As Dutch Prime Minister Gets Extra Security, Fears Focus on Drug Gangs

THE HAGUE — For years, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands has cycled or walked to his city-center office, commuting to work like millions of other Dutch people, unencumbered by the large security details that surround other world leaders.

So a report in a Dutch newspaper this week that the police had beefed up security around Mr. Rutte after suspicious movements around him by people believed to be connected to the country’s notorious drug gangs has rattled many in the Netherlands.

The authorities have declined to officially confirm the report in the newspaper, De Telegraaf, and it is not clear whether Mr. Rutte has been told to stop cycling to work.

“We never say anything about safety and security,” Mr. Rutte told reporters.

However, a police official and a senior Dutch government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that there had been fears for Mr. Rutte’s security. They declined to give details, citing safety reasons, but the police official said the security concerns were related to people involved in organized crime, and that new measures to protect him had been implemented earlier this month.

No one doubts that organized crime has a foothold in the Netherlands. The country is a transport hub in the drug trade for cocaine from South America to Europe. And in recent years, the authorities have blamed organized crime for two high-profile killings, most recently the fatal shooting of a prominent crime reporter, Peter R. de Vries.

But the question now is whether the country’s prime minister is a target for gangsters, too. On that, opinion is divided.

“The Dutch lost their naïveté against organized crime after the killing of Peter R. de Vries,” said Michel Oz, a police officer and representative of the Dutch Police Association. He said the threats against the prime minister showed that organized crime groups “want to signal that they’re above the law.”

Others say that while drug-trafficking gangs have grown more willing to attack outsiders, the victims have been people they see as direct threats to their operations like crime reporters or lawyers — not politicians.

Damian Zaitch, a professor of criminology at Utrecht University who has conducted extensive research on the drug trade in the Netherlands, said the gangs had little to gain by targeting the prime minister.

“There is more violence from drug traffickers, who used to kill each other and now reach to outer circles — families, lawyers,” Mr. Zaitch said. “But drug traffickers targeting politicians? For what?”

Mr. Rutte, left, with the justice and security minister, Ferd Grapperhaus, in July, in The Hague, after the shooting of the crime reporter Peter R. De Vries.Credit…Phil Nijhuis/EPA, via Shutterstock

What is clear, however, is that the escalation of violence linked to the drug trade in the Netherlands has been a source of growing concern for the authorities.

A series of police operations since last year has also cast a light on the central position of the Netherlands in Europe’s drug trade, which Europol described in a report this month as the “staging point for cocaine trafficking on the continent.” The Netherlands is also a center for the illegal production of amphetamines and crystal meth.

Mr. Rutte’s government said this month that it would dedicate an additional 430 million euros, or about $500 million, over the coming year to fight organized crime.

Still, the Netherlands’ homicide rate, at 0.6 per 100,000 people, remains far below the average of most developed countries, and is in line with its European neighbors.

“The highly publicized murders make the situation spectacular,” said Dina Siegel-Rozenblit, a professor of criminology at Utrecht University. “But we’re not in a narco-state, despite what some in the Netherlands like to say.”

Perhaps as a measure of that, Mr. Rutte has appeared in public this week without a visible security presence.

Peter Pronk, the manager of a fish shop next to the Parliament and government offices in The Hague, said he had seen Mr. Rutte walk to work last week and had not noticed any extra security.

“He had his briefcase and a cup of coffee, like so many of us would do — except he was asked to take a selfie at the gate,” Mr. Pronk said.

Mr. Rutte leaving on his bicycle after casting his vote in a general election in March in The Hague.Credit…Peter Dejong/Associated Press

Adding to the confusion, prosecutors in The Hague said that they had arrested a local councilor on Sunday over what they called “suspicious behavior” concerning Mr. Rutte. Although they did not link it to the threat reported in the Dutch newspaper, the arrest sparked speculation that it might be related.

The councilor, Arnoud van Doorn, was released on Monday, according to his lawyer, Anis Boumanjal, who said Mr. van Doorn had been spotted on Sunday in places where Mr. Rutte was a regular, but that it had been a coincidence. Mr. van Doorn is no longer a suspect and the case against him was dropped, Mr. Boumanjal said on Wednesday.

For years, competing drug gangs have carried out kidnappings and sporadic shootings in big Dutch cities, but the recent violence has taken things to a new level, culminating in July with the shooting of Mr. de Vries as he was leaving a TV studio.

Mr. de Vries also served as an adviser to a key witness in an ongoing trial in which 17 people, including Ridouan Taghi, who is suspected of being the ringleader of a drug trafficking organization, are accused of involvement in killings and attempted murders between 2015 and 2017.

The killing of Mr. de Vries came after Derk Wiersum, a lawyer for the same witness, was killed in Amsterdam in 2019. The witness’s brother was shot dead in 2018.

“The threshold to commit a liquidation seems to be lower today than before,” prosecutors have said, describing the assassinations as part of a “well-oiled killing machine.”

In the operations that they launched last year, the Dutch police have dismantled several cocaine production laboratories, arrested dozens of suspects and seized record amounts of cocaine.

Part of the reason for the surge in drug trafficking through the Netherlands is that traffickers in Latin America mostly rely on shipping containers to deliver cocaine to Europe, which gives a critical role to Rotterdam, the continent’s largest seaport, as well as to other big container ports like Antwerp in Belgium and Hamburg in Germany.

“Cocaine travels with bananas and coffee, just like traditional goods from Latin American come through ports in northern Europe,” said Letizia Paoli, a professor of criminology at K.U. Leuven, a university in Belgium.

Police officials at a Europol news conference in The Hague in June.Credit…Jerry Lampen/EPA, via Shutterstock

Europol and the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime warn that the booming cocaine market in Europe, which is more lucrative than that of the United States, had prompted a rise in assassinations, shootings, kidnappings and torture, among other crimes.

That has in turn left law enforcement officials in the Netherlands on edge, according to analysts.

“In Dutch law enforcement, everyone is wondering where will this end, and how this will evolve,” said Jan Meeus, a crime reporter at the newspaper NRC Handelsblad who covers drug trafficking in the Netherlands.

Michael Schwirtz and Claire Moses contributed reporting from London.

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