Just a heads-up – This podcast contains material some listeners may find disturbing – there’s violence, language, and drugs right from the start.
That’s the sound of Ridouan Taghi entering the Bunker.
It’s a windowless fortress, used as a high-security courtroom on the outskirts of Amsterdam.
The police convoy of SUVs barrels through the gates of the squat red-brick building.
Dutch special forces with automatic weapons guard the perimeter.
I’m here to see for myself, what the trial of the Netherlands’ most dangerous criminal looks like…
It’s September 2022, eighteen months after all of this began.
Inside, the decor is organized, bureaucratic chic… bland and beige.
I’m hustled into a secure area with other…
…journalists and lawyers.
We’re kept in the back of the courtroom, enclosed by soundproof glass.
This lets the judge cut the audio feed, during sensitive testimony… we’re also prohibited from taking photos.
Through the glass I see the arrival of the lead defendant, Ridouan Taghi.
Three armed police stand within a metre of him at all times
He’s smaller than I expected.
Not a particularly imposing guy.
And solitary confinement has clearly been hell on his hygiene.
His dark hair has grown out since his booking photo, it’s a bit greasy.
He looks like a typical middle aged man, who’s spent a lot of time locked up, without a shower.
The Crown Witness, Nabil B, sits two rows behind him.
Next to Nabil are lawyers Peter Schouten and Onno de Jong…
Taghi’s lawyer, Inez Weski, is dressed all in black, with her customary goth eye-make-up.
As we’ve heard in this…
…series, Taghi managed to fly under the radar for years.
Police didn’t even know his name.
But now he has everyone’s attention…
He’s facing a life sentence, in a trial that’s become known as… the “Marengo Process…”
Taghi steps forward to address the court… and doesn’t seem particularly cooperative.
<TAGHI AUDIO CLIP>
“I’ve got nothing to say”, he tells the judge.
It’s the first trial in Dutch history…
…where just about everyone remains anonymous, for their own safety.
But standing in the middle of the room, Taghi is looking around for new faces.
It’s the first time I’ve been here… and he immediately spots me.
He looks straight at me…
Throughout this series, we’ve heard from Wouter Loumans, a Dutch crime reporter with Het Parool.
Wouter has become a kind of friend and confidante, as I’ve tried to unpack this story.
Wouter’s newsroom was once attacked with a rocket propelled grenade. As the trial progresses and gets more tense, Wouter is telling me to be a bit more careful.
He says, now that I’ve been to court, Taghi’s people know who I am.
And they’re going to listen to this podcast.
I’m Mitchell Prothero, a reporter with Project Brazen
This is Gateway
Episode Six – “Into the Bunker”
While Taghi sits on trial, 18-year-old Amalia has just started at the University of Amsterdam.
She’s in the politics and business program.
She’s also the princess of Orange:
Eldest child of the King and Queen of the Netherlands.
Heir to the Dutch throne.
She’s excited to be living in a dorm room like a normal… non-Royal student.
…weeks into Amalia’s freshman year, Dutch security services receive threats against the crown princess.
They’re worried Taghi wants to kidnap Amalia, as a bargaining chip, to get himself out of jail.
The royal family can’t take any chances… Amalia has to come home.
<TV NEWS ARCHIVE – ROYAL FAMILY ON AMALIA>
Her parents give a tearful press conference –
The Queen says Amalia can’t study in Amsterdam… it’s not safe for her anymore.
Amalia has to move back into the palace.
Taghi’s lawyer Inez Weski, says allegations of his involvement in the plot are, “false, unfounded information.”
She says Taghi has no wish to harm Princess Amalia…
And that he would “never endanger a child”.
It’s a bit like the reassuring message Taghi sent to the journalist…
…Peter De Vries… before he was murdered.
Princess Amalia isn’t the only public figure receiving threats…
Security for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also been ramped up, after reports that he was being followed by Taghi’s associates.
The classic Dutch political gimmick: cycling to work, isn’t safe for him any more.
The Netherlands’ relaxed vibe is changing…
ELIANN – for 20, 25 years, people in this continent believe that no harm would ever be done to them. And now we’ve seen that’s clearly not the reality. You know, freedom can change rapidly into something very ugly.
This is Ulysse Ellian, the Dutch member of parliament.
His father fled Iran in the early days of the Islamic Revolution.
ELIANN – my family’s story is a story of fleeing from the reality…
It’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.
if you cherish your democracy, your rule of law, and your freedom you can’t sit back.
There’s another European country that’s seen it all before…
Italy… and Ellian thinks they can teach the Dutch a thing or two.
ELIANN – I spoke to the most famous prosecutor in Italy, who has been under protection for 30 years now. And he told me this: if you want to win this…
…fight, you have to make your own institutions strong.
<ITALY MAFIA CLAMPDOWN NEWS CLIP>
Italy has thrown resources at tackling organised crime for the past three decades, with some legitimate success.
ELIANN – they have Special boats, planes, they have their own protection service. they defeated Cosa Nostra. There are no judges being killed. Yes they are under protection…
…yes, but the killings industry, it’s not in the way 30 years ago.
By comparison, the Netherlands isn’t exactly tough on crime.
At least not from the perspective of a criminal.
Ellian tells me about an Italian cop who had arrested a fugitive in the Netherlands.
ELIANN – the guy told the police officer, Why you have to take me to Italy? I’d like to stay here. I’m laughing about it, because it’s kind of funny, but it shows that for large criminal…
…organizations, Holland is a nice country to be, you know they think, okay, your system is kind of soft.
What Ellian really wants is for countries to work together to tackle the problem.
ELIANN – I admire the Italians for not looking only to Italy. They have people everywhere, police officers, people from their public prosecution, even judges who, who go to South America to look, how, how can we help? To fight organized crime is a transnational topic…
I’m positive. You know, that’s also what I learned from Italians, stay positive.
In 2020, European police scored a massive victory against organised crime.
In a series of operations, they broke into the supposedly encrypted phone servers trusted by criminals.
The police manage to capture millions of messages.
At a press conference, the top Dutch investigator bragged about…
INVESTIGATOR – We’ve actually been able to see what happens in real time with the criminals. And these messages that we’ve captured give us a very detailed view of daily life in the criminal world.
You’ve heard some of these hacked messages throughout this series.
JAN – 90% is about drugs.
That’s Jan Op Gen Oorth of Europol, which coordinates E.U. law enforcement.
I meet him at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague.
JAN – we collect intelligence…
…pieces on big transnational operations from different countries. And we bring them together to see the full information picture.
Jan says the huge cache of hacked phone messages reveals the true scale of Europe’s cocaine trade.
JAN – it’s bigger than thought. It’s more international than thought. They’re better connected than thought. They’re moving more cocaine, more drugs than thought, more languages involved
Now authorities are overwhelmed…
…by raw intelligence…
Here’s the Belgian crime journalist Joris van der Aa
JORIS – If you wanna read all the messages and explore all the evidence, they’ll need another hundred years.
How many crimes are hidden in the millions of messages?
More after the break.
A singer sits on a huge pile of chocolate beans…
She’s belting out…
I’m on an official tour of Amsterdam’s chocolate port.
It’s just a few warehouses along a wharf, where boats can dump their beans. It’s not much to look at –
But, just before my visit, cops seized a metric tonne of cocaine worth millions of euros, right here in the same spot.
Traffickers will use any option to get their cocaine to the streets of Europe.
One week, a container of chocolate might seem like the best bet.
Next week… it could be…
…a ton of fresh bananas.
In a globalized world where you can get anything you want, whenever you want… cocaine will always get through.
Just across the Belgian border in Antwerp, I meet Kristian Vanderwaeren.
He runs customs at one of the largest physical ports on the planet.
Kristian’s team has just seized…
…seven metric tonnes of cocaine, discovered inside several containers of wood from South America.
To him… it’s just a drop in a never-ending bucket…
KRISTIAN – They say seven tonnes. Who gives a shit about seven, seven tonnes? they produce more.
You really can’t blame Kristian for having a jaded view of this job…
20,000 containers come through his port every single day.
Scanning one is cumbersome.
Scanning every container is impossible.
KRISTIAN – We have always eight eyes who look to the container, the images and then decide is there something suspicious, yes or no, and then the drugs is taken out
Antwerp customs can only scan 2 percent of all the containers that arrive each day.
So the vast majority of cocaine manages to get through, and generates real cash that flows straight into Europe’s legitimate economy.
JAN – it’s like a cancer cell living in a healthy organism
That’s Jan Op Gen Oorth with Europol.
Thanks to the hacked phone messages, European police can see in intricate detail how this money goes from cocaine, to office buildings, lawyer fees, and accountant’s pockets.
JAN – And that’s also something we have underestimated – how much legal business structures are abused by organized crime networks.
Jan fears it’s corrupting the entire system.
JAN – so if you ask a question, what kind of effect has it on a society? a society that looks healthy from outside, but that’s rotten from inside. Organized crime groups with washed money are buying legal businesses, using them for further expanding the criminal networks.
This hidden world of cocaine ultimately feeds entire families, neighbourhoods, and communities…
WOUTER – you have to understand how many people eat their daily meals off of this. I mean, that’s a lot of people…
…who benefit, of this kind of organized crime.
That’s Wouter Laumans, the Dutch crime reporter
WOUTER – Corruption is the guy that works in the harbor, and he can, with one mous click, he can put a container, which has to be checked by customs from red to green, that’s corruption… The guy who hands out a fake passport to you, who’s working for the council. That’s the corruption you’re looking at, that’s how it’s like fungus in society
Such corruption links Taghi’s violence to broader Dutch society.
So… what do you do about it?
Some say legalizing cocaine is the only way to fight corruption. Here’s Alex Yearsley, an expert on money laundering around the world
ALEX – when it comes to narcotics, there is only one answer. We know what the answer is clearly, it’s legislation to legalize the sale and control of these substances…
…or maybe there’s a simpler way to shut down the trade.
BRS – if you’re using this stuff…
…realize that you’re supporting this trade. Realize that you’re supporting people getting killed in a crazy way by cartels, by Mafias here in Europe.
That’s Blackrockstar, a musician and activist you’ve heard in earlier episodes.
BRS – I work a lot with youths on the street, in and outside of prison… people don’t care. They’re like, I need some coke, let’s go.
In 2022, Europe set a record for…
…cocaine consumption, making it the largest market in the world.
More drugs means more money, and still more violence.
The day’s hearings have finished and the police speed Taghi back to his prison cell.
I sit down at a fried chicken shop near the Bunker to debrief with a producer…
But we soon notice someone’s…
…inching closer to us.
Mitch Tape: Yeah you know, it’s why this guy behind could be, like…
Maybe he’s listening.
Mitch Tape: you know what I mean? Like, it doesn’t hurt to be paranoid ever when it comes to stuff like this.
Maybe he’s a real threat?
Mitch Tape: Because it’s real, you know, it’s actually real.
Or have we just gotten paranoid from working on this story for so long?
Perhaps this is the real legacy of Riduoan Taghi.
So many people have been killed or traumatised.
Hamza, the white-shirted medical student in Morocco.
The daughter of Samir, who witnessed her father’s death, on the way to Quran class.
Peter De Vries
And Princess Amalia, still in her palace.
But Taghi’s violence is only one piece of this story.
Cocaine has taken advantage of the European political dream
JAN – the European idea of free trade, free travel of…
…people, free travel of goods. That’s an extremely positive, confident thought and political idea, believing in the good of the people, but it is abused
Since our interview, Crown Witness Nabil B’s lawyers, Peter Schouten and Onno de Jong, have both resigned from the case… without explanation.
Taghi’s lawyer, Inez Weski, has been jailed, suspected of passing messages from Taghi to his gang on the outside.
A verdict in the Marango trial isn’t expected until at least October 2023.
And just like Taghi replaced Scarface before him, a new kingpin will inevitably rise up. And the cycle will continue.
Thanks for listening.
Do you have stories or tips you’d like to share? Let us know at email@example.com
Leave us a rating and review… it helps others find our reporting.
GATEWAY is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX.
It’s reported and hosted by me – Mitchell Prothero.
Additional reporting and production by Dontxupinazo Productions
Editing and fact-checking by Georgia Gee.
Executive producers are Bradley Hope, Tom Wright and Nicholas Brennan.
Special thanks to Sarah Hurtes and the whole team at Project Brazen.