The witnesses who turned against ‘Europe’s biggest drug lord’ and paid with their lives

Ridouan Taghi face charges related to six gangland murders, four attempted murders, and planning other attacks between 2015-2017
Ridouan Taghi face charges related to six gangland murders and four attempted murders

They found “the Butcher’s” body with a bullet in his head in a burnt-out car near the southern Spanish town of Cadiz.

Ebrahim Buzhu, 52, had, it seemed, paid with his life for being the first man to mention the name of Ridouan Taghi to police seven years earlier.

Moroccan-born Taghi, alleged to be Europe’s most feared and powerful drug lord, has a simple rule: “If you talk, you die.”

His chilling Omerta kept his identity shrouded in the shadows of the Dutch underworld, as he rose to be a crime boss smuggling record amounts of cocaine into Europe’s ports.

He is said to be worth $1 billion (£789 million), with a share in the control of a third of all imports of the drug.

Taghi, 46, now faces spending the rest of his life behind bars when the long-awaited verdict is delivered on Tuesday in the Marengo Trial, the biggest criminal case in the Netherlands’ history.

Ridouan Taghi's Omerta worked to keep his identity a secret as they smuggled cocaine across Europe
Ridouan Taghi worked to keep his identity a secret as he conspired to smuggle cocaine across Europe

Prosecutors have demanded life sentences for Taghi, who has pleaded not guilty, and five of his co-defendants, for being part of what they called a “well-oiled murder machine”.

He, and 16 accomplices, face charges related to six gangland murders, four attempted murders, and planning other attacks between 2015 and 2017, dubbed the “bloody years” by the Dutch press.

At one point, a severed head was left outside a shisha lounge in Amsterdam’s city centre, peering through the window as a warning to the rival gangsters known to gather inside.

The Marengo Trial has not stopped the killing. Since the case started, the brother of a crown witness, a supergrass’ lawyer and the most famous TV journalist in the Netherlands have been slain by hitmen.

Mark Rutte, the prime minister, was forced to bolster his personal security amid fears he was a kidnapping target for the gangs during an unprecedented assault on the rule of law.

Jan Struijs, the chairman of the Nederlandse PolitieBond police union, said last year: “I call The Netherlands a ‘narco-state 2.0’,” as Dutch society re-examined its famous policy of drug tolerance.

Taghi is a Dutch citizen from the province of Utrecht but based himself between the Netherlands, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates before his 2019 extradition from Dubai.

The first that Dutch police heard of him was when Buzhu, a rival gang boss, came to them in 2015 fearing for his life.

Gangsters allegedly linked to Taghi had placed tracking beacons under his associates’ cars.

The officers interviewing Buzhu, who was called “the Butcher” because his parents ran a meat market, knew so little about Taghi that they misspelt his name Redovan.

A month later, police uncovered a vast cache of weapons in the city of Vianen, including 60 pistols and revolvers, nine hand grenades, 36 automatic weapons and an Uzi pistol.

Police during the raid in Vianen
Police during the raid in Vianen - SIPA US/ ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Some of the men arrested were reportedly former members of the BAD (Black and Dangerous) Boys, a Utrecht-based gang where Taghi earned his criminal spurs.

Prosecutors believe they had evidence of a “standing army” of heavily armed hitmen, with stolen cars ready to be used by the murder squad at short notice.

They could be dispatched with as little as an encrypted smartphone message, a far more professional operation than the old generation of criminals the police were used to dealing with.

Taghi moved to Vianen, a small city of just over 20,000 people about 20 minutes’ drive from Utrecht, from Morocco when he was two years old. His mother and sister still live in this sleepy place on the river Lek.

The family were described as “normal” by one person from the town, which is divided into a historic mediaeval centre and a newer, more industrial zone.

Taghi grew up in De Hagen, a small district of the city. Blocks of four-storey flats, named after flowers, surround a small shopping precinct that has seen better days.

Only a van, a mobile broker offering to buy gold and silver, points to the more humble means of some of the inhabitants, a mix of white and Moroccan families, who prefer not to talk about the famous criminal who grew up in their midst.

Taghi, who is described as a fiercely intelligent child, was a quick learner. He went to school in nearby Nieuwegein and was soon dealing cannabis in the playground. He earned the criminal nickname “Tiny”.

The Mocro-Mafia

He was part of a new generation of criminals in the Netherlands who grew up aching for the gangster lifestyle glamorised in films and TV series. Later dubbed the Mocro-Mafia, these youths would step into the shoes of the previous generation of immigrants.

That earlier group had exploited their links to Morocco to supply a society that had recently decriminalised “hash” but Taghi was not satisfied with low-level dealing.

Amsterdam, a short drive from Utrecht, was turning into the international marketplace for Europe’s drug trade, as it already was for diamonds and flowers.

The capital did not only become a magnet for tourists wanting to enjoy a joint but also for gangsters from every corner of the underworld, from Italy to Ireland.

Taghi headed to Morocco, where he took over a hash smuggling route to Spain, supposedly through a family connection. He was in the right place at the right time.

South American cartels began to switch their attention to Europe in about 2008, using West and North Africa as a launchpad to reach the continent.

For an entrepreneur like Taghi, it made perfect sense to switch his routes to smuggle cocaine.

In 2016, the end of Colombia’s civil war meant there was suddenly a huge surplus in cocaine, which further fuelled the boom and made ports like Antwerp and Rotterdam viable for drug smugglers.

For Wouter Laumans, the author of Mocro-Mafia and the journalist who coined the term, it was the start of the globalisation of the drugs trade.

“These guys, they don’t care about borders. Amsterdam, Rotterdam. Hamburg. It’s all the same. They don’t care. Dublin, Dubai, Marbella. Who cares?” he said.

“It’s money and technology. You can organise a drug transport with a guy in Ecuador on an encrypted phone to get it moved here. You get in contact with a guy at customs who puts the shipment on ‘green’.

“It’s like a Gameboy. If somebody rips you off, you can use your phone and get them whacked,” he added.

In 2017, officers said they had access to 3.6 million encrypted messages from the servers of a Dutch telecoms company that sold secure phones. It was a major breakthrough and one Taghi’s lawyers have tried to challenge, arguing it was illegal to obtain such a huge amount of data, including from people not involved in the case.

Decrypted messages reveal how routine gangland murder became during the “bloody years” of Taghi’s turf war in Amsterdam as he built his empire.

A stash of weapons found during a raid
A stash of tools used as weapons, which were found during a raid

After the weapons cache was discovered, the messages revealed the panic spreading through the gang’s ranks.

They had bought a GPS system and tracking devices from a spy shop in Nieuwegein.

Ronald Bakker, the owner of the shop, was suspected of co-operating with the police. There was discussion about blowing up the shop with a bazooka. “No more traitors or double-dealing,” Taghi wrote, before saying he hoped the traitor “would be gone tomorrow”.

Two days later, in September 2015, Bakker was shot dead outside his home. Forty minutes later, Taghi messaged: “Watch news later [...] the message has arrived.”

Similarly chilling messages follow the five other murders that are part of the Marengo Trial, which is a name picked at random by computer.

The Marengo murders include the execution of Martin Kok, a blogger who named Taghi in his writing, and, crucially, the accidental hit in 2017 on Hakim Changachi, in Utrecht’s Overvecht neighbourhood.

Martin Kok was killed in 2016 after naming Ridouan Taghi on his blog
Martin Kok was killed in 2016 after naming Ridouan Taghi on his blog

Nabil Bakkali was recruited by Taghi after the two men met in a shisha lounge in 2006. Over the next 10 years, he worked as a lookout for his gang and a supplier of getaway vehicles.

The murder of 31-year-old Changachi in a case of mistaken identity put Bakkali in a difficult position. Changachi was a childhood friend. He had attended his wedding and his family wanted answers. Bakkali had arranged the car that transported the hitman.

He confessed to a member of Changachi’s family, which allegedly enraged Taghi. The boss told an intermediary that he would make his family “sleep” if he mentioned his name.

Convinced he was now a marked man, Bakkali offered himself as a crown witness to police two days after the murder.

He would make 26 statements that form the bedrock of the Marengo Trial, which now boasts a case file of more than 100,000 pages.

Those statements would make Taghi the most wanted man in the Netherlands.

Left to right: Hakim Changachi, Naima Jilal, Ronald Bakker, all believed to be victims of Ridouan Taghi
Left to right: Hakim Changachi, Naima Jilal, Ronald Bakker, all believed to be victims of Ridouan Taghi

A week after prosecutors revealed the identity of their star witness in 2018, Bakkali’s innocent brother was murdered.

Reduan Bakkali, 41, was shot dead at his marketing company offices in Amsterdam by a man who had arranged a job interview with him.

Investigators had little doubt as to who gave the order for an unprecedented assault on the family of a crown witness.

More bloodshed was to come. In September 2019, Derk Wiersum, 44, Bakkali’s lawyer, was shot dead in Amsterdam outside his home.

This attack in particular shook up the complacency about the criminal world lurking behind the affluent and apparently safe exterior of the Netherlands.

“It was the first time that somebody in the regular world got hit over something in the underworld,” said Mr Laumans, whose Het Parool newspaper has led the coverage of the Marengo Trial.

A month later, Dutch police offered a €100,000 (£85,550) reward, the largest in Dutch history, for information leading to Taghi’s arrest.

Ridouan Taghi was arrested in Dubai and was reportedly beaten, kicked and tortured for 72 hours, he said on X
Ridouan Taghi was arrested in Dubai and was reportedly beaten, kicked and tortured for 72 hours, he said on X

Taghi reportedly complained the bounty was too small and branded the authorities “Calvinistic” for their penny pinching.

Taghi, a father, was now based full-time in Dubai. He fled Morocco, where another alleged botched hit had claimed the life of a prominent judge instead of the intended target.

The judge was reportedly a personal friend of the King of Morocco, who began to put pressure on the Emiratis. In 2019, Taghi was arrested and extradited to the Netherlands.

A Blackberry phone found during his arrest contained photos of a naked woman strapped to a dentist’s chair in a make-shift torture chamber. Photographs of the chair were shared with the public by Dutch police to warn them of the violence of the gangs supplying cocaine.

This photo was circulated by Dutch police
This photo was circulated by Dutch police - POLITIE LANDELIJKE EENHEID/REUTERS

Dutch authorities believe the woman was Naima Jilal, a Dutch-Moroccan woman involved in the cocaine trade, but Taghi’s lawyers denied the phone could be linked to their client.

Taghi was held in a high security military prison holding some of Europe’s most dangerous criminals amid fears he would pay Balkan mercenaries to break him out.

Marengo hearings, meanwhile, were held at a heavily fortified Amsterdam court known as the “bunker”, where the army provided added security.

The walls of Taghi’s prison cell did not stop the January 2022 hit on “the Butcher” near Cadiz.

They also failed to prevent the fatal shooting of Peter R de Vries, the Netherlands’ most famous TV journalist, in central Amsterdam in July 2021.

De Vries, a celebrated and Emmy-winning crime reporter, had agreed to support Bakkali during the Marengo Trial, despite the warnings of his colleagues in the media.

Peter R de Vries was shot in the headand died from his injuries nine days later
Peter R de Vries was shot in the head and died from his injuries nine days later - REMKO DE WAAL/AFP

A rock star journalist, with a track record in cracking neglected cold cases, had already had a brush with Taghi.

In May 2019, he wrote on Twitter: “Justice and the police have informed me that I am on the death list of the fugitive Ridouan Taghi and that he has ordered my liquidation.”

A day later, Taghi used an intermediary to contact de Vries. “You can go wherever and whenever you want without fearing any danger from me,” his message said.

“As a boy, I always watched your television programme with great fascination. I respect you and see you as a professional journalist. I have 100,000 per cent nothing against you.”

Many believe that changed after de Vries agreed to help the Bakkali family manage the press and act as confidante to the star witness, before he reportedly rejected the offer of a 10-person security detail from Dutch anti-terror police.

“I can’t look at myself in the mirror if I’m not helping this man,” he reportedly told a TV producer.

He said that he wanted “to send a clear signal to the killers” of Reduan Bakkali and Wiersum.

On July 6 2021, he was walking to his car on Lange Leidsedwarsstraat, a street in Amsterdam city centre full of restaurants and nightclubs, when he was shot in the head. He died from his injuries nine days later on July 15.

King Willem-Alexander called the murder, which made international headlines, an attack on journalism and the rule of law. Security around the prime minister was increased.

Mark Rutte, the prime minister, had his security increased
Mark Rutte, the prime minister, had his security increased - ROBIN UTRECHT/SHUTTERSTOCK

The murders of Bakkali, Wiersum and de Vries are being prosecuted separately to Marengo. Two men were jailed for 30 years for the lawyer’s murder last year. A verdict in the de Vries case is due in June.

There were still more twists and turns in the labyrinthine saga of what some in the Dutch press now call the “Marengo Circus”.

Lawyer Youssef Taghi, the gang boss’s cousin and a member of his defence team, was jailed for five and a half years last year. The 39-year-old abused his right as a lawyer for access to Taghi to help him run the cartel from behind bars. “You don’t say no to Taghi,” he told the court.

Inez Weski, a high-profile lawyer famous for taking on cases no one else will, led Taghi’s defence.

She was arrested last year on suspicion of passing information to Taghi, who is in solitary confinement and only allowed to speak to his lawyer.

The investigation continues but the arrest delayed the lengthy trial while a replacement defence team was appointed.

Ms Weski’s lawyers say she will refuse to answer the allegations in court, or anywhere else, because she is bound by her duty of confidentiality towards her client.

As for Taghi, who at one point appeared set to defend himself, he expects to be given the whole life sentence prosecutors have demanded.

He is said to have told his interrogators after his extradition that they knew he would be given life so they might as well get on with it.

“So be it. Next,” he said.