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The other side of Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM - Bij een schietpartij aan de Imstenrade in Buitenveldert is advocaat Derk Wiersum doodgeschoten. Wiersum stond kroongetuige Nabil B. bij in het liquidatieproces Marengo rond het criminele kopstuk Ridouan Taghi. De schutter is te voet gevlucht. ANP MICHEL VAN BERGEN

Emergency services outside the scene of Derk Wiersum’s murder

At the time of his “liquidation”, the curiously businesslike term the Dutch use to describe a hired assassination, the target had just said goodbye to his wife on the doorstep of their home. Neighbours getting ready for work heard shots and screaming at around 7.30am and some saw the gunman, looking to be in his late teens or early twenties, making off on foot. Police arrived and covered the victim with a white sheet before forensics teams set about their work. News quickly spread that
the murdered man was 44-year-old criminal lawyer Derk Wiersum.

“He was a father of two children,” laments freelance crime writer Wouter Laumans as he leads me down the pavement of the Imstenrade, the street onto which Wiersum bled out. This was an exceptionally brutal murder for any neighbourhood, let alone the Buitenveldert, whose name is a byword in Amsterdam for leafy, residential gentility. Laumans came here quickly that morning, spoke to distraught neighbours and later that day wrote an article for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper about the murder.

“When the underworld touches the everyday world – that’s when it makes headlines,” says Laumans. But these sorts of crimes have been on the rise in the city for some time. In February 2018, Amsterdam’s then police chief, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, said his force was having to spend up to 70 percent of its time combating and investigating professional hit-jobs. “In the ’80s and ’90s, hitmen from abroad came here for €50,000… In recent years we see young boys from Amsterdam,” he said, claiming that this new breed of assassins is willing to carry out hits for as little as €3,000.

“You know how they shoot a person, right?” Laumans asks me as we admire the orderly, glass-fronted houses on Wiersum’s street. “They wear two layers of clothes, including gloves, underneath one of those rain suits, the kind you’d wear to ride a bicycle in a storm. You can buy them for €15 at the builders’ market or the DIY store. They buy one of those and they secure it with gaffer tape [to avoid leaving incriminating forensic evidence behind]. After shooting somebody they go straight to a safe house. I bet you that the guy who pulled the trigger on Wiersum didn’t know who he was shooting, that’s what I find so horrifying. Somewhere out there in the Netherlands is a guy waiting in a safe house for the heat to blow over.”

Today, three blonde children are running around in the miniature playground opposite the Wiersum household. Around the corner, Laumans points out a surveillance camera atop a white pole.

“These got put up because of Wiersum,” he tells me.

“Was that after he died?” I ask.

“No, before.”

Lawyer Richard Korver holds up an image of fellow lawyer Derk Wiersum

The Moroccan connection

Investigations into who might have wanted Wiersum killed swiftly focused on his recent work. He was no stranger to high-profile cases, including that of a mother suspected of killing her baby and a social worker in the Amsterdam-Noord borough accused of sexually abusing children with learning disabilities. However it was Wiersum’s work on a case connected to Amsterdam’s booming illicit drug trade – and particularly its relation to one ethnic group – that drew the strongest suspicion.

A 2018 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction entitled ‘Recent changes in Europe’s cocaine market’ observes that, not content with having become the largest producers and exporters of illicit cannabis to Europe, “Moroccan OCGs [Organised Crime Gangs] are now in the process of becoming an important player in the cocaine trade.”

Intensified security at the US-Mexico border since the election of Donald Trump has made Morocco an increasingly important alternative transportation point between the South American cocaine cartels and the European market. The Moroccan OCGs exploiting this opportunity, says the report, “are known to be present mostly in the Netherlands and Belgium… as these OCGs make use of their established cannabis-resin-trafficking routes between western Europe and their country
of origin”.

“Pre-trial disclosures had reportedly linked Taghi to at least nine murders and various planned

The fragmentation of the cocaine trade more generally has resulted in stiffer competition among OCGs for national and cross-border territories in cocaine supply and retail. According to the European Monitoring Centre report, “One of the consequences has been an increase in violence and drug-related homicides.”

Shortly after assuming office in June 2018, the incoming mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, commissioned a report entitled ‘De Achterkant van Amsterdam’ (‘The Other Side of Amsterdam’) which speculated that the city’s famous cannabis coffeeshops had provided the perfect smokescreen behind which organised criminals could establish higher-stakes enterprises, with ever more violent and far-reaching consequences.

Wiersum had found himself drawn into this world when he agreed to represent Nabil B, a former gang member turned state witness in an upcoming monsterproces (megatrial). And by all accounts, Nabil B had been singing like one of the parakeets in the Vondelpark.

One of the 16 defendants in the case set to feature Nabil B’s testimony is Ridouan Taghi, the most wanted man in the Netherlands. Taghi, 41, is believed to be a key figure in a ‘super cartel’ thought to control a third of the cocaine trade in Europe, a market whose total annual worth is conservatively estimated to be €5.7 billion. Moroccan-born Taghi moved to Vianen in the province of Utrecht as a child and is rumoured to have subsequently acquired a supply chain set up to smuggle hashish from Morocco into Europe, using it to move cocaine sourced from Panama.

Taghi left the Netherlands in 2009 and his whereabouts are unknown. Last summer, on the Dutch equivalent of Crimewatch, police asked holidaymakers heading for Spain, Dubai and Morocco to be on the lookout for him: an image circulated by Europol shows a slim figure pouting between palm-tree huts on a beach. If he’s still on the run when his case comes to court next year – and no-one has claimed the €100,000 reward for his apprehension – he will be tried in absentia. Pre-trial disclosures by Wiersum’s client had reportedly already linked Taghi to at least nine murders, a string of attempted murders and various planned liquidations.

Laumans has been following the case with interest. Alongside his partner in crime journalism, Marijn Schrijver, he is the author of Mocro Maffia, a phenomenally successful true crime book about violent crime in the Netherlands whose title alone is enough to start a fight – “Mocro” is a slang term used to refer to the 430,000-strong Moroccan community, and rarely in a complimentary manner.

Subtitled ‘Money, ambition, pride and betrayal in the underworld’, Mocro Maffia is a dark affair. It relates the real-life tragedy of a young Dutch-Moroccan man called Rida Bennajem, already a notorious hitman by the time he was himself shot dead on the street at the age of 21 in 2013. “I was just curious, how can a kid that young be on the most-wanted list? I just decided, okay I’m writing a book about young Moroccans and crime,” Laumans tells me.

Ridouan Taghi, the most wanted man in the Netherlands

Tijuana on Amstel 

Wiersum’s slaying was not the first time blood has been spilled in the streets of Amsterdam in connection with the upcoming case against Taghi and his fellow defendants. In April 2018, just a week after Nabil B was originally presented by the public prosecutor as a key witness, his brother, Reduan, was murdered outside his office. The Amsterdam entrepreneur had barely slept in the days leading up to his death and constantly worried about his family’s safety. “We do not matter, we are collateral damage,” Reduan B wrote in a text message two days before he was killed.

According to criminal lawyer Jillis Roelse, a colleague of Wiersum who was interviewed by NRC Handelsblad, Wiersum had been acutely aware of the potential danger to his own life in representing Nabil B but did not want to avail himself of bodyguards on principle. “I did talk to him about it, but he thought he should be able to do his job,” Roelse told the paper in the days after Wiersum’s murder. “Derk went to work on his bicycle. We live in the Netherlands, right?”

A litany of bloody underworld eruptions in Amsterdam in recent years had led media commentators to wonder, only semi-ironically, whether they were living in “Tijuana on Amstel”. The murder of a lawyer like Wiersum laid bare new depths of disorder, prompting comparisons with Escobar’s Colombia, or the targeted mafia assassinations of prosecuting magistrates in Italy in the 1990s.

A visibly shaken Ferdinand Grapperhaus – the minister of justice and security in Mark Rutte’s centre-right government, himself a former lawyer – swiftly made an announcement about Wiersum’s murder in which he said that the foundations of the Dutch constitutional state had been shaken. “It is a huge blow, especially for those in the legal profession, the public prosecution service and the judiciary,” he said.

The following day in parliament, Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam PVV, co-opted Rutte’s budget proposal announcement to fulminate against what he condemned as the Netherlands’ weak stance on organised crime. He talked about recent events in Amsterdam including the case of Nabil Amzieb, a gang member whose decapitated head was left outside a shisha café in the city. He also noted the sharp rise in incidents involving hand grenades, “umpteen” shootings and the violent attacks on media outlets, one of which – on the building housing the publications Panorama and Nieuwe Revu – involved rocket-launching equipment.

Using the term popularised by Laumans and Schrijver, Wilders asked the prime minister, Mark Rutte: “When it comes to that odious Mocro maffia – that poison of Dutch society, controlling everything from Dubai and Spain – can the government really claim to be in charge?” He challenged Rutte to admit that the Netherlands has a “Moroccan problem”, and ended by exclaiming, “This mafia in Amsterdam doesn’t come from Norway, it comes from Morocco.”

As Gloria Wekker explains in her book on ethnicity in the Netherlands, White Innocence, Wilders’s party “stands out for an extraordinary coarseness in its political-rhetorical style… using derogatory expressions like… ‘hate palaces’ to indicate mosques, and ‘street robbers and bandits’ to refer to young Dutch-Moroccan men. By constantly proposing ideas for the solution of the ‘Muslim problem’ that are, as Wilders well knows, unconstitutional – such as his oft-repeated proposal to send young offenders of Moroccan descent “back” to Morocco, though they have Dutch citizenship – he effectively helps to produce an atmosphere of fear and exclusion among Dutch-Moroccan people, and he feeds the mindset among the white Dutch population that finds Muslims unassimilable in the Netherlands and that favours their deportation.”

Rutte replied, acknowledging the existence of the “Mocro maffia problem” and insisting that “Nobody should doubt whether we have a cabinet, a minister of justice and a prime minister who are fully motivated to eradicate this evil.” However, it should not be mistaken for a “Moroccan problem,’’ he said. While taking the opportunity to note that Moroccan-Dutch citizens (“and other minorities”) are overrepresented in “the bad sort of business – criminality, jail time and the wrong side of the law,’’ Rutte said that “as a liberal” he objects to the idea of individual members of any community being judged according to the group to which they belong.

The “Uberisation” of cocaine

The term ‘mafia’, with its associations of family, fealty and omertà is perhaps misleading in the context of the atomised youths described by Laumans and Schrijver. Through their book, and their reporting for newspapers, the duo paint a picture of a loose network in which violent, often murderous “gigs” are taken on via WhatsApp.

As Laumans notes, it’s a marked contrast to the 1980s heyday of Dutch gangsters such as Willem “the nose” Holleeder, whose most audacious criminal act was his role in the kidnapping of the brewing heir Freddy Heineken. “In those days you might start out as a little street rat causing mayhem at the local playground. You’d do small things like vandalism and then you might graduate to burglary. After years of robberies you’d go into the drug trade. And then in the drug trade, eventually, a few would end up getting involved with murder. What you see now is that people will start out with a burglary. And then two weeks later, they’re being arrested for trying to murder somebody.”

Laumans has brought me to the Zuid-Oost district that’s on the “wrong” side of the A10 ring road that separates everything you’d recognise from a postcard of Amsterdam and everything you wouldn’t. Four tower blocks monopolise the sky around us and there are very few bicycles.

An illuminated police hoarding warns residents, vaguely, of a recent incident. “There’s been a drug war going on here for two months,” says Laumans. “One of those crazy drug stories that have been plaguing Amsterdam. In some of these buildings you’ve got people who stash cocaine – and I’m not talking about 20 kilos; it’s 200 kilos at a time when a batch comes in. In one of these high-rises they’ve got apartments secured like a vault – big safes and people guarding them 24/7 with guns.

“Now these boys are just the runners of the big drug kingpins, and if they smuggle 600 kilos [into the country] they split it between apartments, so one tower might contain 200 kilos, one might contain 400 and one might just contain money,” adds Laumans. “When one of the stashes gets nicked, not everything goes to waste. That’s the philosophy behind it.”

This fits with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction report’s observation that “reorganisation of the cocaine supply chain is… visible at mid-level and retail level, with the emergence of fragmented, looser and more horizontal structures. Novel technologies such as encrypted communication applications, the dark net, social media and cryptocurrencies are playing an important role in enabling smaller groups and individual ‘entrepreneurs’ to engage, with a perception of less risk, in cocaine dealing.” It refers to this phenomenon as the “Uberisation” of the cocaine trade.

From the outside at least, these tower blocks look well maintained and orderly.

“For you, I think it’s not as bad as a bad neighbourhood in London, right?” says Laumans. “There’d be shit on the streets. But don’t be deceived. It’s the Dutch way – if a neighbourhood is shit, we redo the whole neighbourhood so that it looks nice. You can change the bricks, sweep people under the rug. But behind these windows people have a very hard life.”

Era of mass consumption

Prior to Wiersum, the last time an Amsterdam murder affected the country to this extent was the 2004 killing of the film director Theo van Gogh, the great-grandson of the famous painter’s brother and patron. He was cycling to work at 9am when he was shot and stabbed by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim who objected to Submission, a film van Gogh had made that was highly critical of Islam.

Bouyeri, who is currently serving a life sentence with no chance of parole, was represented by the prominent criminal lawyer Peter Plasman. Sitting at the large conference table on the lower ground floor of his office on the edge of Amsterdam’s elegant museum quarter, Plasman tells me that the two events, 15 years apart, have had a similarly destabilising impact on the Dutch national psyche.

“If Mr Taghi is behind this murder, then it is an act of war on Dutch society and the Dutch system”

The slaying of van Gogh, Plasman says, “was terrible and a massive shock for the whole of the Netherlands. The Dutch people never believed that such a thing could happen in broad daylight. We prized the freedom of speech and expression and [the right to] be provocative and a thinker. And then we see this carnage.”

Nevertheless, even in the febrile, post-9/11 atmosphere of the early 2000s, the rational Dutch weren’t especially prone to scaremongering, says Plasman. “At least people could say, well this guy [the killer] was a fanatic, he was possessed by radical Islam and as a human being you could give it a kind of label. This killing [of Wiersum], I think it’s a little bit more difficult for people to accept. You cannot just say ‘This is a crazy guy who’s doing something out of belief.’ It’s a calculated, criminal action with a clear message: I am as strong as you. If Mr Taghi is behind this, then it is an act of war on Dutch society and the Dutch system.”

More than a third of all underworld killings in the Netherlands are thought to relate to the trade in cocaine, and Plasman thinks things are going to get worse before they get better. The Netherlands, he says, represents something of a quadruple threat when it comes to illicit substances. “We are a nation that produces drugs, we are a nation of transport and we like to trade – and we like to take drugs, which are largely tolerated. Younger people now are consuming them like it’s a drink.”

The port of Rotterdam – the largest in Europe – is crucial to the Netherlands’ strategic importance as a distribution hub in the cocaine trade, says Plasman. “We know that there’s a lot of cocaine coming through the harbour on a regular basis but nobody wants to check the containers because that would cause great inconvenience and economic damage by slowing everything down. My own opinion is that we’ll have these problems for as long as drugs are illegal.” Of Amsterdam, he says: “We’re in a situation now where young people of 16, 17 and 18 are willing to kill people for a few thousand euros. That’s the new occupational hazard for us and it’s born of social and economic problems – not things we’re going to solve overnight.”

After Wiersum’s assassination, the national coordinator for counterterrorism and security, NCTV, arranged extra security measures for dozens of people working on the Taghi case, including prosecutors, lawyers and judges. Some have been given camera surveillance, others round-the-clock services by the same elite team as protects the royal family, according to the Dutch broadcaster NOS.

Shortly after Wiersum’s death, Plasman – whose own home is 400 metres from that of the Wiersum family – commissioned a display for the window of his offices. Visible to the thousands of people who drive or cycle down the arterial Ceintuurbaan every day, the hoarding consists of two black posters, one of which bears the late lawyer’s name. The other bears the term rechtsstaat, meaning rule of law, which Plasman says has been severely compromised by Wiersum’s murder. “It has been attacked, and attacked successfully.”

It is, he tells me, a gesture of solidarity with his fellow criminal lawyers in what can be a solitary profession, “particularly when you’re involved in cases of this seriousness”.

Our conversation takes place a month to the day since Wiersum was assassinated. Plasman tells me that he had imagined himself taking the posters down today. But that wouldn’t feel right, he says. It’s too soon.

“So now I’m thinking two months.”

The window of Peter Plasman’s offices in Amsterdam

A loaded term

Raja Felgata, 44, shudders whenever she hears the words “Mocro maffia”. A well-known newsreader and television personality in the 1990s and then the head of PR for the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s velvet-seated concert hall, she is also the founder of the diversity initiative Kleurrijke Top 100 (literally, Colourful Top 100) which she runs with DJ and producer Khalid Ouaziz.

“The Moroccan community has worked on contributing to and participating in Dutch society”

Around Amsterdam, cultural institutions are marking exactly 50 years since the Netherlands and Morocco signed the recruitment treaty which made Moroccan labour migration to the Netherlands officially possible. Felgata’s own contribution to this anniversary, in collaboration with social entrepreneur Fatimzahra Baba, is a photography exhibition and storytelling platform called Fatima, which focuses on the lives of 50 Amsterdam women with Moroccan heritage. Their stories, according to the publicity around the project, will highlight how, “In these 50 years the Moroccan community, in all its diversity, has worked on thriving, contributing and participating in Dutch society” – and Felgata hopes it will raise a smile among visitors to Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, too.

It’s an image of the country’s Moroccan community that runs counter to that which is often presented in Dutch politics and media. Felgata, who lives in the multi-ethnic Nieuw-West neighbourhood, says the ‘Mocro maffia’ label is doing untold damage to the kids in her community, specifically the boys. She says that through conversations like the one that took place between Wilders and Rutte in parliament the day after the Wiersum shooting, “politicians are normalising language that dehumanises Moroccans”.

To understand the true perniciousness of the term Mocro, she says, it has to be put in the context of what has gone before it, from former Labour MP Rob Oudkerk’s overheard use of the offensive portmanteau “kutmarokkanen” [“c*** Moroccans”] to Geert Wilders, who led an assembly of supporters in a chant saying they wanted “fewer Moroccans”. When Felgata worked as a newsreader, during the 1990s, white colleagues would use the term to her face, saying, “Aah, but you’re a good Mocro, aren’t you?” as if she would be flattered by being referred to as an exception.

In the light of recent incidents, she fears a return to those days. “The death of Derk Wiersum is a blow to our country and the rule of law, but I hope it’s not going to be my community that pays the price,” she says. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Laumans acknowledges that the term he popularised has become something of a catch-all – and notes that his books (both Mocro Maffia and a follow up, Wraak, meaning ‘Revenge’) are strewn with the names of other undesirable characters from cocaine gangs whose heritage is not Moroccan. He says he always had misgivings “about Geert Wilders trying to claim the Mocro Maffia term”. But equally, he says, the title is catchy. “I just wrote a story and it fucking blew up”.

“I’ve been asked by the parents of kids at my son’s school – why do you stigmatise Moroccans and I reply, I don’t! I’m not doing it, but if someone used the term Poldermaffia meaning [ethnic] Dutch criminal, he’s not talking about me because I’m not a criminal. People have long toes, I guess [a Dutch idiom denoting hypersensitivity – i.e. it’s easy to step on their toes]. Let’s address the problem, not the term.”

Besides, he says, he’s been writing for years about “poor, dead boys from an immigrant background” without causing such a stir. “It’s interesting that people only seem to be taking notice now that a white man – a white lawyer – lies dead in a nice neighbourhood,” he says.

He scoffs at the recent suggestion by Mark Rutte that recreational drug users of all stripes should consider themselves part of the organised crime chain. “He’s been yapping all that shit, the prime minister. I mean, that’s like saying that if you put gas in your car you’re responsible for the regime in Saudi Arabia. That’s the easy solution isn’t it? To blame the individual for something huge.”

A photo from the ‘Fatima’ series created by Raja Felgata to celebrate women of Moroccan heritage in the Netherlands

Profits and loss

Laumans takes me to the Bijlmerbajes prison complex less than five kilometres southeast of the centre of Amsterdam. Opened in 1978, it was conceived as a “humane” prison without bars – although they had to be retro-fitted after the setup proved somewhat too permeable for the inmates of the 1980s. Now this valuable piece of real estate has been earmarked for one of the city’s largest so-called urban densification sites, with 2,000 new homes and around 40,000 square metres of space for business and services.

“They’re going to monetise it. It’s going to be beautiful, full of apartments that you and I can’t afford,” says Laumans. “Amsterdam has got the London disease. They’re buying up these places and flipping them and making a ton of money.” An inadequate supply of homes seems to have contributed to a property boom in Amsterdam: the median home price has soared 80 percent in the past four years, to €448,000. It is the only European city on estate agent Knight Frank’s list of the world’s least affordable places.

We wander into the prison building where sound systems are being installed ahead of the 2019 edition of the Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), the city’s largest annual festival and – with its parties across venues both makeshift and mainstream – a potential money spinner for the footsoldiers of Amsterdam’s Uberized drug trade. A conservative estimate in the mayor’s ‘The Other Side of Amsterdam’ report reckons that the ADE represents a drug turnover of €5 million over the course of the weekend.

On 3rd October, two weeks before the dealers moved in at the ADE, it was announced that a suspect in Wiersum’s murder had been apprehended. The Amsterdam police released no details about their age, place of residence or nationality. In early November justice minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus confirmed that the cabinet has set aside an extra €110 million to combat organised crime, some of which will be used to set up a special ‘narco brigade’ comparable to America’s Drug Enforcement Administration.

Nabil B, meanwhile, has been assigned a new lawyer, whose identity will (hopefully) remain secret. As pre-trial hearings continue in a windowless facility near Schiphol airport, for those involved in the city’s evolving drug trade the value of human life – along with the ages of would-be assassins willing to take it – continues to fall.

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