They boarded ships, spoke with countless people involved, accompanied linesmen responsible for bringing in the ships and visited the largest terminals to hear what kind of things go on there. This way, Roks, Bisschop tried to gain insight into drug-related crime in the port, together with criminologists Richard Staring, Elisabeth Brein and Henk van de Bunt. “The port and its criminal activity shouldn’t be discussed separately of the city itself.”

We regularly hear about yet another record haul of cocaine in Rotterdam’s port area. Why does the port play such an important role in drug trafficking?

Roks: “This mainly has to do with the port’s geographical situation and good facilities. It’s a natural hub for Latin American companies transporting fruit pulp and concentrate to markets in Western Europe. This creates specific shipping lines that are logical routes – with criminals more or less riding piggyback.”

What’s the relation with, for example, the port of Antwerp, which you’ve also included in your research?

Roks: “From a Latin American perspective, it’s frankly absurd to find two ports this large so near one another. They’re mainly interested in getting the drugs into Western Europe somehow. And how they’re brought from South America to Europe exactly is mainly determined by existing transport routes.”

Bisschop: “When a route moves, the traffickers follow in its wake. You can see this in IJmuiden and Vlissingen. In the late 1990s, Vlissingen wanted to compete with Rotterdam in the fruit segment and constructed a number of fruit terminals. A few years ago, shipping lines rerouted to Vlissingen, and now we can see drug shipments being intercepted there too.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Researchers Jan Tromp and Pieter Tops, who looked into drug-related crime in Amsterdam, talk of a ‘trade worth hundreds of millions – if not billions’. Could you make a similar assessment of the drug-related crime in the port?

Bisschop: “Due to a dark number [crime that isn’t reflected in the statistics, eds.], you can’t calculate those kinds of figures with any certainty. We’ve resisted the temptation to make any statements. You can see certain trends in seizures, but they’re also dependent on the priorities, approach and information position of the customs administration and the police. This makes it impossible to determine the size, let alone how successful the approach is.”

What’s your opinion of Tromp and Tops’ figures?

Roks: “I’m not familiar with the situation in Amsterdam, so I couldn’t tell you whether the figures add up. But they’ve extrapolated statements made by, for example, police officers, and taken them as a given – even though they’re nothing more than estimates. One of the staff of the WODC (Research and Documentation Centre) called it a pamphlet. And I’d agree.”

So you can’t say anything about the scale of the problem. What could you tell us?

Roks: “Thanks to our interviews with employees of companies in the port and investigation authorities and our reviews of police files about drug trafficking, we’ve been able to collect data about the nature and handling of drug-related crime. The added value of this research is that we can link together knowledge collected by a variety of organisations and create overview based on a criminological analysis.

“Nevertheless, it’s important to keep an eye on your blind spots. One example: our point of departure was drugs in general. But our conversations mainly centred on cocaine, since this is a specific expertise of the agencies we spoke with. That’s why our study also focuses on cocaine – which isn’t to say it’s the only narcotic smuggled into the country.”

What would you say were the most surprising sore points in the fight against drug-related crime in the port?

Roks: “We’re all aware that drug trafficking is a perfect example of an international phenomenon. Investigation expertise is remarkably local, however. There’s no good overview as far as the overall logistics process is concerned: how trafficking is organised from cultivation to user, who’s behind it, which cash flows.”

Bisschop: “I agree. Another painful conclusion, in my view, is that inspections in Rotterdam mainly concentrated on import, while the bulk of cocaine in the Netherlands is actually in transit. On top of this, the Netherlands is a leading manufacturer of XTC, but most of the export flows of this drug via the port remain hidden from view.

“And I was surprised to see how different the approach could be from one port to the next. In Antwerp, for a long time they focussed on the long term, tracing lines from start to finish and making work of the larger structures. In Rotterdam, on the other hand, there’s a strong focus on ‘quick hits’ and seizures. Right now, we see that they try to learn from each other and combine the short and long term strategies.

“And you also see different approaches within the ports themselves, as taken by the different authorities and companies. And besides differences in approach, different parties also have different objectives: one focuses on tax aspects; the other on the safety of its staff.”

Is this a bad thing: that the different parties can have such different priorities?

Bisschop: “Sometimes the differences are so great that they don’t understand each other. This creates obstacles for collaboration between different authorities and between the services and companies in the port. It would already make a huge difference if they were aware of, and knew of, the other parties’ objectives. A succesful example is the Hit And Run Cargo team, where the port police, customs and tax authorities cooperate to align their objectives and approach to intercept drugs.

For example, public agencies aren’t always aware that private companies have a strong interest in curbing drug-related crime too. Steps are also being taken here, for example at the Information Sharing Center. That’s a public-private cooperation where terminal operators, port police and customs share information.”

Reading your study, it becomes clear from that – as one of your respondents put it – ‘corruption plays an indispensable role’ in drug trafficking. Still, you report that around the turn of the century, researchers actually claimed that corruption wasn’t necessary for trafficking. How can this have changed that much in 20 years’ time?

Bisschop: “The port has become a large, obtuse environment – due to the growth in the number of containers used and automation, for example. If you want to get a handle on what’s going on there, you can’t do without ‘inside’ information. If only because you otherwise risk getting run over by one of the automatic guided vehicles at the terminals or you simply won’t be able to find your container with drugs between the thousands of other boxes.”

Roks: “Besides, corruption sounds very serious, but we discovered that it doesn’t have to amount to a huge case like the one with customs officer Gerrit G. [who received a 14-year sentence for letting through coke and advising criminals, eds.], who could press the right buttons to get containers with drugs through uninspected. It can also be on a smaller scale: lending someone your access card, for example, or sharing information about specific operational processes.”

Other researchers who wanted to study corruption in the port recently claimed they were ‘actively obstructed’ by Customs. Did you notice anything like this?

Roks: “In all truthfulness: no. In part, I think this has to do with the fact that we had been endorsed by a number of clients, which meant that doors opened for us relatively quickly. In addition, we were researching drug-related crime in general, with corruption only being brought up in context. Rather than going in with the express intention to study corruption itself.”

Public opinion is increasingly turning against the normalisation of drug use. Users should be more aware of their involvement in the crime associated with the production and trafficking of drugs. Do you feel this is justified?

Bisschop: “While our research didn’t focus on drug use, we recognise the sentiment. Among some of our respondents, the feeling was: ‘We can’t discuss trafficking without discussing use as well.’ And it’s good that people are becoming aware of the link between their using a substance and the associated crime.”

Which role does the port play in normalising the culture of drug use?

Bisschop: “It’s true that a port of this size will remain vulnerable to trafficking. But it would be taking it too far to blame the port for the fact that drug use is relatively accepted in the Netherlands. I couldn’t establish that link based on our research.”

Roks: “Nor would I say that our historical cocaine use has fuelled the port’s growth or expansion. This has far more to do with the geographical situation of the port and its facilities.

“You could also turn the argument around and say that drug-related crime and trafficking in the port are the result of the criminalisation of a substance that in itself isn’t particularly harmful or beneficial. It has been included on certain lists due to specific agreements, and this has consequences for how it ends up at the user.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Basically, you’re saying the criminalisation of cocaine has resulted in this crime.

Roks: “Yes, to an extent. With regulated products like, let’s say, bananas, the logistic process is almost the same. But you do not have the problems that cocaine causes in the logistics chain, because bananas are not criminalized, such as cocaine.”

Next week, a committee appointed by the municipal council will be discussing your study. What should they keep in mind?

Bisschop: “Important point is the link between the city and the port. In part due to their physical proximity, the two are very closely connected. It would also be a good idea to keep drug-related crime in the port on the City’s long-term agenda. So not just now, because the current Mayor wants to make work of this problem.

“For this, it is important, among other things, to further explore what role the Port of Rotterdam itself can play, for example by setting certain conditions for rent. But also what companies in the port can do themselves to combat drug crime.

“And finally, the government and the private companies should examine which options they have when it comes to exchanging data. A lot of agencies and private parties that could actually help make the fight against drug trafficking more effective aren’t allowed to share information. They run into privacy legislation, for instance – in some cases, these barriers are justified; but in others, they may have other options.

“It’s interesting to see how certain aspects of our study are already being highlighted by people. This has everything to do with priorities, budgets and the allocation of assets, but still… Aboutaleb, for example, would like to trace routes upstream to the source countries; but doesn’t want to go downstream to see how drugs are distributed or exported, or look into the underlying cash flows. Even though they’re black holes in their own right.”


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