Rotterdam's 'cocaine collectors’ are responsible for smuggling drugs.

The volume of cocaine being trafficked into the Netherlands via Rotterdam's port city increases.

Rotterdam's 'cocaine collectors’ are responsible for smuggling drugs.

The volume of cocaine being trafficked into the Netherlands via Rotterdam's port city increases. This also means that more young men are employed by criminal gangs to seize the drugs from the Latin American freight. BBC got a rare glimpse at the dangerous work of these "cocaine collectors", who are a crucial link in the European narcotics supply chains.

A flickering CCTV screen shows a dozen shadowy figures running with military precision towards a Rotterdam shipping container.

Although the cargo of Colombian tropical fruit may have been removed, this 12m-long metal box still contains cargo. The refrigeration unit contains eighty kilograms of cocaine, which has a street value of approximately 4m euros (PS3.4m).

Collectors are responsible for getting the drugs out of containers and away from docks. From there, they will be transported to Amsterdam Berlin London.

"The port is a goldmine!" It's beautiful," a man whose face is covered by a mask, hood and a hat tells Danny Ghosen, a journalist, on Danny's Wereld on Dutch TV, VPRO.

"I can make nice money close to my home... and there's always a job."

These young men are part of powerful criminal networks.

The man explained that every job is different. One boss might say that you will earn X percent of the total. One boss will tell you that you'll be able to sell some of the drugs for yourself.

For every kilogram of cocaine they collect, collectors earn around 2,000 euros (PS1,680). This is an extremely lucrative business.

"We first noticed them around two years ago," says Andre Kramer who runs a container processing business in the port.

"There were only one or two of them and it happened maybe once or twice per year. In the last six months, the number of collectors has increased to 10-12 people. It happens three or four times per week.

The collection methods are getting more sophisticated as the cocaine volume in the Netherlands increases exponentially.

Sometimes, they do not take the cocaine from the port. Their job is to move the drug to another container that has been designated by the gang, with the assistance of an insider. Then the truck will transport it out of port. Sometimes, gangs will even wait in the port to ship drugs.

Kramer says, "We recently discovered three 'hotel" containers." Kramer says that collectors could stay for days in one of these containers - they might eat, drink and do all their daily needs in it. We find empty water bottles ...", mattresses, and food wrappers.

It can be dangerous to wait in a hotel container for the coast to clear before you move.

Nine young men were trapped in a shipping container that was partially packed with tree trunks and their cargo.

Jan Janse of Rotterdam's Port Police explained that biological matter such as fruit and wood can still use oxygen. This means that the air inside gets thinner.

"Normally, they make sure they can open the container from inside. But something went wrong and they couldn’t get out."

The temperature was rising, panic set in. So the collectors dialed 112 to call the Dutch emergency services.

Janse explains, "So we had this info that nine people were going be killed in a container. But it's in an terminal amongst 100,000 others containers and the collectors weren't sure where they were."

"We had to search all the premises, there were many police officers, customs officers and fire brigades, as well as ambulance services. We were very fortunate to find them in time."

It took four hours. Some of the men had respiratory problems and were admitted to hospital. Janse, the chief of police in the area for seven years now, won't reveal the details of how the collectors were found.

He says, enigmatically, "Let's just claim we did some clever things."

The Rotterdam authorities seized more than 5,000kg cocaine from the port in 2014. It was 41,000kg by 2020.

Janse states, "This year, we think it's going be 60,000 kilos." Every year, we break the record. It's not my fault - we did a good job securing the cocaine. But every year, there is more coming in.

The port's illicit imports are only a small fraction.

In September, 110 collectors were arrested in the port in just over one week. They are not likely to be caught, but they will only face a fine of 100 euros (PS84), if they are. Collectors may even have cash on hand to pay penalties if they are stopped.

"We say, "We're just having fun... We're fascinated with containers," said the young man in a mask who earns his living by moving narcotics from the port.

"Do you have any with me?" Are there drugs in my possession? Do I have any tools? "No, I don't have any tools."

Rotterdam's port is 42km long and the longest in Europe. Every day, more than 23,000 cargo containers are processed at this port. The key enabler for the work of cocaine collectors as well as the criminal organizations they work for, is corruption.

"If you are here tomorrow morning, I can guarantee that you will get a security card." The collector says that you just need to say to a worker, "Lend me your security pass until tomorrow and you can earn 500 euro'."

"It is difficult to do our job with someone on the outside, like a customs agent. He might have a container that needs to be inspected. But he will take it off your inspection list.

If an insider refuses cooperation, the collectors may use intimidation.

The masked man sneers, "The moment a Customs Officer says, "No," you threaten your children," "Then he will say, 'Yes!' very quickly."

Andre Kramer claims that his employees are under stress because they are often in the sights and ears of organised crime workers.

He says that people are being asked at home to put containers near fences. "And I have actually had staff give in their resignations - they don’t want to work here anymore, they’re scared."

These stories are well-known to Rotterdam's chief procuror.

Hugo Hillenaar says that a lot of the criminality in the city is linked to the drug problem at the harbour. We have shooting incidents almost every day. It wasn't common ten years ago. The violence is on the rise."

The cocaine trade has devastating repercussions that can be felt throughout the country, including the brutal daylight assassination of Peter R de Vries, the most prominent Dutch crime journalist, in Amsterdam in July.

Nadia Barquioua founder of JOZ, a youth support organisation, said that "the criminal organizations are very well organized - they have their CEOs and their human resources, staff, and recruiters."

JOZ manages youth projects in Rotterdam's South Bank. This is one of the most deprived areas of Rotterdam and the origin of many of the city’s cocaine-collectors. Over 25% of the population are under 23 years old, and half come from migrant backgrounds.

People from the Netherlands moved to the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s because of the many jobs available at the port. However, when the mega-ships arrived west, industrial activity shifted west, and work was scarce. Those who could afford it left, leaving behind a large number low-income households.

JOZ works in schools, clubs, and community centers to try to divert young people from crime.

Nadia Barquioua states, "We have to show them that making money in an ordinary way is safer than doing so in a criminal manner and that there are opportunities in the city." It's much easier to raise happy children and men than it is to fix them.

A growing number of young men are working in the Port Rotterdam as cocaine collectors.

Hillenaar says that there are boys aged 14-15 who do this job. "They're getting younger and younger."

Rotterdam is talking about a white Christmas, but nobody is talking about snow. Hillenaar has a message to share with cocaine users ahead of the holiday season.

He said that 40,000 lines of cocaine were sneezed every day in Rotterdam. "Every line you smell has a history that includes violence, extortion and death."

Hillenaar hopes that a law change that will take effect in 2022 will act as a strong deterrent for the collectors. It does away with the possibility of fines and can impose a maximum one-year sentence on anyone found unauthorised in the port area. It is not easy to believe that it will work, given the amount of hard money you can make as a collector.

Andre Kramer, a businessman, says that he honestly doesn't believe you can stop drugs entering Rotterdam.

He is also concerned that increasing the penalties and threatening to send him to prison could provoke violence in the port.

"Today, collectors will go quietly. It's going to get grim when they use any means to escape - knives, weapons... You don't want any Wild West show happening in your terminal.

Some young men may be hesitant about wearing dark clothing and breaking into Rotterdam's container depots. Others will be more resistant due to the large sums of money on offer. They are aware that they are an integral link in Europe's cocaine network and that it isn't going to end soon.

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