It is a criminal business on the rise.
The increase in the volume of cocaine sent from Latin America to the Netherlands, through the port of Rotterdam, has also increased the number of young people employed by criminal organizations to collect the drugs hidden in freight.
The BBC has seen the dangerous work of so-called “cocaine collectors”, who act as a link to drug supply chains in Europe.
The monitor shows a dozen dark figures running in line with military precision toward a cargo container in the port of Rotterdam.
The Colombian tropical fruit shipment may have already been unloaded, but this 12-meter-long metal box among the thousands of identical containers still has merchandise inside: 80 kilos of cocaine hidden in a refrigerator, with a market value of around 4 million euros (US $ 4.52 million).
The mission of the collectors is to remove the drug from the container and away from the docks. Then it will be sent to European capitals such as Amsterdam, Berlin or London.
“The port is a gold mine,” says a hooded man when interviewed by journalist Danny Ghosen on the Dutch network VPRO.
“I can earn good money close to home … and there is always work.”
He is one of the youths employed by powerful criminal gangs.
“Every assignment is different,” he says. “A boss tells you ‘you are going to earn so much to distribute’; others say ‘you will keep part of the drug to sell it yourselves’ ”.
2,000 euros per kilo
A collector can earn around 2,000 euros (US $ 2,260) for every kilo of cocaine they unload. And business is on the rise.
“We discovered them about two years ago,” says Andre Kramer, owner of a logistics company in the port.
“There was one or maybe two and you saw them a couple of times a year. But in the last six months the groups have grown. There are 10 or 12 people and they act 3 or 4 times a week ”.
The increase in traffic is making the collectors’ methods more sophisticated.
Sometimes, they don’t take the cocaine out of the port, but instead transfer it to another container designated by the gangs with the help of someone from within.. The merchandise will then leave the port area in a truck. At other times, gangs wait inside the port for drug shipments.
“We recently found three hotel containers,” says Kramer. “Collectors can spend days there. They eat, drink and relieve themselves inside. We found mattresses, empty water bottles and food containers.
But hiding in a container waiting for the path to clear can be extremely dangerous.
In early September, nine youths were trapped after the door of the container in which they were hiding was jammed, partly filled with logs.
“If you enclose yourself with things like wood or fruit, which consume oxygen, there will be less air for the people inside,” explains Jan Janse, head of the Rotterdam port police.
Although the bands usually make sure that the containers can be opened from the inside, this time something went wrong and the collectors were trapped.
In the midst of the panic, the collectors called 112 for help.
“We had this information that nine people were going to die in a container, but in a terminal with 100,000 containers, and the collectors themselves did not know exactly where they were,” says Janse.
“We had to search all the facilities, with helicopters, a lot of police, customs agents, firefighters and ambulances. They were lucky that we found them in time ”.
It took 4 hours to find them. Some of the men had to be hospitalized for breathing difficulties. For security reasons, Janse, who has been the port police chief for seven years, prefers not to reveal how they found the collectors.
“Let’s leave it up to us to do some smart things,” he says.
Business on the rise
In 2014 the authorities intercepted more than 5,000 kilos of cocaine at the port. By 2020 that figure had grown to 41,000 kilos.
“We estimate that this year there will be 60,000,” predicts Janse. “Every year we break the record. I am not proud. It’s okay that we apprehend cocaine, but a huge amount arrives. “
And what is discovered in the port represents only a small part of this illicit traffic.
In September, 110 pickers were caught in the port area in just one week. But unless they get caught red-handed, the only risk for them is a fine of less than 100 euros ($ 113). Some carry the cash to pay instantly in case they get caught.
“We say that we are taking a walk, that we are fascinated by the contestants,” confesses the young man who lives off unloading the drug that arrives.
At 42 kilometers long, Rotterdam is the largest seaport in Europe. More than 23,000 cargo containers are processed here every day.
There is something essential for the cocaine collectors and drug trafficking networks that arrive here: corruption.
“If you come here tomorrow, I guarantee you can get one of the security passes. Just tell a worker that you will pay him 500 euros (US $ 565) if he lends him his, ”says the drug collector.
“It is difficult to do our job without someone on the inside, like a customs agent. It may take off the list a container that needed to be inspected. “
With those who refuse to cooperate, the collectors use intimidation.
“When a customs agent says no, you threaten your children. Then he says yes very quickly ”, says the hooded young man.
Kramer assures that his employees are under pressure because they are in the sight of those who work for organized crime.
“There are people who have been approached at home to tell them to place containers in a specific place, like next to a fence,” he says. “And I’ve had people quit. They don’t want to work here anymore; they’re scared”.
Rotterdam’s chief prosecutor Hugo Hillenaar is familiar with these stories.
“Much of the crime in the city is related to the drug problem on the docks,” he says. “We have a shooting almost every day. Violence is increasing ”.
And the bloody repercussions of the cocaine trade across the country are also increasing, including the broad daylight murder in Amsterdam of Peter R de Vries, the most famous Dutch investigative journalist.
“The mafias are very well organized. They have their CEO, their human resources, staff and recruiters ”, says Nadia Barquioua, founder of JOZ, a youth support organization.
JOZ works on the south bank of Rotterdam, one of the poorest urban areas in the country and home to many of the drug collectors. More than a quarter of its population is under 23 years old and more than half is of immigrant origin.
In the 1960s and 1970s, migrants settled here attracted by job opportunities at the port. But when industrial activity shifted west and work here ended, those who could afford it left, leaving a neighborhood in which many households are now low-income.
JOZ targets schools, clubs, and community centers in an attempt to keep young people away from crime.
“We must teach them that earning money in a normal way is much safer and that they have opportunities in the city,” explains Barquioua.
“It is easier to raise happy children than to straighten out broken men.”
And in the port of Rotterdam there are more and more drug collectors.
“We have 14- and 15-year-olds doing that job and that’s worrying,” Hillenaar says. “They are getting younger and younger.”
Now that Christmas is approaching and the city is talking of a “white Christmas”, not precisely because of the snow, Hillenaar has a message for cocaine users.
“Every day 40,000 lines of cocaine are snorted in the city. Every line that you sniff has a history of extortion, violence and death behind it ”.
The prosecutor is confident that a legal change that is planned for 2022 will serve as a deterrent for collectors.
It dispenses with fines and imposes a prison sentence of up to one year on any unauthorized person in the port area. But, given the large amounts of cash that can be earned as a collector, not everyone is convinced that it will work.
“Honestly, I don’t think the arrival of drugs into the port of Rotterdam is going to stop,” says Kramer.
It is also concerned that increasing punishment and threatening prison terms could lead to increased violence.
“Today the gatherers are quietly retreating. But it’s going to be tough when they use knives, guns, or whatever to escape. We don’t want that kind of Wild West in our terminal. ”
For some young people, the risk of ending up in jail can make them think twice about donning dark garbage collectors’ clothing and sneaking into container yards. But given how much is offered, others will not be so easily deterred. They know that they are a vital link in the chain of the drug trafficking business to Europe. And that business has no signs of selling out anytime soon.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.