Is the Netherlands a ‘narco-state’? Lawyer’s murder raises troubling questions

Police union takes aim at €20bn narcotics trade in wake of Derk Wiersum assassination

Aftermath of a  shooting in the Amsterdam district of Buitenveldert, where Dutch lawyer Derk Wiersum was shot dead. Photograph: Getty

Aftermath of a shooting in the Amsterdam district of Buitenveldert, where Dutch lawyer Derk Wiersum was shot dead. Photograph: Getty

 

While there were many chilling aspects to Wednesday’s brazen assassination of 44-year-old lawyer Derk Wiersum in Amsterdam, undoubtedly the criticism that stung Mark Rutte’s government most politically was the contention that it laid bare the Netherlands as “a narco state”.

Having just been briefed, Rutte’s shock was visible as he condemned the coldblooded killing. No doubt, one aspect of that shock was learning that Wiersum had been representing a client in a gangland case where the prime suspect is the country’s most wanted man, Ridouan Taghi.

Taghi is on the run and wanted for a string of five drugs-related murders between 2015 and 2017 in which 15 others are accused of various degrees of complicity. One of those 15 co-accused is Nabil Bakkali, Mr Wiersum’s client.

Yet when the main police union joined the chorus of horror at the “liquidation” of a legal colleague who leaves behind a wife and two children, it was instantly clear that it was homing in not so much on the detail of what happened as on what it sees as the permissive social context that allowed it.

“This is confirmation, if it were needed, that we are living in a narco-state,” said union leader Jan Sluijs.

Agree or not, it’s not much of an overstatement to say there wasn’t an adult in the country who didn’t understand exactly the point he was making.

The narcotics industry in the Netherlands is not just about well-heeled 20-something tourists buying a cheap thrill during a weekend in Amsterdam.

Hidden labs funded by gangsterism without borders produce cutting-edge synthetic drugs – ecstasy and amphetamines – worth, conservatively, €20 billion every year.

A wealthy EU country with an AAA credit rating, it is the largest producer of ecstasy in the world.

And the southern province of Brabant is smilingly referred to here as “the weed shed of Europe”, producing cannabis worth an estimated €800 million annually.

The point the police have hammered home over the years is that all this cannot be allowed to happen without consequences: and among the most corrosive social consequences has been the development of “a parallel criminal economy” that permeates every aspect of Dutch daily life.

Are the police wrong? No they’re not, says Tilburg University’s professor of public governance Pieter Tops, who literally wrote the book on the societal impact of organised crime. Published in 2017, it was called, tellingly, The Backyard of the Netherlands.

‘Gateway to Europe’

In his view, what’s at play is a bizarre mix of misguided Dutch tolerance, a policy of containment which has failed to adequately resource the police, and the native business flair of its criminals.

“The Netherlands’s entrepreneurial mindset and its attractiveness as a ‘gateway to Europe’ facilitate legal trade. Illegal trade too. That makes us vulnerable. And we haven’t been responsive enough to that vulnerability.”

Tops is correct, though “naive” might be a better word than vulnerable.

In a damning failure to anticipate the known risks, the past 48 hours have shown, for instance, that, despite the professional world he lived in, Derk Wiersum had no protection, though he had often argued for it for prosecution witnesses.

In another identical failure of foresight, Wiersum’s client’s brother – who had no criminal connections – was shot dead last year when the prosecution revealed that Nabil Bakkali had decided to give evidence for the state.

The authorities’ shameful response was that they’d “failed to take into account the possible consequences” for his family.

As Wiersum’s inconsolable family are now finding, wringing hands afterwards is a ritual – but it’s no answer, none at all.

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