The world behind the cocaine trade is one of “excessive violence, liquidations, kidnappings and torture”, says the Rotterdam chief public prosecutor Hugo Hillenaar. On the quays of the port of Rotterdam, ‘being’ fights Hit and Run Cargo-team (HARC team, a collaboration of police, customs, FIOD and Public Prosecution Service) the import of cocaine. Year after year they set seizure records. Last year, 194 consignments totaling 70,571 kilos of cocaine were seized, good for a street value of about 5 billion euros. In 2017 that was still 5,700 kilos.
What is the story behind those numbers?
“I think we have become more and more successful in predicting which containers are used and understanding how criminals work. The parties are larger than in previous years. Last year we seized 22 consignments of more than a thousand kilos. But does this mean that criminals take more risks and send larger parties? Or just that we missed those parties before? I do not know.”
What can you do to find out?
“I have resigned myself to the fact that I really don’t know everything about crime. Thanks to the cracking of encrypted communication networks, such as Encrochat, our information position on drug crime is improving, but criminals are extremely innovative in finding new methodologies. We try to anticipate, but very often it is reactive.”
You say you are more successful. How do you explain that the almost exponential increase in interceptions has no influence whatsoever on the street price and the purity of cocaine sold?
“That seems to be the case in the Netherlands, but I don’t know whether you can say in general that it won’t be more expensive. A large part of the 70,000 kilos that we intercept is intended for transit to the rest of Europe. I have no idea about the prices there.”
It is estimated that you are seizing around 20 percent of the cocaine entering the port. Isn’t it too easy to smuggle drugs through the port of Rotterdam?
„Do you know the harbor area? Have you ever taken the trouble to enter the field? It is 125 square kilometers. We have millions of tons of cargo entering and transiting, millions of containers. Coke smuggling is the flip side of the port’s success with good logistics, infrastructure and rapid settlement. Do we have to check every ship, every truck, every container right down to the bottom?”
The port of Rotterdam has been the largest in Europe for decades, while the cocaine problem has arisen in recent years. The center of gravity of European cocaine smuggling has shifted from southern European ports to Rotterdam and Antwerp in the past seven years, according to research by Europol and the United Nations. How do you think that is?
“Cocaine use has increased and that has led to more imports.”
Also read this opinion piece by anthropologist Teun Voeten: The elite sniffs something but waves away the consequences
Figures from the Trimbos Institute do not show that cocaine use has increased excessively. It certainly cannot explain why the Netherlands has become the epicenter of the European cocaine market.
“We are a transit country. Does that make you the epicenter of the cocaine trade? It’s your frame, it wouldn’t be mine.”
It is not the case that a number of large mafia-like organizations will collapse if you arrest the top executive. They are fluid networks
It’s the frame of Europol and the United Nations. The Netherlands acts as a hub. That’s what you see and what all the experts say. The price is made here. When you make that analysis, the question is: are we doing enough against it?
“It is never enough. Just tell me when it’s enough.”
Ensuring that the Netherlands no longer fulfills that role as a hub could be an ambition. Or catch people responsible for the coke smuggling. Your public prosecutor in the HARC team expressed that wish this month in the OM magazine. She’s proud of the repossessions, but she’s eager to catch the people hiding behind them.
“Sometimes it works, but certainly not always.”
It almost never works. Of those 194 lots you seized last year, how many did you grab the people responsible for?
“The HARC team conducts short-term investigations, and other investigation teams are also active investigating crime in the port. Criminal drug organizations are compartmentalized in such a way that you do not reach the top. For example, if we stop a mechanic who removes a batch of cocaine from a container’s cooling engine, it is very difficult to prove who is behind it. These are extraordinarily complex and lengthy studies. We don’t have the capacity for that.
“And it is not the case that a number of large mafia-like organizations collapse if you arrest the top man. They are fluid networks that purchase services in a kind of Yellow Pages, for example from extractors. That makes the strategy not: get the robber chief. No, the strategy is: get rid of as many links as possible in the hope of disrupting the entire process. I know one thing for sure: confiscating those 70,000 kilos hurts.”
Interviewed last year NRC the head of the Seaport Police. He sounded frustrated that due to too little manpower and resources many batches of cocaine go into the incinerator without investigation and a wealth of investigative information is missed. Do you recognize that?
“I recognize that frustration, but you also see it in cybercrime and human trafficking, for example. There are many forms of crime that we can never commit to 100 percent. It is always making choices.”
We live in a country with a high level of fear that is closely linked to the effects of drug trafficking. The country’s main highway is closed for two hours when a car drives too close to protected journalist John van de Heuvel. You then answer: ‘I have to make choices’. Are you getting enough resources from The Hague?
“I believe in a broad approach that goes much further than just criminal law. Think of making port employees more resilient, a biometric access pass [bijvoorbeeld met een vingerafdruk] enter the port in front of the port so that it cannot be loaned out, go into the neighborhoods and tell young people who are being recruited: the money sounds nice, but you will never get out.
“The new cabinet is allocating an extra billion for the police and the judiciary and I don’t think it is enough. We would like much more, for example doubling the HARC team from 25 to 50 people. But I have also resigned myself to the fact that we have to draw permanent attention to reinforcements, but that it will never reach the level we would like to see.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 19, 2022