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The ‘cocaine collectors’ retrieving smuggled drugs

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As the volume of cocaine trafficked into the Netherlands through the port city of Rotterdam increases, so too does the number of young men employed by criminal gangs to retrieve the drugs from among freight arriving from Latin America.

The BBC has had a rare glimpse into the dangerous work of these so-called “cocaine collectors” who provide a vital link in the European narcotics supply chain.

On a flickering CCTV screen, a dozen shadowy figures run with military precision in a line towards a shipping container in the port of Rotterdam.

Its freight of tropical fruit from Colombia may already have been unloaded, but this metal box – 12m long and identical to so many thousands of others here – still has cargo on board. Eighty kg of cocaine are hidden inside the refrigeration unit – drugs with a local street value of around 4m euro (£3.4m).

The collectors’ job is to get the drugs out of the container and away from the docks, from where they will be transported to Amsterdam, Berlin and London.

“The port’s a goldmine! It’s beautiful,” a man, whose face is obscured by a mask and a hood, tells journalist Danny Ghosen on his show, Danny’s Wereld, on the Dutch TV network, VPRO.

“I can make money nice and close to home… and there’s always work.”

These are young men employed by powerful, criminal networks.

“Every job’s different,” the man explains. “One boss will say, ‘You’ll earn X amount to share between you’. Another will say, ‘You’ll get some of the drugs to sell for yourselves.'”

Collectors make around 2,000 euro (£1,680) for every kilo of cocaine they carry out. And this is a business that has exploded.

“We first noticed them about two years ago,” says Andre Kramer, who owns a container processing company in the port.

“There was one or maybe two of them, and it happened once or twice a year. But in the past six months the groups of collectors have got bigger – 10 or 12 people gathered together, and it happens three or four times a week.”

As the volume of cocaine imported into the Netherlands rises exponentially, the methods used by the collectors are becoming more sophisticated too.

Sometimes they don’t physically take the cocaine out of the port. Instead their job is to transfer the drug to another container earmarked by the gang with the help of an insider, which will then be transported out of the port by truck. And sometimes the gangs will wait inside the port area for a drugs shipment.

“We recently found three ‘hotel’ containers,” says Kramer. “The collectors might stay in one for days – they eat, drink, and do their necessities in there. We find mattresses, empty bottles of water, food wrappers…”

But biding your time in a “hotel” container waiting for the coast to be clear can be extremely dangerous.

In early September, nine young men found themselves trapped after the door to the shipping container they were hiding inside – partly packed with a freight of tree trunks – became jammed.

“If you’re enclosed with biological matter like fruit or wood, these things still use oxygen, which means less for the people inside – so the air gets thinner,” Jan Janse, chief of Rotterdam’s Port Police explains.

“Normally they take care that they can open the container from the inside, but something went wrong, and they couldn’t get out.”

With panic rising along with the temperature, the collectors dialled 112 for the Dutch emergency services.

“So we had this information that nine people were going to die in a container, but it’s in a terminal amongst 100,000 other containers, and the collectors didn’t know exactly where they were,” Janse says.

“We had to search the whole premises – there were helicopters, a lot of police, customs officers, the fire brigade, ambulance services. They were lucky we found them on time.” BBC

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