2021-09-30 19:21:11 Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, Gets Extra Security

Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, Gets Extra Security

THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS — For years, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has cycled or walked to his city-center office, commuting to work like millions of other Dutch people and avoiding the large security details that surround other world leaders.

So a report in a Dutch newspaper this week that the police had increased security around Mr. Rutte following suspicious movements around him by people suspected of being connected to the country’s notorious drug gangs has alarmed many in the Netherlands.

The authorities have refused to confirm the report in the newspaper De Telegraaf, and it is unclear whether Mr. Rutte has been ordered to stop cycling to work.

Mr. Rutte told reporters, “We never say anything about safety and security.”

However, a police official and a senior Dutch government official, both speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Mr. Rutte’s security had been a source of concern. They declined to provide specifics, citing safety concerns, but the police official stated that the security concerns were related to people involved in organized crime, and that new measures to protect him were put in place earlier this month.

Nobody denies that organized crime has a presence in the Netherlands. The country serves as a transit point for cocaine from South America to Europe. In recent years, authorities have blamed organized crime for two high-profile killings, most recently the fatal shooting of Peter R. de Vries, a prominent crime reporter.

But now the question is whether the country’s prime minister is also a target for gangsters. Opinions differ on this point.

“After the murder of Peter R. de Vries, the Dutch lost their innocence against organized crime,” said Michel Oz, a police officer and representative of the Dutch Police Association. He claimed that the threats against the prime minister demonstrated that organized crime syndicates “want to signal that they’re above the law.”

Others argue that, while drug-trafficking gangs have become more willing to attack outsiders, the victims have been people they perceive as direct threats to their operations, such as crime reporters or lawyers, rather than politicians.

According to Damian Zaitch, a criminology professor at Utrecht University who has conducted extensive research on the Dutch drug trade, the gangs had little to gain by targeting the prime minister.

“There is more violence from drug traffickers, who used to kill each other and have now spread to the outer circles — families, lawyers,” Mr. Zaitch explained. “However, are drug traffickers targeting politicians? “And for what?”

What is clear is that the escalation of violence associated with the drug trade in the Netherlands has become a source of increasing concern for authorities.

A series of police operations since last year have also shed light on the Netherlands’ central role in Europe’s drug trade, which Europol described in a report this month as the continent’s “staging point for cocaine trafficking.” The Netherlands is also a hotspot for illegal amphetamine and crystal meth production.

Mr. Rutte’s government announced earlier this month that it would devote an additional 430 million euros, or approximately $500 million, to the fight against organized crime in the coming year.

Nonetheless, the Netherlands’ homicide rate of 0.6 per 100,000 people is well below the average of most developed countries and in line with its European neighbors.

“The highly publicized murders make the situation spectacular,” Dina Siegel-Rozenblit, a criminology professor at Utrecht University, said. “But, contrary to popular belief in the Netherlands, we are not in a narco-state.”

Mr. Rutte has been seen in public without a visible security presence this week, which may be a reflection of this.

Peter Pronk, the manager of a fish shop near The Hague’s Parliament and government offices, said he saw Mr. Rutte walk to work last week and saw no extra security.

“He had his briefcase and a cup of coffee, just like many of us — except he was asked to take a selfie at the gate,” Mr. Pronk explained.

To add to the confusion, prosecutors in The Hague announced on Sunday that they had arrested a local councilor for “suspicious behavior” involving Mr. Rutte. Despite the fact that they did not link it to the threat reported in the Dutch newspaper, the arrest sparked speculation that it was related.

According to his lawyer, Anis Boumanjal, the councilor, Arnoud van Doorn, was released on Monday. Mr. van Doorn was spotted on Sunday in places where Mr. Rutte was a regular, but it was a coincidence. Mr. van Doorn is no longer a suspect, and the case against him has been dropped, according to Mr. Boumanjal on Wednesday.

For years, rival drug gangs have carried out kidnappings and sporadic shootings in major Dutch cities, but recent violence has taken things to a new level, culminating in July with the shooting of Mr. de Vries as he walked out of a TV studio.

Mr. de Vries also advised a key witness in an ongoing trial in which 17 people, including Ridouan Taghi, the suspected ringleader of a drug trafficking organization, are accused of killings and attempted murders between 2015 and 2017.

Mr. de Vries was assassinated shortly after Derk Wiersum, a lawyer for the same witness, was assassinated in Amsterdam in 2019. In 2018, the witness’s brother was assassinated.

“The threshold to commit a liquidation appears to be lower today than it was previously,” prosecutors said, describing the killings as part of a “well-oiled killing machine.”

The Dutch police have dismantled several cocaine production laboratories, arrested dozens of suspects, and seized record amounts of cocaine in operations launched last year.

Part of the reason for the increase in drug trafficking through the Netherlands is that traffickers in Latin America primarily use shipping containers to deliver cocaine to Europe, giving Rotterdam, the continent’s largest seaport, as well as other major container ports like Antwerp in Belgium and Hamburg in Germany, a critical role.

“Cocaine travels with bananas and coffee, just as traditional Latin American goods come through ports in northern Europe,” said Letizia Paoli, a criminology professor at K.U. Leuven in Belgium.

Europol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warn that Europe’s thriving cocaine market, which is more lucrative than the US market, has resulted in an increase in assassinations, shootings, kidnappings, and torture, among other crimes.

According to analysts, this has put law enforcement officials in the Netherlands on edge.

“Everyone in Dutch law enforcement is wondering where this will end and how this will evolve,” said Jan Meeus, a crime reporter for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad who covers drug trafficking in the country.

From London, Michael Schwirtz and Claire Moses contributed reporting.

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Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, Gets Extra Security