1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Dutch crime boss goes down, but cocaine trade here to stay

Ella Joyner in Amsterdam
February 27, 2024

Dutch gang leader Ridouan Taghi, once part of a cocaine "super cartel," has been handed life in prison for a string of murders. The violence may be over for now, but organized crime still looms large in the Netherlands.

A vehicle carrying suspects arrives at the high security court in Amsterdam, Netherlands
The trial took place at a high-security facility near Schipol AirportImage: Ramon van Flymen/ANP/picture alliance

In a nondescript industrial estate on the edge of Amsterdam, two sleek black cars pull up in front of a court house guarded by heavily armed police.

The people inside have their faces covered almost completely by balaclavas, but you can see apprehension in their eyes as they pass. One of the vehicles hastens into a small garage on the side of the building and the doors shut quickly behind them. The other drives on.

The unidentifiable passengers were arriving at "The Bunker," a high-security facility near Schipol Airport where three men, including notorious organized crime boss Ridouan Taghi, were sentenced to life imprisonment on Tuesday in one of the biggest criminal cases the Netherlands has ever seen.

Three men walk into the courtroom location, one hiding his face
Taghi was one of 17 suspects on trial, in a case that gripped the nationImage: Ramon van Flymen/ANP/picture alliance

Prosecutors in the Marengo trial, named after a judicial code word for the operation, successfully argued that the trio, as leaders of a criminal gang, had ordered or coordinated a string of six murders plus other attempted or planned killings between 2015 and 2017. A further 14 men were convicted with jail time ranging between almost two and 29 years, bringing a six-year trial riddled with twists and turns to a close.

Taghi, 46, once the Netherlands' most-wanted fugitive, was extradited from Dubai in 2019 for the trial. Police previously said he was part of a "super cartel," at one point controlling a third of the European cocaine trade that was subject to a major international sting operation coordinated by Europol in late 2022.

End of watershed Marengo trial

Looming over Taghi's trial are three further deaths that shook Dutch society: the 2021 shooting of celebrity crime reporter Peter R. De Vries, the 2019 killing of lawyer Derk Wiersum and the 2018 killing of the brother of Nabil B., the prosecutor's star witness in the Marengo case.

De Vries had been working as an adviser to Nabil B., a suspect who turned witness for the state in 2018, which he believes triggered the killing of his brother shortly after.

Dutch mega trial ends in life sentence for gang leader

Wiersum had been defending Nabil B., whose extensive testimony given in 41 statements totaling hundreds of pages, according to prosecutors, served as key evidence along with a huge trove of decrypted text messages sent between gang members.

In exchange for his cooperation, the crown witness had his sentence for his role in the murders reduced from 20 to 10 years.

'Narco state' Netherlands?

The three deaths were a wake-up call for the Netherlands about gang violence, according to Saskia Belleman, a well-known court reporter from the Dutch daily newspaper De Telegraaf.

"Until Marengo we always thought 'as long as they kill each other' that doesn't have such a huge impact on our society," she said. "But then they killed the brother of the crown witness. They killed the lawyer. And they killed his trustee […] the most well-known journalist in Holland," she said, referring to De Vries.

The crime-focused De Telegraaf had reported on what the media dubbed the "Mocro-Mafia" (gangs whose members had Moroccan origins) and their alleged grip over much of the Dutch and European drug trade. In 2018, a van deliberately rammed into the Amsterdam offices of De Telegraaf and burst into flames. "It was to shut us up, I think," Belleman said. "It didn't work."

DW's Jack Parrock: 'A significant day for justice'

In 2022, Dutch authorities intercepted cocaine with a street value of €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion), mainly in the port of major European shipping hub Rotterdam. Officials have freely acknowledged that much more cocaine makes it in to the country undetected, in a trade that has blossomed in recent years.

"Quiet and peaceful Netherlands, where organized crime was almost no issue, is now compared to Italy," said Dina Siegel, a criminologist at Utrecht University. "Italian experts [on the mafia] are invited regularly to consult the Dutch politicians."

The three killings parallel to the Marengo trial raised the question in public debate about whether the country had become a "narco state" or "mafia state," Siegel, who also sits on the board of the Center for Information and Research on Organized Crime, told DW in an email. "The discussion continues and will probably continue also after the trial."

Fair trial impossible, defense lawyer claims

None of those three killings were part of Tuesday's verdict, but they were still on everyone's mind. The shooting death of the popular De Vries in particular triggered a huge outpouring of public emotion.

A lawyer for one of the accused told DW on condition of anonymity that it had been almost "impossible to defend" his client, given the huge media circus surrounding the trial. The Dutch state could simply not afford not to convict suspects, they argued. Their client would appeal within two weeks, they added.

Dutch journalist Peter De Vries, sits for an interview, wearing a black shirt
De Vries, one of the Netherlands best known journalists, was gunned down in the streetImage: WDR

The Marengo trial was chaotic by any measure. Taghi was defended first by own cousin, also a lawyer, and then well-known lawyer Inez Weski. Both were pulled off his legal team and arrested over the course of the trial.

The judge, who cannot be identified for security reasons, denied allegations that the trial had been compromised on Tuesday. "The trial of all the suspects was a fair trial," they insisted, pointing to the overwhelming evidence provided by prosecutors.

'Cocaine trafficking will continue' in the Netherlands

The Marengo trial has left its mark on Dutch society, particularly for lawyers and journalists.

"I've got two colleagues that are being guarded 24 hours a day," said De Telegraaf reporter Belleman. In her opinion, the Dutch state had learned from its mistakes and was now offering better protection to those at risk.

EU ports join forces to fight drug smuggling

Sven Brinkhoff, a criminal law professor at the University of Amsterdam, told DW that the trial had also affected those working in the legal system. "The most important change is that it has brought fear in this system."

Brinkhoff and Siegel both pointed to recent successes for law enforcement in tackling drugs trafficking. But no one is under the impression that the sentencing of Taghi and his associates is the end of the story. "The underlying cocaine trafficking will continue and that's an uncomfortable truth," said Brinkoff in an email.

Siegel agreed. "The verdict will mean a relief for the relatives of many victims [...] It also means a big blow to this organization, as Ridouan Taghi is a charismatic, influential crime boss."

"But if you ask whether organized crime will disappear, the answer is no," she continued, pointing to previous generations of Dutch crime bosses. "As long as crime does pay, there will be new players on the criminal arena in the Netherlands, or anywhere else."

Edited by: Martin Kuebler