Illustration by Adrià Fruitós.

In February 2021, customs authorities at the port of Hamburg, Germany, received a tip from colleagues in the Netherlands about a container ship that had recently arrived from Paraguay on a stopover to Amsterdam. With flights grounded because of the pandemic and maritime supply chains backlogged for months, ports around the world were already dealing with unprecedented logistical challenges. In northern Europe, however, they were also under another kind of pressure. In less than a decade, cocaine seizures in the major Baltic ports had gone from being an occasional problem to a frequent phenomenon. When Hamburg officials inspected the Paraguayan containers, which were reported to hold more than 1,700 tins of construction putty, they stumbled upon 17.6 metric tons of cocaine. (By comparison, all the cocaine intercepted either in or en route to Europe in 2020 amounted to just over 100 tons. And in 2021, the US Border Patrol seized about 44 tons.) After Belgian authorities were notified that the same company had another shipment headed to Antwerp, police there found an additional 7.2 tons, bringing the total to 23 tons—the largest cocaine seizure in European history.

While the scale of the discovery was shocking, the fact of it was not. The number of cocaine seizures in Europe has been rising steadily, quadrupling between 2009 and 2019. With these hauls representing a fraction of what is actually being trafficked, Europe has become the “epicenter of the global cocaine trade,” in the words of the investigative nonprofit InSight Crime. Most of these shipments go through Antwerp and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which boast two of the continent’s largest ports. (Antwerp became the main cocaine hub after Rotterdam started tightening security, but an estimated 80 percent of Belgium-bound cocaine still ends up in the hands of Dutch traffickers.) For criminal groups, the ports’ world-class transportation infrastructure makes servicing the nearly 500-million-person European Union market as convenient for them as app-based delivery services are for their customers.

In the Netherlands, the surge in trafficking has coincided with spectacular violence. In 2016, the severed head of a drug dealer was found outside a hookah café in the capital, and every Dutch person knows the story of Peter R. de Vries, a celebrity crime journalist who was assassinated last July in downtown Amsterdam in what was believed to be a mob hit. The spread of trafficking has forced lawmakers and law enforcement to choose between aggressive crackdowns and a more socially enlightened public policy response. And while this is being debated, the traffickers’ influence is expanding, with effects that extend far beyond the Port of Rotterdam.

The explosion in cocaine trafficking is the result of several recent developments. In Colombia—one of the three countries, alongside Peru and Bolivia, in which coca is grown on a large scale—political and agricultural changes have created a boom in supply. After the fall of Pablo Escobar and the big Colombian cartels in the 1990s and the demobilization of rebel factions following the 2016 peace agreement that ended Colombia’s civil war, traffickers reorganized into smaller and nimbler groups, moving into coca-growing regions that had previously been monopolized by bigger organizations. These newcomers began specializing in different aspects of the manufacturing and distribution processes, even bringing in foreign experts to advise them. Unlike their predecessors, who were happy to dress up as narco cowboys and intimidate authorities, the new generation of traffickers, according to journalist Jeremy McDermott of InSight Crime, are “immensely sophisticated,” moving “through the world looking like highly educated and capable businessmen.” And they have much more product to work with. Since 2015, the year Colombia’s government stopped aerially fumigating coca crops, coca cultivation has increased by more than 150 percent.

It would be a mistake to think of cocaine importers as members of “American-style ethnic mafias,” Damián Zaitch, a criminologist at Utrecht University, told me. Rather, the business runs on what he called criminal freelancers—entrepreneurial types who put together ad hoc networks of associates with the money and skills to buy, smuggle, and distribute bulk shipments. Wouter Laumans, the author of the book Mocro Maffia, likened the model to the way individual investors purchased shares in Dutch East India Company expeditions during the colonial era. “That’s exactly how this works,” he said. “It’s a lot of guys putting in money, sharing the risk.”

But no matter one’s role in the cocaine supply chain, the primary factor driving the shift toward Europe is the same: It’s smart business. A kilo of cocaine commands an estimated $41,731 from wholesale buyers in Europe, as opposed to $28,000 in the United States.

Moreover, traffickers see the EU as an easier place to operate. Mexican cartels don’t have a stranglehold on the market, and unlike the US, EU member countries have never waged an official war on drugs, have historically been more lenient when it comes to sentencing, and are uninterested in extraditing foreigners. As an added perk, European law enforcement agencies haven’t been prepared to deal with the resourcefulness of today’s traffickers. Whereas a courier might once have been flagged at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport with a few kilos of coke in a suitcase, shipments are now hundreds of times bigger and transported via container ships, meaning that investigations are often too complex and time-consuming to bother pursuing.

But unlike in the US or Mexico, which have been profoundly altered by the War on Drugs, the verdict is still out on how the boom in trafficking will transform the Netherlands. While there have been horrific acts of drug violence committed, the country remains one of the safest in the world. The murder rate has dropped significantly over the past decade and now averages 125 a year. It’s estimated that between 20 and 30 of these murders are “liquidations,” as the Dutch call gangland assassinations. In 2020, with the pandemic keeping people inside, the number of these killings fell to 10. “We don’t have bodies dangling from bridges,” as Laumans put it. Moreover, Transparency International, a nonprofit anti-corruption organization, recently ranked the Netherlands as the eighth-least-corrupt country in the world, above the US and Germany. All of this raises a question: Do violence and corruption come naturally in the wake of drug trafficking, or do they emerge in response to the ways that police typically try to stop it? And on the ground, the situation raises another, more urgent one: Is the Netherlands’ spike in drug trafficking an aberration, or does it represent the new normal?

The heart of cocaine trafficking in the Netherlands is just over an hour’s drive south of Amsterdam, in a historic trading city that was rebuilt after World War II. Splitting the city itself into north and south, the Port of Rotterdam snakes through an artificial canal connecting the Rhine and Meuse rivers and continues across a man-made archipelago before jutting out into the North Sea. As the largest deep-water port in Europe and one of the main drivers of the country’s economy, Rotterdam is a hive of perpetual motion. It is home to five oil refineries, nine terminals (including a fully automated, nearly workerless “ghost” terminal), state-of-the-art flood barriers, one of the world’s largest wind turbines, and more than 180,000 employees. The complex is spread across 25 square miles, roughly the area of Newark, and is connected to a dense transit network of rail services, river barges, trucks, ferries, and pipelines that can reach almost any point on the continent within 24 hours.

Rotterdam is the place to look when trying to understand how cocaine physically enters Europe, and it’s difficult to imagine an infrastructure better suited to trafficking. Not only was the port designed to receive and process enormous amounts of goods every day—far more than authorities are able to physically inspect—it’s also the culmination of a national effort to reengineer the Dutch economy around the free flow of global trade.

That initiative goes back to the 1980s, when, in an attempt to climb out of a severe recession, trade unions and the government joined forces to develop the logistics and shipping sectors. The ensuing “Dutch Miracle” made the Netherlands a continental success story and positioned the country to benefit handsomely from the boom in online retail. Warehouses linked to the port now dot the Dutch countryside. “If you order something from anywhere in Europe, there’s a quite big chance that it will go through distribution centers somewhere in the Netherlands,” said Alexandre Afonso, an associate professor of public policy at Leiden University.

This, of course, includes cocaine. At the Port of Rotterdam, anti-trafficking efforts are overseen by the Hit and Run Cargo Team (HARC), an 18-person unit made up of officers from the local police prosecutor’s office, the port police, and the customs department. Because of the port’s sheer size and the quick turnaround times between shipments, only about 1 percent of the more than 15 million containers that arrive each year are physically examined, according to Jan Meeus, a veteran crime reporter with NRC Handelsblad. As with security screenings at airports, Meeus said, some are chosen at random, but the vast majority are selected through a process of “pre-arrival” risk analysis, in which customs agents consider a variety of factors—the country of origin, the contents of the load, the company sending it—to ferret out the most suspicious. An IKEA container from China will likely be waved through, for instance, while a shipment of bananas from Brazil may get a closer look.

Integrating their own processes into existing frameworks is one way that criminal networks have managed to stay ahead of police. As trafficking organizations have gotten more sophisticated, they’ve become especially good at making use of the global maritime supply chain. The classic method for doing this is the “rip-on, rip-off” technique, in which smugglers hide drugs in shipping containers without the knowledge of the senders, replace the seal to disguise tampering, and have workers intercept the drugs at their destination. But heightened security has called for more innovative techniques. In recent years, officials have found cocaine packed in metal tubes soldered to the bottoms of ships; stashed in cargo tanks and engine rooms; hidden in “cloned” containers that are exact replicas of legitimate ones, proper serial numbers and all; and chained to the exteriors of ships. Because smugglers like to dump packages of cocaine into the ocean before reaching the port (always weighted; otherwise they would float), the Rotterdam customs police has a diving team to search for underwater drug drops.

As drug seizures started to increase at Rotterdam, police turned the port into a fortress. Cameras are everywhere, and all visitors are stringently vetted. These and other security measures were put in place after 2015, when it transpired that a handful of customs agents were supplementing their salaries—which top out at 4,615 euros ($5,240) a month—with kickbacks from traffickers. That set off a national conversation about port corruption that continues to this day, enlivened by the occasional high-profile arrest. While Meeus believes that the problem is more or less under control among customs officers, it hasn’t gone away entirely. “There is corruption at different levels of government,” he said, “but it’s always individual cases.” These days, criminal groups tend to aim lower, bribing dockworkers for uniforms or access cards—renting one for a day costs an even 500 euros—or simply hiring locals to break into the complex and spend a few days hiding in a container before sneaking out with the cocaine.

Drug trafficking exploded onto the front pages of Dutch newspapers in the late 2010s, thanks to a series of brutal killings carried out by the “Mocro,” or Moroccan mafia, which controls much of the country’s cocaine trade. Suddenly, the neatly swept streets of affluent cities were seemingly under threat from what prosecutors referred to as a “well-oiled murder machine,” and moral panics erupted about whether the Netherlands was at risk of becoming a “narco-state.” (It wasn’t.) Arrests ensued, including that of kingpin Ridouan Taghi, who was apprehended in Dubai and extradited to the Netherlands in 2019. Taghi and 17 other mobsters are now defendants in the so-called Marengo trial, one of the highest-profile criminal cases in Dutch history.

The group does resemble an old-school mafia in certain ways, but the journalists and academics I spoke with took pains to explain that “Mocro” is a potentially dangerous misnomer, a term that associates the Netherlands’ current struggle with criminality with its 1950s-era Moroccan guest worker program. While some members of the group have Moroccan backgrounds, they work alongside white Dutch people, migrants from the former colonial holdings of Suriname and the Antilles, and Western foreigners. “I always say that integration in the underworld has been very successful,” Laumans said. “Everybody works happily together. As long as there’s money to be made, nobody gives a shit what color you are.”

Whether they do or not, gang leaders might not have a choice. As Tom Wainwright wrote in his book Narconomics, one of the challenges of running a criminal organization is staffing. It’s difficult to entice people to take on illegal work, and with people continually getting killed or sent to prison, there’s lots of turnover. In the poorer areas of Rotterdam, Meeus explained, criminal organizations have managed this problem by creating career pipelines. “Young boys are being recruited or almost groomed, like in prostitution, to become members of organized crime groups,” he told me.

In addition to being well-paid, the work can be relatively low-stakes, because of the country’s long-standing adherence to harm reduction. “Unless there is some kind of violence,” low-level drug runners “will not get very big sentences,” noted Zaitch, the Utrecht University criminologist. His point was echoed by Laumans, who said the Dutch police are more interested in going after “the killings [than] the kilos.”

This approach dates to 1971, when the government commissioned the criminologist Louk Hulsman to lead a report on the country’s illegal drug trade. His findings became the basis of the “tolerance” policy toward marijuana (which, confusingly, made it effectively legal to sell in coffee shops but illegal to sell to coffee shops) as well as the generally humane stance toward drug sentencing. According to a 2021 report commissioned by the government, “Dutch drug policy since its development has been primarily aimed at keeping the problems of use and trafficking manageable. Policymakers were under no illusion that drug use was eradicable.” While different administrations took slightly different approaches over the years, the model has stayed basically the same.

The current generation of traffickers entered the trade around 2006, when Dutch Moroccan kids established contacts in Colombia and began using the old Mediterranean hashish shipping routes to smuggle cocaine into the Netherlands from North Africa. (Taghi allegedly inherited a relative’s hash route and used it to found his own empire.) Before that, trafficking in the Netherlands was a modest affair, dominated mostly by Colombian émigrés who kept a low profile. “The community was small, very easy to see,” said Zaitch, whose early work focused on Colombian organized crime in the Netherlands.

Back then, for new arrivals, assimilating into the community meant adapting to Dutch norms. Zaitch told me that while he was conducting his research, he heard anecdotes about Colombian gangsters carrying knives on the streets of Amsterdam, only to be told by their colleagues to put the weapons away; violence wasn’t how things were done in Europe. Bribery, too, was a dead end: “They came with this idea that you just pay people and were told, ‘No, it doesn’t work like this here.’”

Traffickers quickly learned that the benefits of working in the Netherlands lay in its relative calm—there was no violence, no corruption, no obvious flows of drug capital that might attract the attention of law enforcement. In keeping with this, Zaitch said, the successful operators were the ones who managed to keep their heads down and to embed their workflows within legal avenues.

That began to change in the 2010s, when the shipments got much bigger. In December 2012, two men were killed in a shootout that resulted in a high-speed chase through Amsterdam, with the assailants firing at police. “You have to consider this is Europe, not America,” Laumans said, explaining that never before had the Netherlands experienced “young guys running around with AK-47s and shooting each other.” When a mafia member agreed to testify against his former crew, his brother and his lawyer were subsequently murdered by paid assassins. In 2021, de Vries, the crime journalist, was shot dead in a parking lot in downtown Amsterdam after signing on as the man’s media adviser. In response to these previously unimaginable affronts to the law, Dutch police infiltrated the traffickers’ encrypted communications systems. The hundreds of millions of messages they collected led to a series of Europol raids, drug seizures, hundreds of arrests, and, most unnervingly, the discovery of seven torture chambers hidden in shipping containers in a village in the southern Netherlands. These “treatment rooms,” one of which included a repurposed dentist’s chair, were built by the Rotterdam drug lord Piet Costa and were thought to be intended for use on rivals after a deal involving 130 million euros of cocaine money invested in Dubai real estate went bad.

The Netherlands’ approach to trafficking has always been highly administrative, toggling between national and regional police and a word salad of government-appointed task forces that are forever being created and disbanded, occasionally leading to public spats between police and government law enforcement. In the 2010s, as reports of “antisocial behavior” and “street terror” among young Moroccans became a fixture in the Dutch media, drug and criminal justice policies began increasingly to overlap, with both becoming more punitive. In 2017 Prime Minister Mark Rutte unveiled the framework that is still in place to this day, which focuses on “undermining” or combating “subversion”—mostly through heightened policing. Technically defined as any activity that “weakens or abuses social structures and leads to the decay of [the country’s] foundation and constitution,” subversion is, like pornography, often identified on an “I know it when I see it” basis. Policymakers tend to disagree over what exactly meets this standard, but factors typically include the intensity of an event (such as a public murder), the amount of money in question, and whether the money is being integrated into legal channels (for instance, filtering drug money into campaign donations). In tandem with targeted attacks on criminal communications and financing, the idea is not only to make the Netherlands a less pleasant place for organized crime but also to prevent young people from being absorbed into its networks.

One of the most effective ways to do this has simply been to place more restrictions on how traffickers can move their money. In 2015 Dutch law enforcement began focusing more on the financial side of organized crime, setting up stand-alone task forces and implementing policies to make Dutch banks a less hospitable home for ill-gotten cash. About five years ago, Zaitch told me, officials decided to radically expand the definition of money laundering to encompass any transaction carried out by a criminal. “So if you go, for example, to the pharmacy and use money that you gained illegally, that’s called ‘money laundering’ under Dutch law,” he explained. Any transaction of more than 3,000 euros in cash must be reported to customs authorities. (Though oddly, a loophole that allowed people to send shipping containers full of cash without having to declare the amount was closed only last year.) Dutch banks have also weathered huge fines for failing to comply with anti-money-laundering rules, but since the criminal code was changed, they are now able to share information with one another about suspicious clients.

As a result, Dutch banks are now used primarily as stopover points for money coming in from abroad that will ultimately end up in a friendlier jurisdiction, such as Hong Kong or Turkey. Once the money is settled in a foreign bank, traffickers might use it to pay loans or mortgages to fake companies, or simply park it in restaurants or real estate. Traffickers also rely on Hawala banking, an Islamic money-transfer system centered around global networks of brokers, to move money out of the Netherlands, and they also use shell companies and trusts to mix illegal money flows with legitimate ones. Increasingly, Laumans said, Dutch traffickers are operating from abroad. It enraged the government, he said, referring to the Taghi case, that “all these guys were partying in Dubai and using the crypto funds to order shipments of cocaine into Rotterdam—and if something went wrong, they could organize violence from there as well.”

The aim of all this—the networking, the illegal shipping, the recruitment, the money laundering—is, of course, to keep cocaine flowing. And that’s where things get fuzzy. It’s impossible to know exactly how much of the cocaine being trafficked is intercepted by police; some experts I spoke with put the number at around 60 percent, while others told me it was closer to 10 percent. But that number is what makes the difference between a region remaining a hot spot for organized crime and traffickers deciding that it isn’t worth their time and moving on.

The Netherlands has long played a kind of cat-and-mouse game with its drug policy, allowing citizens to indulge within reason and stepping in when abuse becomes a problem. In a sense, this is also how lawmakers are handling the cocaine problem: targeting the violence, the banks, and the shipping containers, and applying a somewhat lighter hand to the vulnerable people most likely to be exploited by traffickers. While this approach has made it more difficult for criminals to do business through Dutch institutions, there’s no way of knowing whether the measures have been onerous enough to send mobsters hunting for their next port. In the meantime, as Dutch officials learn to match the evolving techniques of transnational traffickers, life in the Netherlands for most people will not change dramatically. The streets will stay safe and clean, the cities picturesque, and the social welfare state will continue to hum along. And to many, drugs will remain a distant reality. After all, more than 90 percent of the cocaine shipped to the Netherlands has a different final destination. Among the Dutch, there just isn’t much demand.