“We’re gradually closing the net around the big fish”

Policeman Wilfred Dirckx and customs officer René Hoorn shed light on the fight against synthetic drugs. “We are making it increasingly harder for the major players in this criminal sector.”

The Netherlands has been known for decades as a hub for international drug trafficking. Drugs that are distributed through the Netherlands are often also produced in this country – examples include ecstasy, speed and related amphetamines. The Synthetic Drugs Cluster of the National Police Unit – deliberately operating from the province of Brabant – attempts to obstruct the production and worldwide export of these powders and pills. The knowledge and skills of other enforcement services are welcomed by the crime fighters. No surprise, therefore, that customs officer René Hoorn (right on the photo) – a liaison officer and a permanent member of the cluster – is working overtime.

“Traditionally, the south has been a hotspot for all types of illegal activities”, Wilfred Dirckx (left on the photo), member of the Synthetic Drugs Cluster in Son, explains. “Take the once flourishing smuggling of butter, cigarettes and spirits to Belgium, for example. These alcoholic beverages were brewed in the border region illegally. At one point, leading underworld figures of the province of Limburg and certainly those in Brabant involved in these practices made the switch to what they called pep at the time. The equipment in the hidden distilleries could easily be converted into boilers and crystallisation vessels for cooking amphetamine. The crooks of the past passed the baton on to new networks, namely criminal families, core members of the travelling community, outlaw motorcycle gangs... They now control this lucrative market. In recent years, we’ve seen an expansion of production capacity to other provinces. But in practically all cases, it leads back to the Brabant underworld, as they have the experience, the know-how and the foreign contacts.”

Cat-and-mouse game
“The large-scale manufacture of synthetic intoxicants is a thorn in the eye of politics”, Dirckx continues. “From local to national administrators, they all focus their attention on the drugs mafia. On the one hand, they want to get rid of the image of the Netherlands as a narco-state and, on the other, they are concerned about the undermining influence these shadowy practices have on society. Billions of Euros in criminal money are laundered, gangs control entire neighbourhoods and motorcycle clubs manifest themselves with a lot of intimidation and violence in the public space. If mayors receive anonymous text messages at night saying ‘sleep tight’, you know you have a serious social problem.”

“Our cluster has been fighting organised crime for close to twenty years now – a continuous cat-and-mouse game. As part of our efforts, we aim to get ever-closer to the leaders within. That’s tricky because the types pulling the strings in the background, operate very cautiously. Nevertheless, we’re gradually closing the net around these big fish. This is partly thanks to the crime script method for example, in which our data scientists and intelligence specialists use smart software to filter and analyse large quantities of very diverse data. Much of the useful input comes from other investigative authorities and regulators, such as Customs. This administration has had liaisons within our department from the very start of our existence and forms a fully integrated part within. René recently took up this role. Just like his predecessors, he helps criminal investigations making real progress. His information is invaluable to us.”

Pieces of the puzzle
“As Dutch Customs, we, of course, have a unique view of almost all goods entering our territory”, Hoorn explains. “This includes so-called precursors – the chemicals that are processed in drug laboratories. Until quite recently, large batches of those active ingredients came directly from China and thanks to sophisticated risk profiles, they were flagged by our declaration systems. We informed the police about such deliveries, which were then allowed through and tracked in a controlled manner. Criminals, however, are becoming increasingly sophisticated. For example, they’re shifting their transport routes and have raw materials supplied via countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania. This means the substance is already in Europe and is usually brought into the Netherlands by truck. These flows are a lot harder to monitor. With that, these days, drug gangs order pre-precursors or even pre-pre-precursors – seemingly innocent precursors of the ingredients they need and which they reprocess themselves. All this is aimed at concealing the ultimate purpose of use. That makes it more difficult for us to tackle the synthetic drug problem at the source. But thanks to close cooperation with foreign customs authorities, the alertness of our own employees and excellent detective work by police officers, we’re making real progress. Together, we collect the pieces of the puzzle that, when combined, provide an increasingly complete picture of how underground networks are branched and operate. This way, numerous containers with PMK, BMK or APAAN have already been intercepted, drug labs dismantled and suspects arrested and convicted.”

No traces
“In recent years, the cluster has also been increasing its focus on what goes out of the country, namely the end-product of Dutch manufacturing,” Hoorn continues. “Exports to distant destinations are interesting for drug dealers because the profit margins there are many times higher than here. The US, Australia and New Zealand, for example, claim to be flooded by Dutch ecstasy and amphetamines, purchased by users on the dark web. These countries exert pressure on The Hague to tighten control of postal packages heading in their direction. This is one of the reasons why in 2018, we, as Customs and the police, carried out a number of joint supervision operations at various couriers. The results weren’t startling because many suppliers send their goods via Germany, Belgium or France, thereby reducing the risk of discovery. Moreover, these people never leave any fingerprints, DNA material or other traces. And the return addresses on the envelopes are, of course, always false – they are from bona fide companies that are the victims of identity fraud. Still, anything we do prevent from going out is a bonus.”

“We’re well aware of the fact that what we encounter in terms of chemicals and drugs, is only the tip of the iceberg”, Dirckx concludes. “And yet I’m optimistic about the future. We won’t be able to rid synthetic drugs altogether, everyone knows that. But we are making it increasingly harder for the major players in the criminal environment. As stated earlier, René plays an important part therein thanks to his special expertise. Another intermediary from Customs wouldn’t go amiss here.”

This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2018’. Click here to read the full publication.

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