The Mocro Mafia and drug trafficking in the Netherlands
A historic trial is underway in the Netherlands: boss Ridouan Taghi and 16 of his affiliates stay accused of murder, drug trafficking, money laundering and even torture. Their crimes have covered the pages of newspapers around the world. In this article, you’ll learn about the most powerful drug lord in the Netherlands and his organisation: the Mocro Mafia.
Listen to the original podcast (in Italian) here.
Trafficking cocaine into Europe
12,600 hectares. 180,000 workers. 15 million containers per year. The port of Rotterdam is the largest in Europe and the tenth in the world by volume of goods in transit. Railways link it to the rest of Europe in 24 hours. One of its terminals is called a “ghost” terminal because it is almost entirely automated. With such numbers, it is no surprise that authorities cannot control the content of every cargo that goes through the port. And that makes Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, a perfect gateway for drugs, especially cocaine, into Europe.
Traffickers of course bear part of the responsibility, as they develop increasingly refined techniques to conceal drugs in transit cargoes. The classic method involves hiding cocaine in containers without the shippers’ knowledge, then placing a seal on the door to disguise the operation and placing an accomplice in the port to retrieve the drug once it arrives at its destination. With the recent increase in controls, however, traffickers have had to come up with more creative methods: expect to find cocaine hidden in metal pipes welded under ships, in tanks and engine rooms, tied up on the outside of vessels, or even hidden in fake containers that mimic legitimate ones in every way, including the serial number. Drugs are often thrown into the water, with ballast, shortly before arrival at the port, and then retrieved from the seabed- a technique already used in the Mediterranean. Because corruption within institutions is rare in the Netherlands, traffickers usually target individuals: at first it was a matter of bribing dock workers to look the other way or retrieve cocaine, then infiltrating so-called “extractors.” These are people paid to spend entire days hidden in the port, inside containers registered as empty but perfectly furnished for overnight stays, waiting for the arrival of a shipment of drugs to be “extracted” from its hiding place. To gain access, extractors pay port operators up to 500 euros to “rent” their access badges and uniforms.
The structure of the port of Rotterdam and traffickers’ ability are not the only elements contributing to cocaine trafficking in the Netherlands. According to an investigation by the U.S. weekly magazine The Nation, the Netherlands’ policy of tacit tolerance toward drugs means that repression is not fierce, especially in comparison to the “drug wars” waged by the United States, which we already discussed in other Bar Lume episodes like the one about Kiki Camerena and the one about Colombian cartels. This bland approach toward narcotics would be influenced, again according to the investigation, by two factors. On the one hand, a report commissioned by the Dutch government in 1971 to Louk Hulsman, a criminologist who argued that the crimes that are worth prosecuting are those that lead to visible violence, such as deaths on the streets, rather than those that occur discreetly and without bloodshed. On the other hand, the fact that demand (and consumption) of cocaine in the Netherlands is very low- 90% of the drug entering the country is destined for other markets.
International dynamics would also be contributing to the increase in cocaine imports into Europe. First, the fragmentation and specialisation of production in source countries, particularly Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, since the fall of the big drug cartels in the 1990s. Second, the halt to of plantation fumigation by the Colombian government since appeasement with FARC rebels in 2016. Third, the more favorable conditions for traffickers in Europe compared to the United States: a higher wholesale price of cocaine (US$41,000 per kilo versus US$28,000 in North America), the ease of movement of goods in the EU single market, and milder sentences for traffickers, which rarely include extradition of traffickers from the drug’s countries of origin.
The result of all this? In 2021, authorities carried out 400 extractor arrests in the port of Rotterdam, several of whom were repeat offenders (one of them, for example, was stopped as many as 9 times) and confiscated more than 70,000 kilograms of coca, a 74% increase from the previous year.
A blood trail
With volumes like these-and especially the potential profits they imply-it was unlikely that the traffic would remain free from bloodshed forever. Until about fifteen years ago, the situation was under control: running the cocaine trade was a small community of Colombian immigrants, who quickly realised that the best way to operate in the country was not to show knives in the streets and offer huge bribes, but rather to keep a low profile and disguise the trafficking with licit activities. In other words, to play by the rules of tacit tolerance we mentioned earlier. Things began to change with the increase in drugs imports, which lead to a tight competition to control its traffic. In 2012 the first egregious episode of street violence took place: two men died in a shootout in Amsterdam, followed by a chase worthy of an action movie in which criminals fearlessly shoot at the police- a scene never seen before in the Netherlands. In the years that followed, the Dutch population witnessed an unprecedented escalation of violence: in 2016, a drug dealer was beheaded outside an Amsterdam shisha bar; in 2018, a man named Riduoan Bakkali was murdered in his office within a week from the announcement that his brother Nabil would testify in the infamous“Marengo” trial, which will come up again later in this story. The following year, in 2019, the same fate befalls Nabil’s defender, Derk Wiersum, a respected Amsterdam lawyer killed on his doorstep. In 2021, it was the turn of Peter R. de Vries, renowned investigative journalist and Nabil’s spokesperson, who was murdered in broad daylight in a café in the capital. Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was put under escort, another unprecedented measure in the Netherlands. And just a couple of months ago, there was the shocking discovery of a series of photos depicting seven torture rooms hidden in containers in a small location in the south of the country. Inside one of them lay the lifeless and literally shredded body of a woman.
Countering drug trafficking in the Netherlands
In the face of so much smuggling and violence, Dutch authorities could not remain indifferent. The Port of Rotterdam has massively increased video surveillance, created a group of divers to retrieve drug shipments underwater, and set up a special team of 18 people to better combat smuggling. Today’s controls on transiting cargo are no longer random and occasional but guided by a series of risk indicators, such as country of origin, declared content, and sending company. A shipment of bananas from Brazil, for example, is more likely to be inspected than one of clothes from China. In addition, being found without authorisation at the port has become a crime, which can lead to up to a year in prison. Lastly, the port authority has also started providing training to its staff to recognise and properly respond to corruption attempts.
At institutional level, the Minister of Justice recently announced a 13 million euro investment to combat drug trafficking in Dutch ports and airports, while lawmakers have updated anti-money laundering rules to make the Netherlands a less hospitable place for criminals. Any financial transaction made by a criminal, even a legitimate one such as grocery shopping, is now considered a form of money laundering. In addition, any cash transaction over 3,000 euros now has to be declared, and Dutch banks, after years spent paying hefty fines for negligence in AML controls, are now required to communicate with each other to report suspicious customers or transactions.
In addition to strengthening the customs apparatus and taking financial measures, Dutch authorities have also been working to infiltrate the communications of criminal networks active in the country. It is precisely through massive message tracking and decryption operations that law enforcement agencies have been able to identify the heads of the country’s largest criminal organisation: the Mocro mafia.
The Mocro Mafia
What is the Mocro Mafia? “Mocro” is the pejorative term used by the Dutch to refer to immigrants of Moroccan descent. The term Mocro Mafia, introduced by the homonym novel published in 2014, is actually misleading. Although Moroccans initiated the organisation and still play a predominant role in it, participation is not exclusive to their ethnic group; rather, Dutch nationals, immigrants from former Caribbean colonies such as the Antilles and Suriname, and even other Westerners residing in the country are also involved. I speak of participation and not affiliation for a reason: unlike Italian mafias, the members of the Mocro Mafia are not bound by blood ties, initiation rites or codes of behaviour, but by shared economic interests. It does not have a pyramidal structure or a “boss of bosses” , it is rather a “consortium” of crime “entrepreneurs” who pool capital and expertise to illegally buy, import and distribute cocaine wholesale. The bond between its members is purely commercial in nature: each of them puts a certain amount of money into some sort of joint account, used to pay for large imports of cocaine from South America. Once the drug arrives in the Netherlands, the traffickers distribute the drugs in proportion to their financial contribution to then resell them in their respective markets. This allows them to minimise the costs (and risks) of drug trafficking. According to the authors of the book Mocro Mafia, this organisation is reminiscent the East India Company, in which Dutch merchants bought shares to import valuable goods from Southeast Asia in colonial times.
Of course, this collaboration does not always go smoothly. Remember the woman cut in pieces who was recently discovered in a torture room? Authorities identified her as Naima “Aunt” Jillal, a prominent trafficker of Moroccan descent that stood out for her older age. After an opulent life between the Netherlands and Spain, Naima disappeared suddenly in 2019 after getting into a car in Amsterdam. Her death was reportedly linked with debt and failed deals with other drug lords. One of the first names connected with her case is that of Piet Costa, aka Roger P., a 50-year-old Dutchman sentenced a couple of weeks ago to 15 years in prison for drug trafficking in Rotterdam as well as for building and operating the seven torture chambers, which he rented out to third parties to carry out their gruesome punishments. The main suspect in the rental of the torture room where Jillal was found is the man on whose phone the photos of her execution were found. His name is Ridouan Taghi, the closest you can get to a boss in the Mocro Mafia.
It is worth taking a few moments to talk about Ridouan Taghi. Like other traffickers of Moroccan origin, Taghi appeared on the Dutch drug scene around 2006, importing cocaine on an old hashish route connecting North Africa and the Netherlands. After ousting Colombian competitors and prevailing even on the Italian N’drangheta, the Mocro Mafia established itself as the queen cocaine organisation in the Netherlands and Taghi as its king. Taghi worked his way up the ranks of the Mocro Mafia with unprecedented violence, reflected in the long list of crimes mentioned earlier. In 2019 Taghi was finally arrested and extradited from Dubai, where he used to run his business in Rotterdam. His right-hand, Said Razzouki, was also arrested shortly thereafter, this time in Medellin, Colombia.
Today Taghi and Razzouki sit alongside other 15 people in the notorious Marengo trial mentioned earlier. Fun fact, the name has nothing to do with the Battle of Marengo or the Piedmontese town of the same name, but was chosen randomly by a computer. The main charge in the Marengo trial is the murder of six people between 2015 and 2017. As we know, to these we should added the killing of employee Ridouan Bakkali, lawyer Derk Wiersum and journalist Peter De Vries, as they were almost certainly ordered by Taghi from prison to weaken Nabil Bakkali, a repentant of the Mocro Mafia and key witness in the trial, in perfect application of the Mocro Mafia’s motto “He who speaks, dies.”
In a further proof of his gangster power, Taghi has hired as his defensor one of the top international criminal lawyers in the country, Inez Weski, an iron lady known for having previously represented presidents, businessmen, and MPs involved in drug and arms trafficking as well as for her very heavy black makeup. Taghi’s choice has not only increased the media visibility of the trial, which is already widely discussed in national and international press, but will also likely lead to the lengthening of its duration. Indeed, Weski and other lawyers are challenging certain procedural aspects of the trial to buy time. A few months ago, for example, Weski deposed a request, later rejected, to change the jury as in her opinion it was hostile to the defendant. More recently, Said Razzouki, Taghi’s right-hand man, declared himself unable to read the trial documents because he has lost his glasses and was unwilling to accept any new pair.
The Netherlands: a European narco State?
In light of all these developments, can we call the Netherlands a European narco-state? The answer depends on your definition of a narco-state. No, in the traditional understanding of the term, the Netherlands is not a narco-state, as collusion between institutions and drug traffickers is not systematic rather, limited to individual cases. According to Dutch criminologists, however, we can speak of a narco-state in the sense that criminal drug trafficking organisations have become not only pervasive but also highly visible in society, so powerful that they can afford to threaten, if not even kill, public figures.
Will the measures put in place by the Dutch authorities and the Marengo trial change this situation? For now, the repressive measures seem to be displacing the phenomenon rather than eradicating it. Increased controls in the port of Rotterdam, for example, have led to the transfer of a significant portion of cocaine imports to the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Indeed, last year Dutch, Belgian and German authorities carried out the largest cocaine seizure in European history: 25 tons of drugs between the ports of Antwerp and Hamburg.
Similarly, the reform to banks’ anti-money laundering practices simply turned them into transit points for dirty money to less regulated jurisdictions, such as Hong Kong and Turkey. Criminals have also found ways to circumvent controls, for example by using cryptocurrencies, or the Islamic Hawala banking system, which uses people, not banks, to move money across borders, as my fellow host Giovanni explained in his episode on terrorist financing.
As for the Marengo trial, its outcome remains uncertain. But it undoubtedly has the great merit of having brought to the public’s attention an otherwise ignored phenomenon: that of organised crime in the Netherlands. If the Marengo trial succeeds in changing Dutch society’s perception of organised crime at local level, the Netherlands will be one step closer to countering it.