Did “cocaine baron” Ridouan Taghi commission a hit job on Dutch star reporter Peter R. de Vries? The assassination attempt casts new light on the power of drug gangs in the Netherlands.
Investigators believe the Dutchman with Moroccan roots was involved in the cocaine trade, and that he rose to become one of the country’s biggest smugglers. Taghi has been in prison since December 2019, and for years, he has been considered “public enemy No. 1” in the Netherlands. Prosecutors accuse him of having run his criminal organization “like a well-oiled machine.”
But the killings believed to be linked to Taghi didn’t stop with his arrest. DER SPIEGEL 28/2021
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 28/2021 (September 9th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
On Tuesday evening, Peter R. de Vries, the country’s most famous journalist, left a television studio in downtown Amsterdam, where he had appeared at 6:30 p.m. on a show called “RTL Boulevard.” De Vries walked down Lange Leidsedwarstraat toward the public parking lot where he had left his car. Then shots rang out. According to media reports, five bullets were fired at de Vries, with one hitting him in the head. He collapsed and lay motionless on the ground. De Vries is still fighting for his life in the hospital.
The attack on the reporter shocked the Netherlands. The Dutch see their country as open and liberal – and not as the kind of place where journalists must fear for their lives. Politicians and reporters in the country view the attack on de Vries as one against the rule of law. And many suspect that “cocaine baron” Ridouan Taghi, a man who has long made a mockery of that rule of law, is behind the attack.
He and de Vries and Taghi are opponents in the Netherlands’ most high-profile drug trial. In addition to being an experienced crime journalist, de Vries also works as a TV host and a media consultant. At the time of his shooting, he had been working with a man named Nabil B., a former accomplice of Taghi’s. In the past, B. had organized getaway cars for the drug lord – but when an attempted murder went wrong, B., fearing for his life, turned himself into the police. Now, he wants to testify against Taghi in court.
The attack on the reporter could be a message from the underworld, an attempt to intimidate Nabil B., the key witness.
Many people in the Netherlands were deeply shaken the day after the attack, but also angry that an act like this was even possible. Many are now calling for tougher measures in the fight against the drug mafia. And more security for the journalists covering their crimes.
Amsterdam residents have laid down a sea of flowers at the narrow street where the crime happened, along with a jersey from Ajax Amsterdam, de Vries’ favorite football club, and one of his books, with a strip of masking tape on its cover scrawled with the word “Hero!”
Crime reporter Peter de Vries: When investigators gave up, he stepped in. Foto: Dingena Mol / HH / laif
Mothers pass by with their daughters. An Uber Eats courier pauses reverently at the site. People quietly step up to a barrier, someone can be heard sobbing.
“I heard the bang and immediately turned around,” says Bas Jansen, describing the moment of the attack. Jansen operates one of the many restaurants on the street. The restaurateur asked that his real name not be printed out of fear that the killer or his accomplices might go after possible witnesses.
“I saw a man fall over in the distance,” Jansen says. It was only when he got closer that he realized it was de Vries, who had often passed his business. “His face was covered in blood,” the restaurateur says. “De Vries was lying completely lifeless on the ground.”
Milan, a young man with skinny jeans and an undercut, has come to lay a bouquet of flowers with a friend. He wants to send a message. “Everyone in the Netherlands knew de Vries,” he says. “It was a shock.”
De Vries became famous by working on cold cases that remained unsolved by police. When investigators gave up, de Vries would step in and start researching. He solved several. Among other achievements, he helped convict the killer of Nicky Verstappen, a boy who had been sexually abused and murdered.
His work on those cases made de Vries famous in the Netherlands, where he could be seen on TV almost every week. Over the years, he increasingly began switching roles, and began working as an adviser to athletes and as a confidant to witnesses wanting to testify against gangster bosses. People like Nabil B., who stood up to “cocaine baron” Taghi.
The day after the crime, Taghi’s lawyer denied that her client had had anything to do with the attack on de Vries. The accusations against him lacked any “factual basis,” her law firm wrote in a statement.
So far, there has indeed been no evidence that Taghi ordered de Vries’ murder. The reporter has made many enemies over the course of his career. Little is known about the two suspects arrested by Dutch police after the attack – nor is there a clear link to Taghi. But other evidence points in the drug lord’s direction.
Since the news emerged that Nabil B. intends to testify as to the key witness against Taghi, several people in his circle have been murdered. B.’s brother was shot to death in spring 2018 and his lawyer was killed in September 2019. Media outlets that have reported extensively on Taghi’s drug career have also been threatened. And in 2016, Martin Kok, a former criminal and blogger who wrote about organized crime, was killed. “That dog has to sleep,” Taghi reportedly typed in an encrypted message before the murder. In June 2019, someone rammed a van into the front of the offices of the De Telegraaf newspaper. The daily had reported on Taghi’s alleged drug dealings, among other things.
But the attempted murder of a nationally known reporter like de Vries goes beyond the pale. Even fellow journalists who knew about Taghi’s brutality are appalled by the escalation of the violence. Few wanted to talk openly the day after the attack. And those who are willing to do so talk about their worries: about their profession, but also about possible personal harm to them.
“I’m happy I’m not a crime reporter anymore,” says Bert Huisjes, the editor in chief and director of WNL, a public broadcaster. “Everyone is afraid.” With each new attack, the fear that other reporters will be targeted is growing. “The windows of my house are bulletproof glass,” Huisjes says. “My newspaper paid for it at the time. But few media outlets can afford that.””We now have the characteristics of a narco-state.”
One journalist who wished to remain anonymous explains how he now carefully weighs how much he writes about Taghi. He says one detail too many could cost you your life. Taghi is vindictive and hates it when people speak ill of him, he says. A few crime reporters now have 24-hour bodyguard protection, but de Vries had always refused such security.
Yelle Tieleman is one of the reporters Huisjes wouldn’t want to trade places with. Tieleman, a tall, brawny 32-year-old with a broad grin, works for Algemeen Dagblad, one of the country’s major daily newspapers. He has spent years reporting on Taghi and his cocaine business, unwittingly at first. It only later emerged that Taghi had apparently commissioned the murders that Tieleman had been writing about since 2015.
Tieleman says he just fell into it. He, too, has since taken precautions. Very few people, for instance, are allowed to know where he lives. “The attack on de Vries is a new low, and we’ve had a few,” Tieleman says. He says the shooting was a message to all journalists that the gangs are also willing to resort to extreme measures. “I had no idea it was going get this dangerous,” he says. “I didn’t choose this.” Nevertheless, Tieleman says he doesn’t want to give up his job as a crime reporter. “But no story is worth as much as my life.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organization that advocates for press freedom around the world, has called on Dutch authorities to investigate the attack on de Vries “swiftly and thoroughly” and ensure that the people behind the attack are brought to justice. “Journalists in the EU must be able to investigate crime and corruption without fearing for their safety,” CPJ said in a statement this week.
But it is getting increasingly difficult to do that in the Netherlands – in part because of the growing power of the drug gangs. The ports of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium have become huge transshipment points for narcotics. From there, they are distributed across Europe.
A report commissioned by city officials in Amsterdam concluded that drug-related crime has an impact on the entire city. It states that money is laundered in restaurants and shops and that the proceeds are then funneled into real estate. “We now have the characteristics of a narco-state,” says Jan Struijs of the Dutch police union. “Our economy is increasingly dependent on money from the bad boys.” That is undermining rule of law and, through local corruption, Dutch democracy.
Although outgoing Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus declared war on the gangsters years ago, he hasn’t succeeded in curbing crime. “Is Minister Grapperhaus losing his war on the drugs?” the respected daily NRC Handelsblad recently asked in a headline. Right-wing populist Geert Wilders attacked the current government on Twitter the day after the assassination attempt. Wilders jeeringly asked what the justice minister has actually been doing since the attack on Nabil B.’s lawyer. The minister, he argued, obviously hasn’t given the police any more money.
“The problem of drug-related crime just didn’t seem urgent enough,” explains Marieke Liem, who conducts research on such murders at Leiden University. On average, she says, 20 people are killed each year in the Netherlands in connection with drug trafficking. “But we usually don’t see or hear much about these deaths. It’s different with de Vries. Perhaps politicians will now realize that they need to do more.”
The victims are usually couriers or the drug bosses’ henchmen. De Vries wasn’t any of those things. But he sought proximity to the underworld. “He talks to everyone, including criminals,” says Huisjes, his colleague.
Other reporters had warned de Vries that he was crossing a line and putting himself in danger with his work for Nabil B. But de Vries brushed aside their concerns. He once even quipped that if you can’t handle death threats, you’re better off working at a women’s magazine.
With additional reporting by Lisa Dupuy and Govinda den Hartog