Breaking Bad in Europe:
Mexican “cooks” in service of Dutch gangs

Is Europe the new Eldorado for Mexican cartels? In the last 2 years, dozens of meth labs have been dismantled in The Netherlands and Belgium. According to Forbidden Stories’ statistics, 19 Mexican cooks have been arrested, miles away from their homes. European authorities are expecting the worst: with the American market saturated, Mexican cartels, the true experts in the production of methamphetamine, could be looking for new opportunities. Thanks to exclusive information about the EncroChat hack that led to the dismantling of those meth labs, Forbidden Stories and its partners finally can shed light on how Mexican nationals crossed half of the world to work for European gangs, and the networks hidden behind them.

Courtyard of a farm in Achter Drempt, Netherlands. The shed in the back was used as a laboratory for the production of crystal meth. During the raid by members of the Special Intervention Service, a Mexican, a Colombian and an American were arrested in a shed that was being used as a laboratory (Credit: Virginie Nguyen Hoang / Collectif HUMA / LE MONDE).

KEY FINDINGS

  • Forbidden Stories got access to exclusive information about the EncroChat hack, which led to the arrest of 800 people across Europe and the dismantling of methamphetamine labs in The Netherlands and Belgium.
  • Methamphetamine experts (or “cooks”) are sent to Europe from Mexico in order to help Dutch gangs produce this highly profitable drug and send it to Asia and Oceania.
  • Mexican brokers are in charge of the recruiting process. They are suspected of being connected to cartels in Mexico.
  • This partnership between DTOs worries authorities, who fear that the collaboration will turn to violent competition on European soil and a surge in methamphetamine consumption.

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.

Screen capture of the final message sent by EncroChat to their users, before shutting down their services on June 13, 2020 (Credit: Europol / Eurojust / French Gendarmerie).

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.

Building at a farm in Achter Drempt, which was used as a laboratory for manufacturing crystal meth. According to local police, the amount of crystal meth found in this laboratory would represent an estimated commercial value of 10 million euros (Credit: Virginie Nguyen Hoang / Collectif HUMA / LE MONDE).

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.

But there was nothing amateur about this operation. According to a source of the Dutch reporter, the three Mexican nationals built the laboratory inside the boat. The court also found that they knew how to produce “high-quality” methamphetamine. “After all, it was they themselves who proudly captured those end products in photos also, as [suspect] himself stated, to inform and satisfy their clients.” During questioning, Ivan Diego admitted to having received instructions to cook drugs via WhatsApp messages. These messages originated from Mexican phone numbers and were listed under the pseudonyms “Angel,” “Patrona,” and “Chalio.”

The drug ship MS Arsianco was confiscated by the police. Inside the 85-long ship was a giant meth laboratory. Three Mexicans were sentenced to four years in prison. The boat is located near the port (Moerdijk) and is now for sale (Credit: Benedikt Strunz, NDR).

That was initially a puzzle for us – we suddenly have Mexican suspects, how did they get here?

Although the Mexicans arrested in Europe willingly divulged details about their recruitment process, they refused to disclose anything about their contractors. When contacted by Forbidden Stories, lawyers for Mexican nationals implicated in European laboratories cases declined to respond. During their trials, some of the cooks said that they were threatened: “When he arrived at the apartment, the person who picked him up from the airport said there would be no work in construction and that it would be a different kind of work and that he should shut up (…) He was subsequently threatened with the photos of his family.” As stated during the Wateringen lab trial.

The millions of EncroChat messages scraped by investigators reveal the drug networks. “The great value of this is that we not only find the cook on site, but that we have the entire network behind it,” Kraag explained. These messages helped to unravel the structure of these networks and the key role of intermediaries. These intermediaries were responsible for recruiting “cooks” in Mexico on behalf of Dutch criminal organizations.

Self-employed brokers

“That was initially a puzzle for us – we suddenly have Mexican suspects, how did they get here?” Kraag remembered. EncroChat messages provided a key piece of the puzzle. “That is literally in the crypto communications: ‘I’m looking for a cook, do you know someone?’” This message was sent from a Dutch number. On the receiving end: a Mexican intermediary (“a broker”), set the recruitment in motion. “It’s that simple,” Kraag said.

This is a well-established system in Mexico. Cartels have become masters in the art of recruitment, regardless of profession or experience level. Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group, shared an anecdote. “They basically scanned universities in Mexico for chemistry departments and singled out persons.” Once the potential recruit is contacted, the broker makes an offer, he explained. Because chemists hold key knowledge, they make the offer as attractive as possible. “And there’s also threat and coercion behind it if necessary,” he said.

That Dutch network has to provide the raw materials, the hardware, everything has to be right, and in the end the Mexican says: ‘Okay, that’s how I can produce it for you’

Gangs in the Netherlands use the same type of intermediaries, who play an essential role. However, according to the Dutch police, that does not mean that Mexican cartels have a direct influence in Europe. These arrangements are not made directly between Mexican cartels and European organizations. Brokers work as “freelancers”: “In a cartel, everyone is a kind of member. you pay for the membership, but you are self-employed – you do your own thing. A broker is also his own boss. So you can be a member of a cartel, as long as you properly pay a fair share of what you get from the Dutch,” Kraag explained. When asked about these connections with organized crime, a source in the Mexican government confirmed to Forbidden Stories that networks do send “cooks” to Europe to produce methamphetamine: “In the case of the Netherlands, we know that this happens.”

For everything to run smoothly, intermediaries are essential. They’re responsible for salaries and organizing travel to Europe. According to Kraag, most of the recruits come through Spain on tourist visas. From there, the cooks head to the Netherlands. Before the Covid-19 pandemic halted operations, some intermediaries made the journey even before officially launching operations. “They just come in, do business, inspect the location. That Dutch network has to provide the raw materials, the hardware, everything has to be right, and in the end the Mexican says: ‘Okay, that’s how I can produce it for you,’” explained the Dutch police chief. “That is what we are now researching with the help of EncroChat: how do we pull those brokers out of the market. That is very complicated, because they are in Mexico and only come here sporadically, when it was still possible.”

A man nicknamed "El Chapo Jr." (red shirt) and a helper pack 30 kilograms of crystal meth they will send to Mexico City in a safehouse on the outskirts of Culiacán, Sinaloa (Credit: Amrai Coen/Die Zeit)

Mexican expertise and “crime as a service”

Back in the heart of Mexico’s ‘zona caliente,’ south of Culiacan in Sinaloa, the rise of Mexican ‘cooks’ in Europe comes as no surprise. It’s even obvious to the man who calls himself “El Chapo Jr.” “We send the cooks to Europe because we, Mexicans, are the best cooks!” the low-level Sinaloa cartel member told Forbidden Stories. Inside his neon-pink-walled hideout, he meticulously packed massive methamphetamine crystals in several layers of protection. To prevent police dogs from detecting the drugs in transit, the crystals are placed in a plastic bag, then wrapped in aluminum foil, taped, then put into another plastic bag. “We have experience. And the Mexicans can teach the other cooks in Europe,” he said. “The ‘cooks’ who are sent over are usually not the stupid guys, they are smart and educated.” This was the case for one of the brothers convicted in the “boat-lab” case in Moerdijk, who posted on his Facebook that he had studied at the Technological Institute of Culiacán in Mexico.

It’s like cheese. If you teach the Japanese how to make cheese, eventually they will be able to do it. But it won’t be a Leerdammer

UNODC’s most recent annual report also discussed these “Mexican specialists,” who are able to make a very pure form of methamphetamine, “like the one made by Walter White in Breaking Bad,” said Laurent Laniel, a scientific analyst at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). These specialists can “produce larger quantities of a powerful meth, through successive reprocessing, from the same amount of a precursor called BMK (Benzyl Methyl Ketone), which is highly controlled.” It’s a very useful skill that only Mexican chemists have completely mastered.

“It’s like cheese. If you teach the Japanese how to make cheese, eventually they will be able to do it. But it won’t be a Leerdammer,” said Andy Kraag’s spokesperson, using a very Dutch analogy. In exchange for a share of the profits sent to the chemists and Mexican brokers, Dutch drug traffickers benefit from this unique expertise.

“El Chapo Jr.” shows a big methamphetamine crystal to Forbidden Stories’ partner in a safehouse near Culiacán, Sinaloa (Credit: Amrai Coen/Die Zeit).

“We are talking here about highly structured, very powerful criminal organisations, headed by narco-millionaires who have made a fortune in Ecstasy and live in luxury,” Laniel said. According to UNODC figures, most of the dismantled laboratories that produced ecstasy are located in Europe, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands. “They have the necessary equipment and a whole infrastructure for supplying precursor chemicals, mainly from China or India.”

A veritable criminal industry worth millions of euros has mastered production and distribution from start to finish. It’s a strategy called “crime as a service,” according to Laniel. “They provide everything or hire the necessary “service providers”: the infrastructure for the laboratories, the supply of precursors, the trucks to get rid of the mountains of rubbish that meth produces, the boats with skippers to transport the drugs, the collectors who will collect the drug money.” When methamphetamine came onto the market, everything was already in place. In the real world, this leads to more labs being dismantled and more drug seizures. In June 2019, the Dutch police seized 2.5 tonnes of the synthetic stimulant hidden in Rotterdam port from Mexico. This is the biggest European drug bust of methamphetamine to date.

In contrast, European consumption has not increased in comparison with the amount of drugs found in the region. EMCDDA studies of wastewater only indicated trace amounts of drug residue in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and, more recently, in Germany and Cyprus. The drug market leads elsewhere—many kilometers from Holland

The Netherlands: the world’s kitchen

“We often heard on those chats: ‘do you still have a door in Japan?’” Kraag remembered. “It is simply the commercial spirit of the Dutch criminals: they feel, they smell: there is a lot of money to be made here.” In Japan, a gram of methamphetamine can sell for $500 or more. In Australia, the price is the same, give or take a few dollars. For comparison, the same amount only cost $56 in the United States in 2017. “For these laboratories, producing at a lower cost thanks to the technique of the Mexicans and exporting it there is the guarantee of an enormous profit margins,” Laniel explained.

Trafficking drugs to Oceania comes with particularly high risks, especially to Australia, which is one reason why the price per gram of methamphetamine is so exorbitant, according to Anna Sergi, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Essex (England). “This risk of shipping, paired with the distance, increases the costs for traffickers and importers and this is dumped on consumers, which pay a lot more for the “privilege” of the drug arriving there!” she said. But there are other elements involved: an high demand, existing connections from ecstasy trafficking and, most importantly, Australian law enforcement has been intensely focused on China, where much of Australia’s methamphetamine originates. “The Australian police have fought that very well. Many production networks have been removed from the market, and there you see that the supply from China has stopped, or at least significantly reduced,” said Kraag.

But the challenge for authorities (dubbed the “waterbed effect”) is that as soon as one network disappears, another takes its place. The Dutch can take full advantage of this effect—with help from the Mexicans.

With these drugs you can become addicted after just one time. (…) you don’t think about anything else anymore, you just want that, you no longer function.Then it’s just done, over

For the Mexicans, it’s a jackpot too. They can monetize their expertise, lend out some of their “cooks” for a time, and find new markets for their own powder methamphetamine. “The cartels have gigantic amounts of what they can produce, more than the demand in America now, so they are looking for more sales market,” Kraag said. “And that is, for example, the 2.5 tonnes of meth (in powder form) that we found in Rotterdam.”

In June 2019, the Dutch police seized 2.5 tonnes of methamphetamine hidden in Rotterdam port, shipped from Mexico. This is the biggest European drug bust of methamphetamine to date (Credit: National Dutch police).

Once in Europe, methamphetamine is crystallized in labs and prepared to be exported. But authorities fear these drugs may be ending up consumed in Europe. While its use is still residual in Europe, Kraag does not hide his concerns: ““If our production increases enormously, then it is also more readily available and the risk of use is greater,” explained the Dutch official. “With these drugs you can become addicted after just one time. (…) you don’t think about anything else anymore, you just want that, you no longer function.Then it’s just done, over.”

Although this is a convenient arrangement for the drug traffickers, the drug business is still ruthless. Text exchanges on EncroChat highlight this. Last July, the hack of the encrypted message service led to the discovery at the Belgian border of six soundproof containers that had been transformed into prison cells. The seventh was a macabre torture chamber, equipped with a dentist’s chair and gruesome tools: a saw, scalpel, blowtorches, and multiple kinds of pliers. Currently, Dutch gangs rely on the expertise of Mexican cartels. But what would happen if that were no longer the case? The concern is that this highly profitable alliance could easily transform into competition in the near future. “Then, which I absolutely don’t want, we become one of those super-sized crystal meth producing countries that don’t depend on Mexicans, and you become a competitor to Mexico. I don’t know what will happen then, but there are risks involved. And you want to prevent that,” said Kraag. “Criminal competition is always accompanied by violence.”

“Do Not Enter” sign at the entrance of a shed at Wouwse Plantage, near the Belgian border. This hangar was used as a drug lab discovered by the local police when the place caught fire in June 2020. Consecrated as a "megalab" for its size, this laboratory was used to manufacture Speed and Ecstasy, but not crystal methamphetamine (Credit: Virginie Nguyen Hoang / Collectif HUMA / LE MONDE).

Kristof Clerix (Knack), Benedikt Strunz (NDR), Philipp Eckstein (NDR), Wil Thijssen (de Volkskrant), Anne Michel (Le Monde), Mathieu Tourlière (Proceso) and Bart Libaut (Freelance Open Source Investigator) contributed to this article among others.

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