essence of a narco-state. Violence is used by sophisticated drug syndicates as well as most organised crime groups in a very selective way since it alerts authorities and is a waste of human and financial resources. Therefore, it is not conducive for smooth business operations. The true essence of a narco-state is an important parallel drug economy, corruption, impunity, and infiltration. Holland scores high on all these points and therefore can be rightly called a narco-state, albeit a functional one.
On those criteria, there is little room to doubt that the Dutch justice system is under assault.
In September 2021, security was tightened for prime minister Mark Rutte - a sad development for a head of state who was routinely photographed going about his business in the Hague by bicycle. “Anyone who wants to tackle these deranged Moroccan mobsters – whether in the media or criminally – is at risk,” reported the Dagelijkse Standaard in an account of the Spiegel article.
Ignore for a moment the source of the criticism, and recent foreign media coverage adds little to longstanding local concerns. A 2017 analysis led by Pieter Tops, professor of public governance at Tilburg university, commissioned by the Public Prosecution Service and the ‘Taskforce Brabant-Zeeland’, estimated the Netherlands’ synthetic drugs trade to be worth more than €20 billion.
The new element in accounts from both the Italian and the German reporters is the tone of reprimand and direct reproach. For the Netherlands to have become “a paradise for narcotics” and a safe haven for drug gangs is the ultimate hypocrisy, according to Saviano. Previously, he warned in a September 2019 interview with Parool that the Dutch have only themselves to blame: Nederland heeft dit aan zichzelf te wijten.
The Spiegel’s cover featured Frau Antje, the “popular Dutch cheese girl” from the eponymous brand of Gouda cheese. In the 1980s, a popular caricature of the wholesome Frau Antje featured her smoking a joint and cradling a beer. In the Spiegel’s new rendering, she poses with a Kalashnikov, while her signature Gouda cheese is stuffed with bags of white powder and punctured with bullet holes trailing cocaine.
How would the Dutch press react, I wondered? On almost any other topic, I might have expected a typically thin-skinned response from the local commentariat.
Not this time.
As I’ve reported here, lessons from Germany can be particularly hard to stomach. Perhaps because, on just about every big issue - pandemic response, forming a coalition government, the energy transition - Berlin emerges from any comparison to the Netherlands as the more competent and serious administration.
Instead, Dutch columnists conspicuously failed to summon their usual indignation. The Spiegel “sweeps the floor with the Dutch drug policy,” conceded AD - de vloer aangeveegd met het Nederlandse drugsbeleid. German authorities had grown increasingly concerned - Duitse instanties zich in toenemende mate zorgen maken. A Dutch page on the headtopics.com website acknowledged that the article “painted a pitch-black picture” - een inktzwart beeld geschetst.
Artists and the underworld
Reasons for the muted reaction are complex to decipher. Perhaps it implied a measure of recognition: the Dutch equivalent of weltschmerz, a German term to connote guilt and shame. But guilty as charged by foreign journalists seems an implausible sentiment in the Netherlands, especially when cherished national traits of tolerance are under attack.
An alternative explanation lies in the deep ambivalence of Dutch attitudes to the underworld. Foreign criminals in Moroccan or Chinese gangs are widely reviled, but their indigenous counterparts are viewed with a last-of-the-Dinosaurs nostalgia. The Netflix series Undercover is a curiously authentic illustration.
Loaded with local nuances, Undercover is an otherwise unremarkable cops vs. gangsters plot whose main protagonist, an ecstasy-dealing drug kingpin named Ferry, is informed by actual precedents. As Laura Nordberg, who blogs on sobriety, culture and feminism, posted on medium.com, the series displays an unusual and sharp fidelity that must be lost on a non-Dutch audience:
The way characters speak and the places they come from influence how they relate to one another. Though it might not be obvious to foreign audiences, Ferry, who is Dutch, sounds nothing like Bob, who is from the Flemish part of Belgium. In turn, Bob sounds nothing like Laurent in the way that a Scottish accent bears no resemblance to, say, a Texas accent. Throughout the series, the characters' unique choice of words and mannerisms, which stem from regional cultural differences, add a layer of depth and tension to the plot that unfortunately doesn’t come across in the subtitles.
Drugs, especially cannabis, have played an historically significant part in Dutch identity. The backstory here has deep roots stretching to a counter-culture where art, bohemian lives and political resistance become blurred. Some combination of these ideals reached into mainstream society, prompting a general acceptance of, and even some pride in, the decriminalisation of the possession of soft drugs.
Teun Voeten’s 2021 ‘field report’ puts the consequences into perspective. Decriminalisation enabled a brisk cross-border trade in small quantities of cannabis between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The recreational market sustained a burgeoning network of small-time dealers in other parts of Europe, a distribution chain that inevitably attracted attention from organised criminals.
This chain of connections, with cultural and historic roots, is crucial evidence for any claim that the Netherlands has “voluntarily surrendered” to the narco-state. Take that first caricature of Frau Antje, smoking a joint and swigging beer: she is a figure for popular resistance, flattering to Dutch pride, embedded in the national self-image. This kind of popular idea fed a libertarian impulse in policy and law, explained Voeten:
The story of the Dutch drug industry starts with Robert Jasper Grootveld, the rather idealistic figurehead of the 1960s Provo movement, a fluid group of artists and activists with a rebellious streak. Their libertarian idea was that marijuana consumers should grow their own pot on their balcony without interference from the government or the capitalist free market. Inspired by the Provos, the Dutch authorities started to develop a lax and tolerant attitude towards drugs that gave rise to the so-called coffee shops where sales of small quantities (30 grams) of cannabis were tolerated.
Half a century after the Provo movement, the spectrum of opinion is not substantially altered - even as the political actors in government come and go. The same libertarian attitudes permeate many corners of contemporary society. They are prized too among Dutch conspiracy-theorists and by elements on the far-Right in politics.
Where will it all end? In NRC (paywall), Saviano urged an Italy-style response. Money laundering in the Netherlands was a “whitewash at the heart of Europe” - een witwasserij in het hart van Europa. Only a total onslaught against the drugs trade can stall its mafia-style operations - if such a policy is even possible.
Zero-tolerance seems a very un-Dutch idea, an antithesis of everything that seemed lovable about the first corruption of Frau Anje. But Saviano’s prescription has at least one determined local advocate: Jan Struis, chairman of the NPB police union.
When the outgoing government announced new funding for 700 new officers in coming years, Struis responded by blaming the stalled coalition talks for a lack of new policy to tackle drug crime.
Look at what the police have already on their plate - wat er allemaal op het bordje ligt, Struis told the WNL television channel, and recent funding for additional staff was like putting plasters on a gaping wound - pleisters op een hele grote wond plakken. Against a tide of threats, crime and drugs, the police were not going to win this battle - gaan wij deze strijd niet winnen.
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