Speech Gerrit van der Burg on the occasion of IDEC 35
Speech Gerrit van der Burg, Chair of the Board of Procurators General of the Netherlands, on the occasion of IDEC 35, 10 April 2018.
‘Everyone has a price, the important thing is to find out what it is.’ A quote attributed to Pablo Escobar, the biggest Colombian drug lord of the twentieth century. A quote which, as I see it, concisely illustrates one of the main dangers of the drug trade: criminals can make such enormous profits that it is worth their while investing money for the purpose of corruption and intimidation. Pablo Escobar is no longer with us, but the drug trade and drug use are here to stay: it is impossible to imagine a world without them. Where there is a demand, there will be supply, as one of the basic rules of economics goes. It would be Utopian to believe that we can find a definitive solution to the problems this situation entails. But it is our job – as public prosecutors and police officers involved in fighting drug crime – to do everything in our power to keep these problems in check.
Economy of drugs
Everything wasn’t really better in the past, but it was sometimes clearer. This also goes for the organisation of the drug trade, for instance: clear structures, with at the top of the pyramid a boss – the Pablos of this world –, below that the middle management, and finally a large group of people doing the donkey work. In the Netherlands in recent years we’ve noticed a shift in drug trafficking organisations from pyramidal structures to more fluid, ad-hoc networks. Criminals operating as individuals decide per drug job who and what they need in order to make it a success. Crime as a service on a industrial scale. What complicates matters further still is that in the world of these criminals everything revolves around shielding the four ‘i’s: information, identity, illegal assets and proceeds, and illegal commodities. Unfortunately it is becoming more and more common for criminals to make use of individuals and companies from legitimate society. Civil servants, service companies, and customs officers, for instance are paid large sums of money for their assistance to criminal activities. This sort of undermining crime leads to an undesirable mingling of the criminal underground with the “upper world” of legitimate circles, which severely weakens our society. Without wanting to play down the complexity of drug crime that undermines society, in the end it all basically comes down to one thing: money. I am extremely concerned about the large sums of money that criminal drug gangs spend on bribery. And subsequently: where does that criminal money go once it has made its way into legitimate society? We don’t yet know enough about that. Do you have any idea of the annual global turnover in the drug trade, and how much of that money we – the people who combat this crime – manage to confiscate? Recent research from Europol has shown that of the 110 billion euros of criminal revenue generated in Europe, a mere 2% is confiscated by the authorities. A drop of water in the ocean. So my advice is little more than common sense: Follow the money! That is the crux, and that’s where we can make a difference. So I call on us all to invest more in tracing the money flows of these organised crime groups.
Integral and criminal-law approach
Part of the global drug-related turnover is generated in the Netherlands. Even though in this country drug use is relatively low and the associated problems are limited, for years now the Netherlands has been a popular country for the production and transit of drugs. Small country, big impact? In this area, yes, unfortunately. But when you think about it, it’s not so strange that the drug gangs are so interested in a small country like the Netherlands: we have an unparalleled logistical infrastructure – both physical and digital –, and Europe’s number one seaport. Once you realize that the port of Rotterdam handles four million incoming containers per year – that’s eight containers per minute, every minute of the year –, then you’ll understand how such a relatively large quantity of drugs can occasionally make its way through unnoticed.
This great interest in the Netherlands from the drugs world means we as authorities are extra motivated to tackle drug trafficking. And we do a lot. Apprehending criminals, confiscating criminal proceeds, and making society safer. Partners such as the police, municipal governments, the customs service, and the tax authorities analyse the problems together and decide on the best approach. The role of the prosecution service in this is clear: to pick out the most serious cases of drug crime and bring the offenders to justice, so that they get the punishment they deserve and – for the safety of society – are locked up, preferably for a good long time. The rightful place for criminals in this line of business is behind bars. Last year we carried out 777 drugs investigations, leading to the sentencing of 333 offenders to a total of 611 years imprisonment between them. But we’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.
Despite all these satisfying convictions, suspects of drug crimes still often have to wait too long before their case comes to court. We have to speed up this process.
We can and should do more to isolate drug criminals from the oppressive criminal circles they are a part of. For this reason, the Public Prosecution Service advocates loosening the Dutch rules for becoming a cooperative witness and making optimal use of witness protection. The need for this, sadly, is illustrated by the murder of a crown-witness’ brother in a drug related case, last week in Amsterdam.
Lastly, the penalties for this sort of undermining drug crime must be increased considerably.
It is essential to raise the sentencing guidelines for organised international drug trafficking. The destabilising effect of this type of crime on our economy, health, and democracy more than justifies increasing the penalties. The maximum sentences the law permits for such offences – 12 to 16 years – will need to be sought and imposed more often than in the past, and we are resolved to do this.
So there’s already a lot going on at the national level. But as we all know, drugs are seldom used in the place where they are produced. Modern drug criminals, operating at the international level, are constantly on the lookout for opportunities all over the world to further their criminal enterprises they need. One country is suited well for production, another for logistics, and yet another for money laundering. Certainly now that the digital revolution has made the world a smaller place, this international problem calls for international solutions. To combat organised crime, we need not only organised local government, but also organised global cooperation. So in this context I would like to compliment the DEA on the unique nature of this conference that has such a long and impressive tradition. A wonderful opportunity to get into conversation with our fellow drug-crime fighters all over the world, to learn from one another, and to boost and intensify cooperation between our countries.
We see more and more good examples of existing cooperation in the field of fighting drug crime.
In China, for instance, we have an important partner in the fight against synthetic drugs. We share a great deal of information about matters such as drug precursors that are shipped from China to Europe. China is quick to recognise new drugs and to respond to them with prohibition. Closer to home, I can mention our cooperation with our neighbour Belgium. We have extremely close contacts with the Belgian police and public prosecution service, and by now it really makes very little difference whether a container full of drugs arrives in the port of Rotterdam or the port of Antwerp.
If we wish to improve on this already excellent cooperation, the crucial thing is innovation. And this is where new technology can come to our aid. Today crime changes shape and content more and more rapidly due to developments such as internationalisation, digitisation, big data, information technology, and the emergence of more complex networks. This puts enormous strains on the capacity of the investigative services. The exponential growth in data, the advances in encryption, and the disappearance of geographical borders all add up to an enormous challenge for law enforcement.
One good example in which digital innovation and international cooperation played a major role was the Ennetcom case, which the minister just referenced. The Dutch company Ennetcom ran computer servers in Canada full of encrypted telecommunications data, which was presumed to include a great deal of evidence of crime. Once the servers had been located in Canada, the court permitted us to seize 7 terabytes of encrypted data for investigation. We managed to decrypt it, which gave us access to the entire communications of several criminals and their networks. This provided a great deal of new evidence for many ongoing investigations and we were able to bring many criminal proceedings to a successful conclusion. This treasure trove of evidence sent shock waves through the criminal community.
As in the case of the Hansa market operation referenced to by my colleagues from the police, the criminals in question imagined themselves safe in the murky recesses of the internet, the dark web. Their trump card – the shielding of their identity and information, as I talked about earlier – had been prised out of their hands. Both of these cases will be discussed in detail at one of the workshops.
Innovation is one thing, but sharing our innovations is quite another. For us to get the better of cross-border drug crime, it is crucial that we share innovations with each other. To share among the public prosecution service and the police, security services, government services, and businesses, but also different countries. We have to dare to share, and dare to learn from one another by being open to each other’s findings. Only then can we stand up to the global operations of these vast drug organisations. Global organised cooperation, to allow us to profit fully from each other’s expertise, knowledge, and innovations. At the moment this is still far too often limited to ad-hoc teams, but the next step is to make these international teams a permanent fixture.
Furthermore, the public prosecution service is resolved to explore the full extent of the possibilities for confiscating the proceeds of crime. We support research into expanding the legal possibilities for confiscation, and here too it holds that this must be carried out on a large scale in an international setting. The proceeds of crime are invested all over the world, so confiscating these assets also calls for a joint effort, with harmonised legal possibilities for international seizure and confiscation. It is scarcely relevant in which country the criminal assets were confiscated; what matters is that the money is taken out of the hands of the criminals, because this will prevent further undermining effects in some country or other.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude. We have a drug problem, and it’s not going to go away. But luckily Pablo Escobar got it wrong: not everyone does have a price. And it is up to us to tackle that drug problem and consistently make it a little bit smaller. However, it’s only ever going to work if we intensify cooperation between all our countries and declare open season on drug money: the hunt is on! Our predecessors – who managed to topple Pablo Escobar all those years ago – have already shown us that nothing is impossible. Thank you all.