The boat looked like any other Dutch barge, sitting idly in the port of Moerdijk in West Brabant, southern Holland.
But last May, during a routine search of the vessel, police found it contained a large floating crystal meth lab, and seized methamphetamine oil with a street value of more than €4.5m ($4.86m). As night fell, triggered by what police think was a remote controlled booby-trap, the boat began to take on water and sink.
Stranger still, alongside the ship’s 65-year-old captain, from nearby Breda, police arrested three Mexican nationals, suspected cartel operatives, who in March were each jailed for four years.
A VICE investigation into this mysterious incident has revealed a new and rapidly evolving Dutch meth trade and evidence of collusion between Mexican and Dutch organized crime groups to produce and traffic high quality meth to Asia and Australasia.
In Europe, since the 1980s, methamphetamine has traditionally been made and consumed in eastern Europe, most significantly in the Czech Republic. Until 2016 police had busted just three meth labs in Holland. Yet in the last three years they have busted 27.
Holland’s rising meth producing industry is notable for its links with Mexican criminals. Of the nine large meth lab busts in Holland last year, three involved Mexican accomplices. On Sunday, Dutch police raided a vast lab in a barn in the eastern town of Achter-Drempt, seizing what police said was €10m ($10.8m) worth of crystal meth and precursor chemicals from a lab operating at “full production.” Three people, a Mexican, a Colombian, and an American were arrested.
Dutch police said they are monitoring co-operation between Mexican and Dutch criminals in both the synthesis of Dutch meth and the conversion of imported Mexican meth by Dutch chemists for onward export to more lucrative markets, such as Japan and Australia.
“As well as being a producer country of meth, the Netherlands are now also a transhipment country,” an anonymous drug lab specialist in the Dutch police told VICE. “The meth is being produced and crystallized here, then being exported to the south and east of Europe, and to Australia and New Zealand.”
The source said Dutch crime gangs, which already produce and export huge quantities of MDMA, weed, LSD and amphetamines around the world, are utilizing existing labs, trafficking routes and infrastructures to smuggle meth to the other side of the world. He said there had been numerous seizures of shipments of Dutch-made meth en route to supply meth markets in Australasia.
It is a simple step to change an MDMA or amphetamine lab into a meth lab, said Guy Jones, a chemist at reagent-tests.uk. “A lab capable of producing MDMA or amphetamine would already have all the equipment and expertise and would already have all the equipment and expertise needed. They would just need the precursors,” he said.
But the Dutch are now making an elite form of meth, with the help of Mexican gangs. In the cartel superlabs in Mexico, cooks use a precursor called BMK, imported by the boatload from China, to make an easily made, less potent form of meth. But Mexican cooks have perfected a new step that converts the waste materials from making this meth into a more potent, addictive, crystalline type of meth called “d-meth.” Evidence of this technique has been found at all the Dutch sites where Mexican accomplices have been captured, enabling the export of huge crystals into the highest-paying markets.
The burgeoning meth industry in Holland is seeping into its urban landscape. In one recent lab raid, on 12 March in Zaandam, just 11km (seven miles) from Amsterdam's central train station, police dismantled a lab in a domestic home containing nearly 50kg of meth and 9kg of MDMA – a relatively small bust, but one notable for its urban location. Dutch drug labs normally operate in the south of the country, close to supply chains in and out of the country via the busy Belgian port of Antwerp. The mayor of Zaandam, Jan Hamming, told reporters: “That such a find takes place in the middle of our city says enough: things like this happen everywhere and are closer than many people think. The time of looking away is over, it is now time to tackle [this].”
As well as its emergence as a new meth manufacturing hotspot, Holland is now a center for the refinement and recrystallization of Mexican meth, said Andrew Cunningham, a synthetic drugs expert at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). In a report into the European drugs market last year, the EMCDDA warned there was growing evidence to show that Europe was emerging as “a global supplier” of meth.
“We think there is collusion between the Dutch and Mexican chemists to process crystals into very large forms, which command a higher price [in Asia and Australasia]. There are single meth crystals I've seen, of the reprocessed stuff, that are the length of your arm. The bigger these crystals are, the more valuable they are,” said Cunningham.
In May 2019, Rotterdam police made what is thought to be the largest ever seizure of methamphetamine in Europe, when 2,500kg (5,511lbs) of the drug was found in a warehouse, with Mexican involvement suspected. But these drugs were not made in Holland, they were imported to be refined and converted for sale elsewhere.
“The shipment arrived in the Netherlands via Spain, but the involvement of Mexican nationals … in the production and trafficking is suspected. The premises where the methamphetamine was seized are linked to companies registered in Spain and Mexico,” said the EMCDDA in December.
But why are Mexican crime gangs getting involved in the new Dutch meth trade? Observers believe that as well as providing the Dutch with meth, they have been teaching them how to produce and refine it. In return, the Mexicans are using Dutch trafficking routes to increase their profits from markets in Asia and Australasia dominated by producers and traffickers from the Golden Triangle.
Cunningham said that the high prices that meth commands in eastern markets are the principle driver for this. “Meth costs €15,500 per kilo in the Netherlands, €32-72,000 per kilo in Japan and €55,000-190,000 per kilo in Australia. It is possible that Mexican exporters are now looking to compete with southeast Asian producers.”
The new Dutch-Mexican meth nexus is yet another worrying development for those charged with keeping a lid on our increasingly globalized drug world. “The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is concerned about developments in the Dutch meth industry because we see it having an impact far beyond Europe,” said Martin Raithelhuber, the UNODC’s synthetic drugs expert. “We're clearly not talking about a small-scale industry catering for local demand. It is an industry that is geared towards expansion and export markets, targeting Australia and East Asia, where you have the highest prices for meth in the world.”
Raithelhuber said in some parts of Australia and East Asia crystal meth is sold at $300 a gram at street level, compared to an average of $50 a gram in the U.S. “These are prices you cannot achieve in Europe, where it is a niche drug,” he said.
Dutch scientists who analyze wastewater for meth metabolites say although use has quadrupled there since 2012, the drug is still a niche choice, mainly used in the chemsex party scene. Erik Emke of KWR, a Dutch drugs wastewater analysis agency, estimates that just 23kg of meth were used in 2019 in Amsterdam and Utrecht combined.
Even so, there is concern among global observers that because of increased difficulty trafficking drugs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and because the wholesale price of MDMA is at historic lows, Dutch meth makers may turn their sights closer to home. “Is this new methamphetamine industry in the heart of Europe sitting on a large amount of product that they cannot now export?” said Raithelhuber. “What will they do next? I see a new risk. If they can no longer reach the usual markets far away, will they turn to markets close by? That's something we need to watch very closely.”
UK-based dark web dealers are offering meth for as little as £40 a gram – half, or even a third of its price a decade ago. It is too early to say why this is, but it could be connected to the recent increased output of Dutch labs. One Dutch dark web user, Peter, a student in his 20s, told VICE he had just tried meth as it was available locally for the first time, and was cheaper than ever. He wanted to see if the hype – good and bad – about the drug was true.
“On the dark web, you used to find it for 80 euros. It was shipped from Mexico, the U.S. or the Czech Republic. But suddenly there was meth being shipped from the Netherlands, and it was half the price.” He bought half a gram and after a 30mg dose, Peter found his productivity boosted. “I worked for hours on end on unfinished essays, research and admin,” he said. He then got distracted and spent the rest of the night watching porn, awaking to a long-lasting existential hangover.
“What scared me most was that these feelings didn’t subside until after two weeks had passed. The thought constantly came to mind: ‘If I just took a bit of meth … then I would feel okay again.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.