Flowers are an ideal cover-up for criminals

Flowers are an ideal cover-up for criminals

In the flower and floriculture sector you just have to throw it out and a lot of misery immediately arises, says Gido Oude Kotte, mayor of Aalsmeer. Exploitation. money laundering. drug smuggling.

Last week, the Inspectorate SZW, part of the Ministry of Social Affairs, unexpectedly inspected small businesses that sell and export flowers at Royal FloraHolland in Aalsmeer – the largest flower auction in the world, together with the branches in Naaldwijk, Rijnsburg, Eelde. They dug into bookkeeping, dug up paychecks and checked the working hours of companies. They also checked the contents of trucks.

One person was arrested for violation of the Aliens Act and investigations were launched into the housing of Eastern European migrant workers in various municipalities. The inspectors also wrote twelve official reports for violation of the traffic law.

At the beginning of this year, Bureau Beke made a strong judgment about the flower sector after a criminological investigation. The volatility (flowers spoil quickly), the cash payments and the intricate road network over which flowers are spread, are ideal for money laundering and drug transport.

But the authorities are too little aware of this. The safety of the sector was, the researchers wrote: “not a priority for a long time”. Customs checked the trucks, the tax authorities went through “receipts”, according to mayor Oude Kotte. And the police only came into the picture when there were serious suspicions.

That’s going to change now. From February 2022, FloraHolland, the sector organization Transport and Logistics Netherlands, the Public Prosecution Service, the police, customs, the tax authorities, municipalities of Aalsmeer, Katwijk, Uithoorn and Westland will cooperate more closely against crime in the flower sector.

A number of quick, concrete changes: it becomes more difficult to enter the auction area unchecked, due to new entrance gates. A new camera system monitors license plates of trucks entering the complex. The authorities involved are going to exchange more information and thus want to map out the large criminal ‘fish’.

There will also be a ‘tip counter’. The counter will be manned by the police, customs, the tax authorities, FloraHolland people and municipal officials, says Mayor Oude Kotte.

Paul Ammerlaan, company detective at Royal FloraHolland, will be on ‘the bridge’ at a quarter past seven on Thursday morning. It is rush hour in the Aalsmeer auction hall. Every day, approximately 20 million flowers and plants are sold via FloraHolland (turnover 4.7 billion euros in 2020), hundreds of trucks drive into Europe from the FloraHolland auction houses.

Ammerlaan points down: “Those flowers end up in every European village.” And that offers possibilities.

Smurf portions

Flowers are perishable goods, says Ammerlaan. There is little time to thoroughly check a cargo, which makes criminals big-time buyers. The large consignments of cocaine that arrive via Rotterdam and Antwerp, he says, are then divided into small transports – ‘smurf portions’ – and distributed throughout the rest of Europe.

In 2015, two Italians ran into the lamp. They belonged to an Italian mafia clan and used the sale of flowers in the market as a cover. They secretly hid cocaine between the tulips and chrysanthemums that went to Italy from Aalsmeer. It was a unique case: in Ammerlaan’s office there is a large clipping about the mafia brothers.

More often, the company detective encounters smaller forms of crime, such as the theft of steel carts on which the flowers are transported. Or, more sly: the plastic bucket switching trick.

Anyone who purchases flowers from FloraHolland will be given plastic buckets to display the flowers in. FloraHolland has them specially produced. They are very strong: “they last 20 years.” Buyers pay a 4 euro deposit each.

A clever man saw business in this. He had tens of thousands of replica models produced in Turkey for a pittance and returned them. Ammerlaan takes a fake bucket and throws it on the floor. “Do you hear? fake. This one breaks like that.”

About thirty new companies register with FloraHolland every month, says Ammerlaan. A select group, about five, comes through the checkpoint. The rest do not have their finances in order, or are withdrawing. How do you pick out ‘wrong’ companies?

Companies that build up a lot of capital in a short period of time are suspicious, says Ammerlaan. It is checked whether business owners are on a ‘sanction list’ or are wanted for a crime. And it is mandatory to have a Dutch bank account.

Sometimes a company is out of place. Recently there was one that traded in fruit pulp, says Mayor Oude Kotte. The 200-pound barrels of pulp were stacked three high. Weird. Inconvenient too, this made it tricky to control them. In the end, nothing was found at the dealer. But it was a perfect way to smuggle cocaine, says Oude Kotte, because it’s a product that rots quickly and shouldn’t stay on the auction for long.

Data-driven investigation

Paul Ammerlaan steps into the office of Edwin den Hartog, operational safety team leader. He immediately starts an argument about the ‘chain’: agencies that ‘don’t know where to find each other’, and a local police officer who, until recently, rarely visited the field. He concludes his story with the new holy grail of investigation: “We need to work more data-driven.”

Catching crooks via shared data is trendy, but the exchange of privacy-sensitive information is subject to strict legislation. In 2019, things went wrong with a collaboration between the police, the tax authorities, the judiciary and municipalities in Brabant. They exchanged sensitive information for a year, but did not have their legal affairs in order.

Ammerlaan and Den Hartog know that sharing data is sensitive, especially if FloraHolland receives information from the police or the tax authorities. When this was once discussed, a colleague got ‘red spots’ on the neck, says Ammerlaan. He wanted to know if it was legal.

Mayor Oude Kotte laughs when he hears the example: “There is always a discussion about privacy.” The goal of the collaboration is broader, he says. The flower sector must become ‘more resilient’. And by sharing information you can expose a network. Criminal companies can now too easily hide behind privacy legislation. “When we request data from employees, we do not get it because of privacy legislation. It never works like that.” A covenant is being drawn up that allows the organizations to exchange information.

In Aalsmeer, Oude Kotte works with a “black list”, he says. It lists about thirty growers, growers, sellers, importers and exporters about whom signals have been received that the accounting is incorrect, there is no turnover, or that they are known drug criminals. The list was drawn up by the police, according to Oude Kotte, and complies with the Police Data Act.

The mayor would prefer to expand the list with the names of the rogue employment agencies, but he has not yet finalized that. “Then you know who not to do business with.”

Although the tip counter is not officially open yet, the first person has already arrived, says Oude Kotte. Last week, spicy information came in about a company at the auction. It was about cocaine smuggling, he says. Satisfied: “The Amsterdam police have started an investigation.”

A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 29, 2021

Flowers are an ideal cover-up for criminals
Source link Flowers are an ideal cover-up for criminals

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