Five gunshots blasted like fireworks on a sunny evening, just behind Amsterdam’s busy Leidseplein Square. To the horror of the Netherlands, a cold-blooded shooting had left prominent Dutch crime journalist Peter de Vries fighting for his life in hospital, and battle that ended yesterday when he died.
Everyone from European leaders to Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema have expressed their shock at the ambush of “national hero” De Vries as he walked back to his vehicle on Tuesday last week after recording a chat show, on a busy street in broad daylight.
Within hours, police arrested two men on the A4 motorway and are holding a 21-year-old from Rotterdam and a 35-year-old Polish man. The younger man has been named in Dutch media as rapper Delano G, the Polish man as Kamil Pawel E.
However, many are speculating whether it is coincidence that De Vries, who made his name reporting on the kidnapping of brewing magnate Freddy Heineken in the 1980s, had over the past few months been involved in a high-profile gangland drug and murder court case, known as the Marengo trial.
The 64-year-old had been acting as a representative and media spokesman for key prosecution witness Nabil B, a former gang member turned informant.
Nabil B’s brother was murdered in 2018, and a separate trial of three men suspected of shooting dead his former lawyer, Derk Wiersum, in 2019 began on Monday.
Meanwhile, the huge Marengo trial continues, with prosecutors accusing 17 alleged gang members of being part of a “well-oiled murder machine” that carried out gangland killings from 2015 to 2017.
When the main suspect, Ridouan Taghi, was arrested in 2019 in the United Arab Emirates, he was reportedly described by Dubai’s police chief as “one of the world’s most dangerous and wanted men.”
De Vries said he had been informed that he was on Taghi’s “death list,” something Taghi denied.
Taghi’s lawyer, Inez Weski, has also strenuously denied allegations that he had anything to do with the De Vries attack, or any others.
Whoever is behind it, the shooting is seen as a wake-up call on the hard drugs and organized crime the Dutch government fears is undermining the rule of law.
“It is a many-headed monster that gets ever more violent and more unscrupulous. We cannot accept this,” Dutch Acting Minister of Justice and Security Ferd Grapperhaus said after the attack. “Criminality in our country abuses what is good here, our logistics, our space, our freedom, and at the same time, limits our freedom.”
Although murder and manslaughter cases in 2019 hit a 20-year low of 125, the Dutch Police Union has repeatedly said that the country has “the characteristics of a narco state,” as knife crime has risen among young people and a 2019 report into drug-related criminality in Amsterdam described it as out of control.
Pieter Tops, a coauthor of the report, said that he believes the country’s light-touch penal system is “a major attraction” for criminals, while its roads and ports provide excellent infrastructure.
Halsema, together with Amsterdam’s chief prosecutor and head of police, recently unveiled a new strategy to combat international and local crime, which they said “affect the security of citizens and the fabric of society, and threaten the rule of law.”
Jill Coster van Voorhout, who runs a project at the University of Amsterdam to use artificial intelligence against organized crime, believes that official figures represent a fraction of the truth.
“Unfortunately, we hardly know more than the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Many people have assumed that this might have something to do with the alleged drug cartel of Taghi. Of course, that might not be true, but in terms of drug-related crimes, we do know quite a bit about the way the Dutch are either the transport hub for drugs, a well-known production hub, particularly in the south, and how our finance system — like that of the United Kingdom — is quite susceptible to criminality.”
Over the past few years, Dutch police have struggled with drug gangs, including the so-called Moroccan mafia, or “mocro” mafia, and their gruesome internal battles.
In 2016, a man’s severed head was left in front of a shisha lounge in Amsterdam; last year, a fully equipped torture chamber was discovered in a shipping container in Brabant; and more recently, Dutch police have raided record numbers of methamphetamine labs, and seized cocaine and heroin shipments.
Wouter Laumans, a crime reporter for the Het Parool newspaper who coauthored the novel Mocro Maffia, believes that international crime feeds on a historically relaxed attitude to soft drugs, and in deprived areas of the Netherlands.
“Here you have people in the underclass who want to drive a Mercedes just like the bankers,” he said. “The Netherlands is a very egalitarian society, but in some neighborhoods and social classes, if you’re not good at football, your learning isn’t up to par and you’re not good at music, your chances of becoming a millionaire are very slim. A driving factor that brings people into crime is socioeconomics.”
“We are not a narco-state like Mexico or Honduras, but the business of drugs is big business,” Laumans added.
Some believe that the prevalence of social media makes it easier for criminals to target young people, and at the same time makes community work more difficult.
“There have always been troublesome youths, but at the moment, you do see a hardening,” said Jack van Midden, director of the Stichting Aanpak Overlast Amsterdam foundation, which was in 2006 set up to combat antisocial behavior in young people with the help of street coaches and family interventions.
“In recent years, it’s been harder to keep track of them because of constant social media. Before, you might see someone developing in a worrying way, for example, getting into small-time crime, but now we don’t see young people on the street and suddenly they are in crime,” Van Midden said. “Drugs have become a kind of earning model.”
A spokeswoman for the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security said that the country is taking the situation seriously, and has recently helped dismantle the EncroChat telephone network and operate an encrypted platform to entrap international criminals.
“We have invested heavily in combating crimes that undermine the rule of law in recent years, but this is a long fight,” she said. “Hard drugs are banned in the Netherlands, and the minister has also said that people who take a pill or sniff coke at the weekends are partly responsible for keeping criminals in business.”
The scene of last week’s attack has become a sea of flowers and messages of support.
Meanwhile, in Dam Square in the center of Amsterdam, someone laid 4,000 white roses and an accusing message.
“Is it an attack on press freedom?” it reads. “No, it is an attack on his role as adviser in the Marengo trial. Peter, hang on!”
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