Criminal strongmen pass baton in decades-old Dutch-Serbian turf war


In the Netherlands, staging point for most of the drugs that flood into northern Europe, it’s regarded as good PR for gangland bosses – even the most vicious killers – to have an appropriately folksy nickname.

In that tradition, 64-year-old Stanley Hillis was known as “De Ouwe” or “The Old Guy” because of his longevity in a world of drugs, prostitution and people trafficking – until, that is, he was shot 37 times at point-blank range in an Amsterdam car park last year.

Once a volunteer for the French Foreign Legion, and latterly regarded as a Dutch capo di tutti capi, Hillis rarely had a bodyguard or took any special precautions. He relied on his reputation. Friends say he expected – rightly, as it transpired – to die like his predecessor, Klaas Bruinsma, known as “De Dominee” or “The Reverend” because of his liking for black clothes and lecturing his underlings. Bruinsma was shot dead outside the Amsterdam Hilton at 4am on June 27th, 1991.

Bruinsma, as it happens, became equally notorious after his death when his former bodyguard, Charlie da Silva, revealed he had been involved in a long-running relationship with Mabel Wisse Smit – who by then was engaged to be married to Prince Johan Friso, second son of Queen Beatrix.

Political storm

The revelation caused a political storm, and the marriage went ahead only after Friso – in a coma since a skiing accident in Austria earlier this year – renounced his claim to the throne.

But Hillis and Bruinsma had more in common than the top job in Dutch gangsterism, a touch of the rock star in a fear-ridden underworld, and, ultimately, their violent deaths.

Both had brushed up against – even co-operated with – the Netherlands’ infamous Serbian mafia, particularly the notorious Zemun Clan from Belgrade.For the past decade or so, Serbs have controlled most of the ecstasy and heroin channelled from the Balkans through the Netherlands into western Europe, including Ireland.

But it wasn’t just the Serb connection that Hillis and Bruinsma had in common, it was one particular Serb – Zeljko Raznatovic – also known as “Arkan”, assassinated in the foyer of the InterContinental Hotel in Belgrade in 2000.

Arkan featured on Interpol’s most-wanted list throughout the 1970s and 1980s for a string of murders and robberies across Europe.

In 1999, he was indicted by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity, specifically ethnic cleansing allegedly carried out in Bosnia and Herzegovina by his paramilitaries. In the late 1970s though, a youthful Arkan was among the first of the Serbs to arrive in the Netherlands. One detective said at the time: “He’s no ordinary criminal. He’s a rabid dog.”

Making a mark

Arkan carried out a string of bank and jewellery shop robberies in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, and it was then that he first worked with Stanley Hillis, an up-and-coming career criminal already making his mark among the Penose, the slang term for home-grown Dutch gangsters.

Although Arkan never directly challenged Klaas Bruinsma, he did establish the Serbs as a criminal force to be reckoned with in the Netherlands.

His natural successor after he returned to the Balkans in the early 1990s was Sreten Jocic, known as “Joca Amsterdam” – who in a fit of either pragmatism or prescience threw in his lot with the rival “Belgrado Gang” of “Duja” Bericovic, just as Bericovic and Bruinsma were about to cancel each other out. A row over ownership of a large consignment of drugs led to a feud between the two gangs and dozens of deaths on both sides. In 1990, Bericovic was shot dead inside his luxury home. Months later, Bruinsma met the same fate.

The Serbs were in the ascendant and “Joca Amsterdam” became the most feared man in the Netherlands.

It never lasts, however. Even the most terrifying psychopaths come and, ultimately, go.

Joca clashed with Bruinsmas Dutch strongman successor, Willem Holleeder – best known for kidnapping beer magnate Freddy Heineken in 1983 – and is serving 15 years in Serbia for the murder of Goran Marjanovic, a hitman he claims was sent by Holleeder.

So who ordered the killing of Holleeder’s successor, Hillis, in February 2011? Some believe it was the latest strike in this decades-old Dutch-Serbian turf war, but almost two years later, the murder investigation is still going on.

In the meantime, the new Serb strongman in the Netherlands is Milos Bata Petrovic, an old rival of Joca’s serving a jail term for murder, but no less powerful for that. The spirit of Arkan lives on in the Dutch underworld. But it’s early days: Petrovic doesn’t have a nickname yet.