In 2019, the government invested 100 million euros in the fight against this (and other forms of) subversive crime in society. In the following years, it made another long-term investment of 10 million euros. But what is there to show for all this money? Have criminals actually been forced out of the lives of ordinary citizens? Criminologist Karin van Wingerde investigated this approach and wrote a critical report. “Blind spots have arisen in the fight against subversive activities other than drug-related crime”, says Van Wingerde.

In the report, you argue for the abolition of the term ‘subversive’. Why is this term a problem?

“The Amstelland Police first used the term ‘subversive’ in 2009 to describe how the underworld affected legitimate society. If you Google the Dutch word ondermijnend (subversive), you’ll see a picture of a Dutch city with buildings above ground and weapons, drugs and the like below ground. This picture shows what subversion is all about: because of the connection between the underworld and legitimate society, subversion is slowly affecting the foundations of that society. In this regard, the use of the term ‘subversion’ has been highly effective. No one opposes subversion being tackled. However, the political debate has reduced ‘subversion’ to drug-related subversion. This has led to blind spots when it comes to other types of crime, such as integrity issues in politics, health care fraud or environmental crime. That’s why I say we should actually let go of the term ‘subversion’. Internationally, it’s not a well-known concept either. I advocate the return of the term ‘organised crime’. That’s not perfect either, but offers more to go on and is more common internationally.”

But isn’t it true that the Netherlands is mainly known for its problems with drugs – with shootings, murders as a result of mistaken identity and drug labs in the forests of Brabant – rather than for environmental crime?

“In the eyes of the general public, subversion has been reduced to a drugs problem, mainly under the influence of the media and politics. This is in spite of the fact that other forms of crime sometimes involve even larger amounts of money and have more harmful consequences, some of which we don’t currently label as illegal. This is not considered subversion. Environmental crime is one example of this. One of the developments we’re seeing is large companies ‘laundering’ raw materials from illegal mining projects in order to earn money. These companies employ people who work in terrible conditions in these mines and extract raw materials illegally, resulting in major environmental damage.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

How does the Netherlands compare to other countries in the fight against subversion?

“The international media usually report that the Netherlands is failing. The biggest issue with the drugs problem, of course, is that it enters through our ports. But quite frankly, I think we’re further ahead in terms of the cooperation between public and private parties than most of the countries around us. Things are often even harder there. At the same time, I’ve found that the additional money has been invested almost exclusively in national projects, even though drug-related problems – such as the cocaine trade – are clearly international by definition.”

For years, millions of euros have been invested in a better approach to subversion. With what result?

“A total of 126 projects have been set up, especially in the area of cooperation between government bodies and companies. We’ve been looking at thirteen of these projects for three years. We didn’t look at the effects of these projects on subversion, but at the process: how does a project get off the ground, which parties are involved, how do they work together and what are the factors involved in success and failure? A great deal of progress has been made: everybody now acknowledges the urgency of the problem and there’s a great deal of cooperation. Nevertheless, we’ve found that many long-standing problems haven’t been resolved.”

What kind of problems do you mean?

“For example, setting up sustainable forms of cooperation is still a challenge. This is partly due to how government works. Short cycles of four years between elections make long-term policymaking difficult. In addition, an important condition of the investments was that ‘learning’ was to be put front and centre: learning from the past, but also learning from the successes of other projects. However, there was no strategy for building on this learning. In addition, a number of preconditions are lacking. Employees at organisations such as the Public Prosecution Service and the Fiscal Intelligence and Investigation Service, for example, are still judged by results rather than how well they cooperate with other parties in society.”

One of the problems you describe in the report is that there’s a high turnover of people such as data analysts or financial experts, and that their expertise is lost as a result. Why can’t we hold on to these people?

“Originally the funding was temporary in nature, which also meant temporary work. People tend to look for stability and they can easily find that elsewhere. Many people also felt that this project work was competing with their main task.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

The investments started in 2019 and ended in 2022. Is three years long enough to create substantial, lasting change?

“The problem is that the people involved in the projects had to tackle capacity problems first. In essence, this meant that in the first year they were busy finding people, in the second year they had to draw up a plan and it was only in the third year that they could start the implementation process. Fortunately, additional money has now been made available to continue these projects.”

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What has worked well?

“Various things. One example of a project in which major steps have been taken is the cooperation between banks and investigative services in the approach to money laundering. Together, they’ve developed a procedure on how to exchange information. Setting up a procedure may not sound very exciting, but a procedure forms the basis for identifying and tackling cases in the longer term that can also stand up in court.”

What’s the next step in the fight against organised crime?

“The aim of these projects was to tackle crime in a very ‘integrated’ way, namely through cooperation between businesses, municipalities, schools and citizens. While a good idea in itself, it also caused a few problems. Cooperation is complicated, not least because of the huge number of parties involved. As a result, people spent all their time in meetings and could no longer see the forest for the trees. You need to think carefully about whether integrated cooperation is always necessary.

“Now that new funding is on the way, we have to think in advance about how we’ll spend it and how we’ll create the right preconditions for people to really have the chance to succeed. Do we have the manpower, how will we organise things, how will we let people free up their time, how will we monitor and ask for accountability? You have to take care of all these things first.”

Karin van Wingerde is professor of Corporate Crime and Governance at the Erasmus School of Law. Together with her Maastricht University colleagues Hans Nelen and Roland Moerland and EUR professor Lieselot Bisschop, she spent three years investigating the strengthening of the approach to organised crime. In December, the researchers published the report Koers bepalen. Over de lessen van de versterking aanpak georganiseerde drugscriminaliteit (Setting a course: on the lessons of strengthening the approach to organised drug-related crime).