GREAT BAY / AMSTERDAM – Almost two years ago, on September 11, 2015, Attorney-General Guus Schram caused a firestorm in St. Maarten when he made the following statement during the installation of Judge Sander Verheijen: “There are many indications that the underworld is structurally intertwined with St. Maarten’s legitimate society.”
Justice Minister Dennis Richardson, who was present at the installation ceremony was outraged: “Justify your claims or shut the hell up,” he told Parliament shortly afterwards. The Parliament even demanded that Schram stepped down.
Even though the integrity reports Schram used as the basis for his statement do not contain any evidence of the link between criminals and the legitimate part of St. Maarten’s society, Schram stuck to his claims – and he kept his position. The firestorm lost momentum and soon it was business as usual again.
Here is the forgotten question: even if there is no proof (in the integrity reports) that criminals have their claws in the legitimate society, could it not still be true? Politicians took Schram’s statement two years ago almost as a personal insult, but recent developments in the Netherlands offer a candid insight in the strides criminal organizations are making. A reality check.
The Volkskrant just re-published an interesting interview with Greetje Bos, a public prosecutor based in Breda in the province of Brabant. The publication followed after the Public Prosecutor’s Office revealed that Klaas Otto, the imprisoned founder of the biker’s club No Surrender, had ordered the liquidation of Bos from his prison cell in Middelburg. Detectives arrested a 44-year- old man who was supposed to commit the murder.
The Volkskrant interview dives into the world where public prosecutor Bos lives. She handled murder and manslaughter cases in Rotterdam for seven years before she turned to criminal financial transactions.
What she encountered in Brabant is, in her own words, astonishing. To her interviewers, Pieter Tops and Jan Tromp, she describes the province as some kind of Sodom and Gomorra. “The depth and breadth of the links between the under and the upper world in Brabant are extremely strong.”
The annual turnover from marijuana cultivation in Tilburg, the fifth largest city in the Netherlands, is reportedly €800 million ($960 million). While Top and Tromp consider this to be an astronomical number, Bos has a different opinion: “It is a conservative estimate. We encounter amounts that exceed the imagination.”
Bos told her interviewers about a case based on information from the United States about a large-scale money laundering organization in the Netherlands. Investigators focused on a large warehouse in Capelle where they found a professional money institute, complete with two insulated vaults that housed machines for counting money. “I had never seen such machines before,” Bos says. “They sorted on denomination and currency and picked out counterfeit banknotes.”
Investigators found administration that showed that the money laundering center had processed a quarter of a billion euros.
The investigators seized €3 million during the raid on the warehouse. Bos says that she does not know whom the money belonged to. “But it shows how criminal organizations are cash-driven. It sounds like a lot, €800 million in Tilburg and only for marijuana. But if one money laundering operation processes a quarter of a billion, I think that €800 million is a very conservative estimate.”
Top and Tromp observe that a kilo of cocaine is worth between €32,000 and €35,000 in the Netherlands. In Australia the value is much higher: €75,000. And a shipment of 1,000 kilo passing through the port of Rotterdam is not unusual. Such a shipment has a value of €35 million – to be paid in bank notes.
The authors refer to a Europol-report entitled Why is Cash Still King? The report shows that organized crime still prefers cash. While legal transactions are more likely to be done with bank cards – faster and safer – the demand for 500-euro banknotes is not going down. Europol has two explanations: rich people keep that money at home and the demand for this denomination is partly due to payments between criminal organizations.
Hiding money is easy in the Netherlands, says public prosecutor Greetje Bos: “It’s even extremely easy. You dig a hole somewhere, throw a bag of money in it and you’re done. We think that this is happening a lot.”
Bos’ remarks triggers memories of the Bada Bing investigation in St. Maarten. The investigation showed that former Member of Parliament Patrick Illidge had hidden large sums of money in a terracotta pot in his garden.
Top and Tromp note that money laundering makes the links between criminals and the legitimate society visible, saying that there are many opportunists – from small time crooks to indifferent entrepreneurs – ready to do all kinds of odd jobs for criminals.
Prosecutor Bos finds this shocking, because she never thought that car rentals, managers of marinas, realtors and other professionals would so easily give in to criminals. “And when the balloon bursts and the game is over they saintly claim that they had no idea.”
At the same time, Bos acknowledges the psychology behind it all. “It is often just a small favor they ask and it is only money. You don’t feel free as a retailer to ask questions if they pay for a Rolex Daytona of twenty grand in 500-euro banknotes. That does not concern you, right? The first step on a slippery slope is easily made.”
Bos points out that her options to tackle financial crimes are limited by developments in the constitutional state. “Efficiency and target orientation have become the stepchild of criminal law.” Attorneys take refuge in procedures and delaying trials has become a goal in itself for attorneys and defendants, she says.
“There is a psychological component in the progress of a trial. Do you know how much endurance you must have to be occupied with a case for years? Coincidentally I have lots of endurance and I am extremely driven. But even for me there comes a moment when I think, for God’s sake, take them away from me, all those dossiers that are just dragging on are driving me crazy. Trust me that plays an important role. Just look at the cases that were so promising at the time of an arrest and that have completely shriveled up six years later at the last court ruling.”
Because of all this, authorities are now focusing on other means to fight crime. The parting statements of Attorney-General Guus Schram (see our front page story) about the Asset Recovery Team fit in with this approach: close down establishments, confiscate expensive cars, revoke permits and especially: send the tax inspector after them.
“That’s right,” Bos says. “Absolutely right. Criminal trials have become logistic nightmares, especially when there are several defendants.”
While settlements usually do not sit well with the public, Bos notes that the defense has countless means to frustrate the administration of justice. “My options are limited and then my question is: where is the balance between parties in criminal law? I cannot be very positive about the impact of criminal law.”
One of the prosecutor’s main beefs is with privacy legislation. The prosecutor’s office is limited in the information it is allowed to share with others, like municipalities and housing corporations. “Far too often we have personal data that are important for other instances but we are not allowed to share them. There are laws in the way.”
“I constantly got caught with those privacy rules,” Bos says. These days, every prosecutor’s office in the Netherlands has a privacy officer who has to indicate which information can be shared under which conditions and which information cannot be shared at all.
Bos: “I can very well imagine that municipalities say to us at times: you are a bunch of assholes. To that I say: sorry, but we are simply not allowed to do this.”
Professor administrative science Pieter Tops and journalist Jan Tromp are the co-authors of De Achterkant van Nederland – Hoe Onder- en Bovenwereld Verstrengeld Raken. The book is published by Balans. This article is based on the book that describes how politicians are being intimidated and threatened, how the constitutional state is being undermined and how the authorities are predominantly powerless.