09 Dec 2020
By Audrey Travère, Forbidden Stories, 8 December 2020
Forbidden Stories—Willem-Jan Joachems recalls May 10, 2019 perfectly. “This is where it all happened. Exactly in this spot.” For the journalist, it was the scoop of a lifetime. “The ship was laying there, while they were collecting evidence, and it started to sink.” Joachems works for a local television station in North Brabant province in the southern Netherlands. That morning, he had arrived on the quay of the Moerdijk marina a bit early—just in time to watch the police dismantle a floating methamphetamine laboratory. It was a rather unprecedented discovery. The lab had been built from scratch in the belly of an 85-meter ship. Inside, investigators discovered more than 70 kg of methamphetamine, 150 liters of methamphetamine oil… and three Mexicans, aged 25, 28, and 38. “At the moment of the arrest, the Mexicans were cooking drugs,” the Dutch journalist remembered. Although we now know why the ship started to take on water – a pump accidentally activated by a police officer during the intervention – one mystery remains: the presence of the three Mexican nationals caught red-handed in the middle of Holland.
“Part of the evidence was destroyed,” Joachems explained. “But there was enough to find the three Mexicans on board had to do with the lab.” Investigators found their DNA on three full face masks and several pairs of gloves. When the police searched their phones, they found photos that helped trace the three men’s path through the Netherlands. A “shopping list” from December 12, 2018 included 30 kg of aluminum, thermometers, and latex gloves. By March, the chemists had powder in measuring glasses—proof that the operation was going well. One month later in April, a video documented a huge amount of crystal methamphetamine. Sitting on a kitchen scale, it weighed in at 91.75 kg. The lab was discovered a month later. For the Dutch court, the evidence was clear. On March 19, 2020, Candelario and brothers Ivan Diego and Victor Manuel were found guilty of “complicity in possession and production of crystal methamphetamine.” They were sentenced to four years in prison in the Netherlands.
This wasn’t the first time that Dutch police found Mexican nationals in a methamphetamine lab. In February 2019, authorities arrested three men from Mexico making methamphetamine in a lab in Wateringen, a suburb of the Hague. This won’t be the last arrest, either. So far this year, authorities have dismantled 32 methamphetamine labs in the Netherlands—more than ever before. And one arrest has followed another. A significant number of the suspects are Mexicans nationals— 19 in the Netherlands and Belgium—according to calculations by Forbidden Stories and its partners. The most recent lab bust where Mexican citizens were found was just last week. On November 30, two were arrested in the small town of Westdorpe, near the Belgian border.
What explains the presence of Mexican nationals in methamphetamine laboratories thousands of kilometers from home? Who do they work for? And once these drugs are produced, where do they go? With the help of 25 media partners and access to exclusive information about one of the biggest police operations in Europe to date, Forbidden Stories investigated the journey of Mexican chemists who come to work for the synthetic drug kings of Europe: Dutch gangs.
“EncroChat is just gold for us”
“EMERGENCY FOR ENCRO USERS: today we had our domain seized illegal by government entities (…) You are advises to power off and physically dispose your device immediately.”
This rushed text message containing several typos was sent out to EncroChat’s millions of subscribers last June. At the encrypted phone service’s headquarters, people were panicking. The company had been the target of the European police’s most impressive hacking operation to date. It was a catastrophe for EncroChat, which had promised its clients ultra-secure communications. For 1,000 euros per telephone and a biannual subscription of 1,500 euros, clients had access to a TurnKey service of encryption that guaranteed complete anonymity, interface discretion, and 24/7 technical support.
Users of EncroChat phones quickly realized the extent of the damages. For several months, French and Dutch law enforcement officials had been able to access all of their communications. For users involved in criminal activity, this was a serious problem. According to European investigators, “a very high share of users” of the encrypted service fit this category. The same day that EncroChat sent that message to its users, the company terminated its services. A criminal investigation for the “provision of a cryptology means which does not exclusively provide authentication or integrity” was opened at a specialized regional court (JIRS) in Lille, France.
“It’s true: EncroChat is just gold for us,” said Andy Kraag, head of the Dutch police criminal investigation division. And for good reason. In just a few months, millions of messages were intercepted by European investigators in real-time, before the messages could be encrypted. “This information has already been valuable in a large number of ongoing criminal investigations, including violent attacks, attempted murders, and large-scale drug transports,” according to a press release from EUROPOL and EUROJUST last July.
In The Netherlands, the messages helped dismantle successive methamphetamine laboratories. In several cases, they also revealed the presence of Mexican nationals working in these labs. According to messages read by the police, there were many more than the 19 identified by Forbidden Stories and its partners. “In some locations, we only discovered the lab and the main occupant. But then later we hear from EncroChat that Mexicans have worked there,” Kraag explained. These men typically recruited as “drug cooks” come to Europe to work in meth labs.
The law of silence
Jesus P.V., 40, was a personal trainer at a gym in Mexico. At least, that is what he claimed during a hearing for his involvement in the Wateringen laboratory case. On February 26, 2019, 80 million euros worth of drugs was discovered in a warehouse. According to Jesus P.V.’s testimony, his whole life changed in January 2019. One of his gym clients offered him a professional opportunity in the Netherlands. The proposed salary for a job in construction was $2,000 per month—much more than the $700-800 that he said he earned as a personal trainer in Mexico. So in mid-January, the coach packed his suitcases and got on a flight to Europe. The day of his arrest, Jesus P.V. was discovered in a laboratory in a suburb of the Hague with two other Mexican nationals and slightly more than 400 kg of crystal meth. The two other men arrested, both 20 years older than Jesus P.V., had been offered similar jobs while in Mexico. During the trial, one of the convicted men testified that he didn’t discover the true nature of his job until he arrived in the Netherlands—implying that he had no previous industry connections nor any knowledge of drug production or drug-trafficking.
Another case, “Achter-Drempt,” played out in a similar way. During their trial, the Mexican citizen arrested during the police intervention claimed to not have known what he was getting involved in. He thought he had been hired to pick fruit in Europe. “I do not believe that,” Kraag countered. “Suppose you know how to make crystal meth, you are a crystal meth cook in Mexico. Then you will not be sent to a country to pick fruit.”
In the Moerdijk “boat-lab” case, the convicted Mexican nationals also claimed to have received offers for well-paid jobs in the Netherlands. “They told them ‘come to the Netherlands, we’ll pay you more, three times more than here, several thousands of euros a month, and then you have to build something,’” recounted journalist Willem Jan Joachems, who was present at the trial.
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