Dutch Crime Networks Research Paper

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This research paper offers a brief history of Dutch crime networks. There have always been gangs in the Netherlands that were involved in serious crimes, such as violent robberies, extortion, large-scale theft, and the supply of illegal goods and services, and that is still true today. In that respect, Dutch networks do not differ from crime groups in most other countries. The reason to address these networks separately is the fact that, particularly since the 1970s, Dutch crime groups have managed to establish a far-flung international network for the import and reexport of different types of narcotic drugs. Furthermore, since the 1990s, the Netherlands has also developed into a major producer and exporter of synthetic drugs and cannabis. A key feature of the Dutch networks is that they organize these activities primarily in loose-knit cooperatives revolving around criminal entrepreneurs who transact business with others in shifting coalitions. To some extent, it is even more appropriate to view them as a single network (a meso network) from which temporary cooperatives of varying composition (micro networks) spring up (Spapens 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012).

Here, Dutch networks are defined as groups composed of lawbreakers who live in the Netherlands. This does not necessarily mean that they are Dutch nationals. What is important, however, is that they must have criminal connections to other network members. Indeed, without such “criminally exploitable ties,” they would be unable to take part in the coalitions. This definition therefore excludes itinerate gangs that also operate on Dutch territory and sometimes stay there for longer periods, but without visible connections to indigenous criminals.

Section “Bandits, Smugglers, and Local Providers of Illegal Goods and Services” starts with a brief description of the historical roots of Dutch networks. Section “The Emergence of ‘Dutch-Style’ Organized Crime” then addresses the emergence of Dutch-style organized crime from the 1970s onwards, resulting mainly from a shift towards drug trafficking. Section “Large-Scale Drug Production” focuses on the production of synthetic drugs and cannabis. Section “Schengen and Its Effects” goes on to discuss the most recent trends and developments in Dutch crime networks. Finally, Section “Conclusion” offers some concluding remarks.

Bandits, Smugglers, And Local Providers Of Illegal Goods And Services

Criminal networks do not spring up out of the blue, and it is therefore important to take a brief look at the historical roots of organized crime in the Netherlands. Large gangs of bandits plagued the Low Countries as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as they did other parts of Northwest Europe (cf. Fijnaut 2013). In the Netherlands, such groups were particularly active in the present-day province of North Brabant, at the time a very rural and densely forested area. Although it became part of Holland after the end of the 80 Years’ War, Brabant (as it was then known) was not a member of the States General and treated almost as a colony. During the Dutch Revolt, it had been a principal battleground, with both sides committing atrocities against the local population (Adriaensen 2007). As a result, the central government had little legitimacy with the people of Brabant. They supported the gangs, and the local authorities were susceptible to corruption. Moreover, the gangs usually set up camp on the borders of jurisdictions because this often led to disagreements between the respective magistrates about who should take action, resulting in inactivity. Finally, the brigands also made sure not to commit any crimes within the jurisdictions where they resided.

One of these bands, the White Feather gang based in Kaatsheuvel, totaled almost a hundred members, including women and children (Grootswagers 1983). Heavily armed and militarily organized – some of their ranks consisted of mercenaries and deserters who had stayed behind after the end of the 80 Years’ War – the gangs committed burglaries and violent robberies in the countryside and extorted farmers by threatening to set fire to their farmhouses unless they paid them off (Egmond 1994). The gangs were highly mobile and operated in parts of the Netherlands outside Brabant, in what is now Belgium, and in the German border areas. Their demise finally came after 1798 when, under French influence, the State was unified and gendarmerie units were assembled to operate in the countryside. In only a few short years, the gangs were history. Some of their members’ children, however, would carry on the legacy.

New opportunities arose when Belgium gained its independence in 1830, and it became lucrative to smuggle all sorts of goods back and forth across the new border. Sint Willebrord (‘t Heike), a hamlet that had once been the lair of brigands, was located close by, and it rapidly turned into a notorious smugglers’ den. Largescale smuggling continued until 1960, when the Benelux Customs Union came into effect and border checks were abolished. After that, some smugglers reverted to large-scale theft, for instance, cars and armed robberies, or continued trafficking in illegal goods, notably amphetamines. Soon, however, they found other more rewarding illegal activities.

Other parts of the Netherlands proved less fertile ground for committing large-scale serious crimes. Government legitimacy was much stronger there, and because most people lived in towns, law enforcement was easier. Things changed when the Industrial Revolution – which only got going in the Netherlands late in the nineteenth century – led to the rapid growth of the cities in the western part of the country. Newcomers there faced poor living conditions, and poverty and the loss of existing social structures led to problems such as crime and alcoholism. Such problems were harder to control in the growing cities, especially because the police force had only just begun to refashion itself into a professional organization. Like the United Kingdom, which faced similar problems on a much larger scale, there was a revival of moral values in the Netherlands. From the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, the upper class did much to improve housing and hygiene as well as organize better welfare schemes for those who were unable to support themselves (De Swaan 1989). Furthermore, the government passed strict laws on vices such as gambling and prostitution. The government even considered a ban on stock market speculation, because it viewed it as a form of gambling (!), but parliament failed to pass the proposal. This helped lower the general crime figure on the one hand, but on the other, people still wanted to have “fun,” and this inevitably created bigger market opportunities for those who could provide it. A penoze (urban underworld) emerged, and “local heroes” would occasionally crop up who were involved in all sorts of illegal activities simultaneously – illegal gambling, prostitution, trafficking in illegal firearms, fencing stolen goods, small-scale drug dealing, and sometimes extortion – and who also had a stake in bars and restaurants.

These activities were usually concentrated in specific neighborhoods, the Red Light District of Amsterdam being one example. Although the famous red-tinted windows did not appear until 1930, the district had always been a rough place where sailors and city folk alike came for prostitutes, gambling, and drinking. Moreover, the Red Light District was always an international meeting point. Opium use, for example, was already a problem in the Chinese community before the Second World War, and inevitably, friendly relations with other members of the districts’ underworld allowed for the supply to Dutch customers as well, albeit on a small scale (Wubben 1986).

Still, these developments are not exceptional. Bands of brigands were also common in other parts of Northwestern Europe. Hamburg, for example, has its Reeperbahn, which is comparable to the Red Light District. And while in 1960s Amsterdam had “local heroes” like “Zwarte” (Black) Joop de Vries, London had the Kray Twins. Dutch networks as these are now known only emerged in the mid-1970s, and the key to this was the wholesale trade in hashish and marihuana in particular.

The Emergence Of “Dutch-Style” Organized Crime

Youth culture developed rapidly in the Netherlands in the 1960s, as it did in other western countries. One result was the increasing scale of narcotic drugs use, particularly hashish and marihuana. These drugs had to be imported from abroad and the main source countries then were Pakistan, the Lebanon, and Morocco. At first, the drugs were smuggled in small quantities by young people, often users themselves, who had traveled to the east. As demand increased, traditional criminals also started to discover the market, and some of the “hippies” managed to expand their businesses as well. In 1974, for example, the coast guard intercepted a fishing trawler, the “Lammie,” that carried two tons of hashish. Investigations revealed that some well-known members of the Red Light District underworld had organized the transport (Middelburg 2001).

Although the Netherlands was a party to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, its government has always been relatively lenient towards drugs use and the possession of small quantities for personal use. It was agreed that drug addicts should be given help or treatment, and not serve as law enforcement targets (Leuw 1994, p. 34). With regard to cannabis, the government decided in 1976 to make a distinction between soft drugs (i.e., hashish and marihuana) and hard drugs (all other narcotic drugs). The Board of Procurators General subsequently issued a directive stating that the public prosecution service would no longer prosecute soft drugs possession as long as the amount did not exceed 30 g. Blanket legalization was impossible because that would violate the Single Convention. Logically, this also meant deciding how to act towards dealers selling soft drugs to customers. The 1970s, for example, saw the emergence of coffee shops selling hashish and marihuana. In 1979, another directive ordered prosecutors to refrain from active investigation of dealers and coffee shops unless they put public safety or health at risk, or openly tried to promote and expand their business (Spapens and Van de Bunt forthcoming).

Although historical research is lacking, it is clear that these changes also expanded the market for crime groups importing narcotic drugs. To begin with, coffee shops, particularly in Amsterdam and the border regions, started to attract large numbers of foreign youth who wanted to try out soft drugs without the risk of apprehension. As there was no system of licensing in place yet, the same crime groups that imported the drugs could also open coffee shops. Furthermore, criminals from the south of the country, who had accumulated capital from smuggling and armed robberies, teamed up with their counterparts in the western cities and started to invest in large shipments. The Dutch importers quickly succeeded in establishing business relations with wholesale producers in source countries.

In the mid-1980s, concern grew within the Dutch police force about such groups developing into organized crime syndicates of mafiatype proportions (Sietsma 1985). Moreover, when cocaine became fashionable in the 1980s, the importers began to serve that market too. In particular, Klaas Bruinsma’s network seemed to be bringing increasing quantities of drugs into the country, and it tried to take over other businesses as well, such as the installation of gambling machines in bars and restaurants. Law enforcement response was slow, however, and it took until 1991 before the first special investigation squad was set up. That same year, Bruinsma was murdered, so the investigation instead focused on his “heirs,” supposedly a trio that had taken over the “management of the organization,” which was code-named Delta.

The competent authorities abruptly dismantled the investigation team in 1993 when an undercover operation spiraled out of control. It involved a criminal informer whom agents allowed to bring large quantities of drugs into the country in order to build trust with the alleged top leaders of the Delta group. That way, the police would be able to obtain evidence against them. After 2 years, however, the operation was not any closer to achieving its goal, whereas the informer had imported thousands of kilos of soft drugs, and possibly cocaine as well, with the consent of the police, who also allowed him to sell it on the illegal market. This resulted in a major scandal that led to a parliamentary enquiry.

Although one of the causes of the problem was the inadequate regulation of special investigative powers – the parliamentary enquiry revealed that other investigation teams had used similar methods – another was the fact that the police wrongly viewed these crime groups as well organized and hierarchically structured. Instead, they more closely resembled a network organization. “Entrepreneurs” within these networks continuously formed different coalitions in order to import and sell wholesale quantities of drugs. As far back as 1990, Dutch criminologists also came to the conclusion that “Dutchstyle organized crime” was an amalgam of loosely knit networks instead of well-structured “firms,” and this was confirmed in subsequent studies (Van Duyne et al. 1990; Van Duyne 1995; Fijnaut et al. 1996; Kleemans et al. 1998, 2002; Klerks 2000).

According to the literature, Dutch networks generally operate in line with the following basic model, which can be applied to drug trafficking and to other types of organized crime involving illegal goods.

A typical criminal cooperative consists of about 10–30 people. To begin with, most coalitions consist of a stable core made up of a criminal entrepreneur and a two or three well-trusted associates, usually family members or longtime friends.

Around this core, there is a second shell consisting of personnel carrying out the more crucial tasks, such as arranging cover-up loads. Unskilled workers, who are the most numerous, also stem from relatively close social circles, usually from the “extended family.” Specialists, however, such as people who can set up complex money laundering schemes, often come from outside the direct criminal milieu. A good example of this is Willem Endstra, a real-estate dealer who also invested money on behalf of criminals. Specialists may get involved in criminal activities because of financial problems, or because they become friendly with a criminal entrepreneur and are attracted by the money or the excitement. Criminals may also deliberately maneuver people with specific skills into a situation of financial or other type of dependency and then more or less force them to cooperate (Spapens 2006).

The third shell of accomplices takes care of the high-risk tasks, such as the actual smuggling. Although these persons know at least one of the other members of the group, they are kept in the dark about the extent of the activities.

The entrepreneur, aided by his core of long-term associates, strikes the business deals with other organizers at home and abroad, whereas the operational personnel varies with the requirements of the specific “projects.” These may differ depending on the type of crime – entrepreneurs are usually active in different fields simultaneously – but also on the agreements made in the business deals, for instance, who will be responsible for smuggling. If the other party, for example, has access to a proven smuggling route, it makes sense to let them take care of that part of the activities. Although the actual involvement of the workers varies, for practical reasons, they are often recruited from more or less the same pool of individuals.

The key persons of the crime groups are usually 30–40 years old, but some may continue their careers well past the age of retirement, interrupted of course by stints in prison. Being a leader of a criminal group involved in drug trafficking requires different types of human capital, such as a reputation in criminal circles, organizing skills, and contacts with suppliers and buyers abroad. In extended families, such capital is often transferred from one generation to another. Sons or sons-in-law – women still seem to play a modest role – can take advantage of the reputation and the network of their fathers, which enables them to engage in large illegal business deals quickly (Spapens 2006).

Immigration is another important factor. Nowadays, tens of different nationalities live in the Netherlands, and members of these communities may be able to bridge the gaps between supply and demand for specific illegal goods and services between their countries of origin and the Netherlands. For example, in the 1990s, Surinamese nationals were involved in the trafficking of cocaine to Europe; Chinese groups in the trafficking of migrants from China to the United Kingdom, but also in ecstasy production in the Netherlands; Turkish families in the trafficking of heroin from Turkey, but they also smuggled ecstasy back to the Turkish

Riviera; Moroccan groups imported hashish; and former Yugoslavians smuggled illegal firearms to the Netherlands and narcotic drugs back to their countries of origin. Groups of different nationalities are most certainly not islands within the Dutch meso network, and all sorts of contacts and business relations exist. When it comes to the trading of illegal goods, criminal groups usually do not specialize in just one commodity.

In the Netherlands, levels of violence and corruption are relatively low. Most of the narcotic drugs produced in (see Section “Large-Scale Drug Production”) or imported into the Netherlands are exported abroad. There is no indication of turf wars over contacts with suppliers and buyers. Violence is usually the result of business deals going wrong, cheating, or the theft of a shipment of illegal goods. Corruption is also relatively rare. It usually involves relatively low-level customs officers who are able to ensure that containers in which illegal goods are concealed can be safely brought into the country. Criminals may also bribe police officers to provide information on ongoing criminal investigations.

Although it took some time for law enforcement agencies to gain a clear understanding of the composition and working methods of the Dutch networks in the early 1990s, and to adjust their investigative techniques accordingly, they gained experience over time and managed to bring several major cases before the courts, after which soft drug imports did appear to decrease. As it turned out, however, that was partly because the networks discovered drug production as a lucrative activity in the mid-1990s.

Large-Scale Drug Production

Drug production had already started back in the 1970s, with the manufacture of amphetamine, and expanded from the early 1990s onwards, when ecstasy production and cannabis cultivation took off. Production and sale, however, cannot be treated separately. After all, there is no point in producing large quantities of drugs (or importing them, for that matter) if you are unable to find wholesale customers. Export is the key to this, because the Dutch domestic market is relatively small.

In the mid-1970s, crime groups, particularly those in the south of the country, started to produce amphetamines. Amphetamines were only included in the Dutch Opium Act in 1975, much later than elsewhere in Europe. Consequently, Dutch providers started to smuggle “speed” to dealers abroad. With the sales network in place, they also succeeded in taking up illegal production when amphetamines were finally criminalized.

Large-scale use of MDMA, or ecstasy as it is popularly known, started in the second half of the 1980s. Here, the story is comparable to that of amphetamine. The United Nations had already added MDMA to the list of controlled psychotropic substances in 1985, but it was not included in the Opium Act until 3 years later. Other countries were quicker to respond to the UN requirement. Logically, this once again resulted in the Netherlands developing into a source country. After 1988, illegal production quickly took off and by the next year, the police had discovered the first clandestine laboratory (Weijenburg 1996). Consumer demand for ecstasy skyrocketed in the early 1990s. Foreigners preferred Dutch ecstasy because of its good quality, and this resulted in a thriving export trade. The Dutch-Belgian border area in the south of the Netherlands became a heartland of ecstasy production. Here, criminals had already built up experience with synthetic drug production, and soon, most networks in this part of the country switched to manufacturing ecstasy or started to combine it with existing illegal activities. Apart from the south, production also appeared to concentrate in the west of the country, particularly around Amsterdam (KLPD 2005).

In the first half of the 1990s, dealers in other Western European countries, particularly in the United Kingdom, were the most important buyers of Dutch-produced ecstasy. In the second half of the decade, the United States also emerged as a very attractive market. Members of the Jewish Diaspora played a crucial role in establishing connections between Dutch suppliers and American wholesale buyers. They included extended families whose members lived in the United States, the Netherlands, and Israel. Groups of Chinese living in the Netherlands got involved in delivering PMK, an essential controlled chemical for the manufacturing of MDMA, which they imported from China, and after the turn of the century, they also began to set up ecstasy laboratories and smuggling large quantities of MDMA to Canada (Spapens 2006).

Under increasing pressure from the United States – in 2000, President Clinton personally expressed his anger about Dutch ecstasy flooding into his country to Dutch Prime Minister Kok– the Dutch decided to crack down hard on the crime groups producing MDMA. This resulted in a notable reduction in production. To begin with, the police successfully investigated a number of key players, who were sent to prison for lengthy periods (at least by Dutch standards). Next, diplomacy resulted in the Chinese government taking more effective measures against the illegal production of PMK in their country. More prosaically, the Dutch lost the still lucrative US market to Chinese crime groups, who, having learned the production process in the Netherlands, set up laboratories in Canada. Only Australia then remained as a major overseas destination, although small shipments carried by couriers traveling by plane may still go anywhere in the world. It is also important to note that ecstasy is now far less popular than in the halcyon days of the 1990s. Finally, Dutch criminals also had an excellent and far less risky alternative that generated major profits: cannabis cultivation.

The Dutch climate is generally not very favorable to growing cannabis, and marihuana users used to prefer the “pot” imported from abroad. This changed in the early 1990s with the introduction of indoor cultivation methods. Americans who came to the Netherlands allegedly introduced the technique (Boekhout van Solinge 2008). The Dutch then improved the product by raising the percentage of THC, the working component of marihuana. Hobby growers started to set up nurseries and began to supply the coffee shops. At first, even the government welcomed this development because it reduced the need for imports, which were largely in the hands of the Dutch criminal networks. In hindsight, this was quite na¨ıve, because the same groups of course quickly recognized the new market (Weijenburg 1996).

At first, Dutch networks started to set up relatively small-scale cannabis nurseries in the homes of members of their extended network, usually in economically weak neighborhoods (Bovenkerk and Hogewind 2003). Because the police put little effort into investigating cannabis cultivation and the penalties for those caught were lenient – often limited to a fine or community service – volunteers who wanted to earn extra money were lining up. However, the Dutch networks found managing a large number of nurseries for people who themselves had little growing experience more labor-intensive than they liked. They also attracted attention because the criminals sometimes resorted to violence, particularly if they suspected the growers of embezzling some or all of the harvest and selling it themselves to make a bigger profit.

Around the turn of the century, the Dutch networks found better solutions. On the one hand, they opened “grow shops” (Spapens et al. 2007). Here, growers could not only buy all the necessary equipment and get advice, but they could also purchase cuttings and sell the harvest. On the other hand, the professional criminals started to set up very large plantations – 5000 to 50,000 plants – themselves or, even better, gave someone with the necessary skills the equipment and had him run the plantation for them at his own risk. The production process was outsourced, and entrepreneurs could go back to focusing on trading the product. Today, they usually sell the best quality homegrown cannabis to coffee shops, whereas medium and low-grade products find their way to foreign dealers (Spapens et al. 2007).

Schengen And Its Effects

In 1995, the agreement between the Governments of the States of the Benelux Economic Union, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the French Republic on the gradual abolition of checks at their common borders, better known as the Schengen Agreement, came into effect. In 1998, the Treaty of Amsterdam further expanded the Schengen zone. The “open borders” had both visible and less-visible consequences for drug trafficking from the Netherlands to other parts of continental Europe and particularly Germany and France, because fixed customs controls at the Dutch-Belgian border had already been abolished in 1960. Things did not change with regard to the United Kingdom, but the country remained one of the important destinations for narcotic drugs from the Netherlands.

The most visible effect was a sharp increase in the number of Belgian, German, and French drug tourists who visited the border towns in particular. Foreign drugs users were naturally not a new phenomenon in the Netherlands. As far back as the 1970s, heroin addicts, especially from Germany, came to the country for good quality and low prices. To avoid the risk of being checked at the border, they generally did not take home major supplies for personal use. The same applied to foreigners who came to the Netherlands to buy hashish or marihuana in a coffee shop. Because of these limitations, most drug tourists came from the border areas. “Schengen” meant that the risk of taking quantities of drugs across the border virtually disappeared, and it thus became attractive for users living further inland to drive to the Netherlands regularly. Furthermore, general economic prosperity led to many French and German youth owning their own cars and having enough money to drive several hundreds of kilometers round trip to buy drugs in a Dutch coffee shop. A few years ago, thousands of drug tourists a day came to border towns such as Maastricht, Roosendaal, and Terneuzen (Spapens 2008; Fijnaut and De Ruyver 2008).

Another effect was the emergence of drugdealing houses in the border towns. Of course, not every drug tourist was interested only in hashish or marihuana, and the amount they were permitted to buy in a coffee shop was limited to 5 g per person. Drug-dealing houses offered larger quantities and other types of narcotic drugs as well. In 2008, the number was estimated at 150 in the district of South Limburg alone (Fijnaut and De Ruyver 2008, p. 149).

Finally, suppliers operating in border areas periodically ship quantities of drugs, known as “kilo shipments,” directly to dealers in Germany and France. A foreign dealer may have a weekly order of two kilos of marihuana, 1,000 XTC pills, 100 g of cocaine, and 50 g of heroin, depending on his customer base. The Dutch dealer will contact his suppliers of different types of illicit drugs to fill the order. Next, a courier will drive to the Netherlands to pick up the drugs. Because the risk of apprehension is virtually nonexistent, such deliveries have developed into an almost on-demand service (Spapens 2008).

Although it seems that the major entrepreneurs within the Dutch networks still control the import and export of wholesale quantities of narcotic drugs, there are indications that members from the “second shells” are now also organizing kilo shipments on their own. We do not have a clear picture of how this works, because tackling small-scale shipments – by Dutch standards – is not at all a priority with law enforcement officials, given the fact that their in-tray already overflows with cases involving hundreds or even thousands of kilos of drugs.

Generally, the authorities have also been slow to respond to these developments, mainly because “soft drugs” were long associated with “love and peace.” Law enforcement agencies also found it difficult to crack down on cannabis cultivation because the sale in coffee shops was not prosecuted. Furthermore, painstaking criminal investigations resulted in relatively short prison sentences that hardly affected the broader network. Finally, there is less pressure from abroad than in the case of ecstasy production in the 1990s. Starting in 2004, however, some changes began to take place. To begin with, if a small-scale nursery was found in a private home, the dweller would be prosecuted, but also taxed for the extra income, and if he rented the house, he would also run the risk of eviction. Second, the police and the public prosecution service set up task forces to combat cannabis cultivation and the networks involved, aimed specifically at making it more difficult for people to grow cannabis. Third, “Joint Hit Teams,” consisting of Dutch, Belgian, and French police officers, were established to patrol the main motorways used by drug tourists and kilo couriers and to take action against drug-dealing houses. Finally, in 2012, foreign customers were banned from coffee shops in the south of the Netherlands and plans are to extend this ban to the rest of the country as of January 1, 2013. However, there has also been fierce criticism of this measure, particularly because Dutch customers also need to register, which most of them refuse, and whether the government will go through with it is an open question.


According to the routine activities theory, crime requires motivated offenders, suitable targets or opportunities, and ineffective responses by the authorities (Cohen and Felson 1979). To begin with, we can conclude that in the Netherlands, there has been no lack of the first. Dutch networks nowadays consist of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities. Second, Dutch networks have been able to exploit opportunities in the narcotic drug market, most notably those arising from the Dutch government’s unusual approach towards soft drugs in the 1970s and the open borders of the Schengen Agreement in the 1990s. The extensive trade network that has since developed is the key to the specific characteristics of the Dutch networks. Finally, the authorities did indeed respond slowly to international requirements for criminalizing amphetamine and MDMA, and we can also conclude that it took the police and the public prosecution service a relatively long time to react to the development of the Dutch networks in the 1970s and 1980s, and to subsequent drug production in the 1990s. When law enforcement agencies did finally step up measures against ecstasy production, they proved beyond a doubt that Dutch networks are not invincible. In the past decade, however, these networks have broadened and diversified, making it more difficult to tackle them solely by means of law enforcement action. Measures that would dramatically reduce market opportunities, such as regulation of the sale and production of hashish and marihuana in other EU Member States, however, are politically unfeasible in the short and medium term.


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