Erik de Jonge was trampling through the woods in Noord-Brabant in March 2021 when he noticed an unusual smell. The police had called the forest ranger out after finding a cocaine laboratory in an outbuilding in Halsteren. The shed had been built illegally and encroached on the boundary of the Brabants Landschap estate, so the police needed to identify whose land it was on.
Over the 20 years that De Jonge has worked his beat, drugs labs have become as much a part of the local landscape as pine trees and winding streams. But it wasn’t the lab itself that caught his attention. It wasn’t even the acrid stench of the chemicals used to purify the drugs. It was the direction the smell was coming from.
“I was walking back through the woods from the site to talk to the police when I noticed I could smell drug waste,” he says. “The only thing was, the wind was blowing towards the lab. So it wasn’t coming from there. I thought: that’s weird.”
De Jonge looked closely and saw a bundle of twigs on the ground. They came from hardwood trees, not the pine trees that stood in the forest. “They’d been sawn off, which meant someone had sawn up hardwood and laid it there. I kicked it with my boot and heard a hollow sound, so I moved the twigs and found a piece of carpet.”
Beneath the carpet was a wooden cover that had been nailed down. With the help of a police officer De Jonge wrenched open the cover to reveal a small hole covered by beams. “And below that there was a filthy grey pit with a layer of white foam on top,” he says. “And a great whiff of chemicals.”
Eight metres deep
What De Jonge had stumbled across was the largest drugs dump ever found in the Netherlands. The chemicals had penetrated to a depth of eight metres, contaminating the groundwater and killing everything in the soil. It took eight months to measure the extent of the damage and another two years to dig out some 2,500 m3 of soil – enough to fill 37 shipping containers. De Jonge supervised the felling of 400 trees. In November the provincial government in Noord-Brabant began a clean-up operation in three stages, the total cost of which is expected to run to millions of euros.
Once the contaminated soil has been removed, a soil air extraction system will be used to remove as much of the drugs waste as possible from deep underground. Finally, the polluted groundwater will need to be pumped out of the ground and purified, a phase that is due to begin in May.
“It’s difficult to know what the total cost will be because we’ve never had to deal with a waste site on this scale before,” says Hagar Roijackers, the provincial deputy responsible for nature and the environment. “But because we have to decontaminate the groundwater as well, it will probably be even higher than our original estimate.”
The chemicals were used to purify cocaine smuggled into the Netherlands by sea, typically from South America, after being mixed into products such as shampoo or toothpaste, or even ground into T-shirts. The drugs are extracted in laboratories using highly corrosive chemicals such as acetone, benzene, toluene and mineral oils, leaving behind pure cocaine that can be sold or exported. The waste products from the “washing” process then have to be disposed of.
De Jonge estimates that the pit had been used to dispose of drugs waste for at least two years. “When you pour in the waste it leaves a residue but the rest sinks into the ground. I could tell by the amount of residue that a huge amount must have been tipped into it. And we found two places where the soil was contaminated but no pit. So they were probably dumping barrels of waste in the woods at that spot for even longer, maybe three years.”
“Like a bomb”
The environmental cost is incalculable. “I liken it to a bomb going off,” says De Jonge. “The only thing is that you don’t see it. Everything in the ground is dead. And everything that grows above ground depends on the soil. But because this is a pine forest where the tree roots are only 40 centimetres deep, it would have taken years before anyone noticed it.”
The Brabantse Wal, which includes Halsteren, is a Natura 2000 conservation area. It is one of the few habitats in the Netherlands for birds such as the European honey buzzard, nightjar, little grebe and black woodpecker. “There are only a handful of breeding sites for the honey buzzard in the Brabantse Wal and now we have to cross one of them off,” De Jonge says. “It’s not there anymore.”
The forest will be replanted with new trees, but it will take decades for them to grow into a mature forest, and the rich variety of the soil can never be replicated. “A landscape is shaped by geology and generations of people using the land,” says Roijackers. “And now we have a huge crater in the middle of it that we’re having to dig out and refill. So there will be trees again, but the mineral trace elements and the seeds from all sorts of unique plants and species have gone, maybe for ever. What we’ll end up with is a newbuild development, a kind of Vinex woodland.”
De Jonge points out that drug waste always leaves a footprint. Small dump sites that were cleaned up a decade ago are still visible when the vegetation is scanned with a multi-spectrum camera. “This will always be a contaminated site,” he says. “The law sets limits on pollution, and we’re trying to bring it back down to those limits. The environmental experts have said we’ll never get it fully clean.”
Fifteen years ago De Jonge’s colleagues in Noord-Brabant would come across one or two drugs dump sites a year; today he estimates it to be closer to 30. “In the last five years we’ve seen them using other methods to dispose of the waste,” he says. “And where six barrels used to be a big load, if I find six barrels now that counts as a very small dump site.”
In the past large containers would be fly-tipped in rural lay-bys or woodlands, but criminals have expanded their repertoire to avoid detection. Last week two light container trucks loaded with jerrycans and boilers full of drug waste were found abandoned in a car park in Goirle, a satellite town of Tilburg.
Sometimes drugs containers are emptied directly into rivers or the sea. Since the discovery of the Halsteren pit, another four smaller sites have been discovered around Noord-Brabant. One one site on the Pater Taksweg in Rijsbergen, around 33,000 m3 of ground water was found to have been contaminated.
“It’s a cat and mouse game,” says Roijackers. “Unfortunately crime on this scale has become specialist work in all its aspects. It’s biochemical work and disposing of the raw materials is another branch of expertise. And they’re increasingly favouring this type of disposal because pouring it straight into the ground makes it harder to trace it back to the lab.”
The question of who pays for the clean-up is often a bone of contention. The decontamination of the site in Rijsbergen was stalled for four years after the landowner, Toon Francken, challenged the local council’s decision to hold him liable for the cost of the operation. Last June the Council of State ruled in favour of Francken’s family, a year after he died at the age of 91, meaning Zundert municipal council will have to foot the €70,000 bill.
Since 2021 landowners have been able to reclaim the expense through a subsidy distributed by BIJ12, an inter-provincial environment agency, up to a maximum of €200,000. Larger clean-ups, such as the pit in Halsteren, have to be funded by the provincial government. In theory it can try to recoup the money from the criminals, but in practice it can be difficult to establish where drug waste comes from and who is responsible for it.
“The problem is that drugs dumping is treated as a separate crime in the Netherlands,” says Toine Spapens, a professor of criminology at Tilburg University who specialises in subversive crime – the ways in which criminal gangs undermine the government.
“You can arrest someone who’s been paid €1,000 to dump a batch of containers by the roadside, but you can’t reclaim the costs of cleaning up the site from them. We’re looking at other methods, inspired a bit by Belgium, where waste dumping is seen as part of the production chain, so that you can hold the people who run the drugs labs responsible for the waste.”
The scale and sophistication of the illegal drug industry in the Netherlands far exceeds the authorities’ ability to control it. In 2023 police discovered 124 drugs labs, 19 more than in 2022 and just below the record of 129 set in 2020, when illicit drug production was one of many cottage industries that thrived during lockdown. Australia and the US are the most popular destinations for synthetic drugs from Brabant; in 2022 police intercepted 27,000 parcels of ecstasy and MDMA that had been sent by post.
Freek Pecht, co-ordinator of the police synthetic drugs specialist unit for Zeeland and West-Brabant, says the Netherlands has become one of the biggest production centres of illicit drugs in Europe. Chemicals are imported across open borders from other Schengen countries, such as Poland, where licensing is less stringent, while the raw narcotics come in through the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. When laboratories are raided in Germany and Belgium, investigators often find Dutch nationals working in them, Pecht says.
“They’ve developed their knowledge and expertise in the last few decades. They can get hold of materials such as vats that are specifically designed to manufacture synthetic drugs. And what we hear from drugs criminals when we interview them is that the Netherlands is the country that imposes the lowest sentences, so it’s better to be caught here than somewhere like France.”
But drugs producers are constantly on the move, trying to stay ahead of the police’s efforts to track them down. “We’re dependent on chance discoveries,” Pecht says. “The production process has a huge number of component parts, and the last stage is the part where they physically dispose of the waste. So when we find a drugs lab which has been used for production, we’ll see an enormous quantity of drug waste, but the really valuable items that we really want to take out of circulation have been transferred to the next location.”
Nor do they confine themselves to rural areas. Industrial estates, where drug containers blend in with the constant traffic of delivery lorries, are popular locations. And police suspect that an explosion that destroyed a block of flats in Rotterdam in early February, killing three people, happened in a lock-up store that was being used as a drugs lab.
Needle in a haystack
“The problem is that you can set up a lab just about anywhere,” says De Jonge. “It’s not just rickety old sheds. We’ve found them behind country houses and in highly modern farm buildings. There are thousands of these sites all over Brabant. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
One game changer for the police has been the successful infiltration of encrypted messaging networks such as Encrochat, which were used extensively by underground networks. The dismantling of Encrochat in 2020 by a Dutch-French joint investigation team has led to more than 7,500 arrests and the seizure of nearly €900 million in cash and assets funded by drug trafficking.
“It’s made us much more effective at detection and given us an overview of all the participants in this criminal enterprise,” Pecht says. “But we’re still dependent on tips and information coming in from our own sources. Since the crypto-communication networks were dismantled new criminals have appeared and new incidents have happened that we need to respond to. And people living in rural areas are much more likely to see that than a police patrol that happens to be passing by.”
The rural police presence has dwindled in recent decades. Between 1993 and 2019 the number of police stations across the province declined from 62 to 23, some of which are only accessible by appointment.
“We used to have veldwachters [village constables],” says Roijackers. “But when the national police force was formed it concentrated its resources on direct threats to people’s safety, which prioritised urban areas. I understand it, but at the same time it means that outdoor areas are very lightly staffed, shall we say, when it comes to the police.”
The fusion of municipal police forces with the Rijkspolitie, or state police, in 1994, has effectively left rural areas at the mercy of criminal gangs, says Rolf Overdiep, who chairs the association of nature inspectors KNVVN. He previously worked with the armed state police teams patrolled the countryside and knew the area like the back of their hand. “All that fell away and was forgotten about,” Overdiep says. “Politicians talk about crime in rural areas, where we were their eyes and ears, but they closed our eyes and took away our weapons. It’s plain stupid.”
KNVVN inspectors, known colloquially as “green wardens”, still go out into rural areas at night, but they no longer form part of the police force. If they do catch poachers or drugs criminals in the act, they can detain them but have to hope there are police are on hand to perform an arrest. “In general terms the co-operation is very poor,” says Overdiep. “But the police need us. We are the only ones with vehicles that are equipped to go off the beaten track.
“We drive around 24/7 and we see when a farm is empty or there are vehicles in the wrong place. The police need to get off their high horse and accept that things aren’t going well. We’ve abandoned the countryside to those who prowl at night. It’s being stripped bare.”
Overdiep says his teams should be brought back within the police command structure so they have the resources they need to patrol rural areas, such as weapons, handcuffs and walkie-talkies. Pecht accepts that more streamlined communication would benefit both sides, but sees no prospect of the green wardens and the police joining forces.
“We go through phases in the police of centralising and decentralising,” he says. “We could have a separate regional team for this type of drug crime, with a central contact person for external agencies like rangers and water boards so they don’t have to call the main police number without knowing who’s on the other end of the line. But that would mean organizing things less centrally, whereas the tendency in the national police force at the moment is towards more centralisation.”
Regional intelligence and expertise centres known as RIECs allow the police to pool resources with other agencies, such as local councils and the tax office, and look for signs of criminal activity. The information gathered by RIECs also helps them pinpoint potential weak spots that criminals could exploit and take pro-active steps to get in first.
“In our RIEC we work a lot with the local farming and horticulture association ZLTO,” says Pecht. “So we might go to a farmer and say: we see your farm’s been up for sale for a year. Be aware that criminals are very interested in renting these kinds of locations short-term. They set up a drugs lab and make a lot of money in a short time, but they leave behind a lot of mess and misery, and the owners are left with the cost of clearing it up and all the trouble from the police, the council and the tax office that goes with that.”
The province has set up the network Samen Sterk in Brabant (SSIB), or ‘strong together in Brabant’, to encourage the public to be more active in notifying the authorities of suspicious behaviour. An anonymous hotline allows people to report signs of drugs dumping or other offences, such as poaching or using off-road vehicles in conservation areas.
Apps such as BuitenBeter give people the option of alerting the local authorities by text message. Extra inspectors and wardens have been employed to keep watch in rural areas and process the information, but Roijackers says the input of residents is essential too.
“Nobody should be under any illusion that we can prevent drug production altogether, because it keeps moving on,” she says. “At the same time I think there’s a lot to gain if we increase people’s watchfulness and willingness to report what they see. Of course criminals are going to produce and dispose of drugs where they’re least likely to be caught. But these are also places where people live and work and spend their leisure time. I think that’s the key to solving this.”
Lack of trust
But Spapens doubts whether raising awareness will lead to more people coming forward. “We have done research which shows that encouraging people in rural areas to report things is much less effective than actively trying to gather the information yourself,” he says. “The government, neighbourhood police officers and council workers need to make contact with the community. Once you’ve built up a bit of trust people turn out to have seen all kinds of things that for various reasons they didn’t report.”
De Jonge says the lack of contact with the authorities has deepened a deep-rooted mood of distrust in the government. “Lots of people are happy to look the other way, or facilitate it. In the last few years that anti-government sentiment has got a lot worse. There are people living round here who knew about the drugs lab but never said anything.”
Nevertheless, Roijackers believes the public can make a difference. “I think we all agree that we want to make Brabant safer and prevent it being damaged and our tax money being wasted,” she says. “And we don’t want to jeopardise the water that we drink.
“If it’s a cat and mouse game between criminals on the one hand and our police capacity on the other, we’ll lose. But if we can make the whole of society in Brabant our eyes and ears and everyone is prepared to report anything that makes them feel uneasy, we’re much stronger.”
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