Inside the Dutch ‘torture chamber’

Also soundproofed, the six other containers were allegedly designed as holding cells for those waiting to be tortured. One had handcuffs on the ground to hold captives in a crouching position; another had them hanging from the ceiling, forcing the captive to stand with their arms raised.

There was a chemical toilet. Meanwhile, in an adjacent room there was a sitting and sleeping area for the “guards”, complete with a sink, coffee machine, table and chairs.

This is all, allege prosecutors, evidence of an an intention to run a sustained and professional torture operation.

There were multiple cameras. If, as prosecutors allege, P’s purpose was to terrify his rivals into returning his cash, why merely torture someone when you could also film it and send the footage to the victim’s friends as well?

Roger P denies planning to abduct and torture, but has said nothing in his defence. He is additionally facing charges trafficking thousands of kilos of cocaine through Rotterdam and Antwerp in 2015 and 2016, which he also denies.

Prosecuters want 12 years for a conviction of the torture, and are separately demanding 17 and nine months for the trafficking.

A fellow defendant in the torture case, named in court as Robin van O, 41, who is accused of playing a leading role in setting up the facility, has said a little more. According to his lawyer, his client was “nothing more than a simple handyman who thought he was busy furnishing cannabis lofts”.

The case against van O is currently postponed due to serious illness.

Either way, the state is hoping that the Encro chat messages will do the talking for them. 

One, allegedly sent by P using the codename Luxuryballoon, suggests the normally careful, discreet kingpin was not planning to stay above the fray.

“I’m not normally from this department,” it says. “But there are a few I hope I get the chance to torture.”

It was in the Encrochat messages that the phrase “treatment room” was used.

It’s clear, then – at least according to Dutch prosecutors – why Roger P and his associates wanted to torture their rival gang. Greed and revenge are powerful motivators. But that hardly explains why they should choose to go about it like this.

The elaborate preparation of the converted shipping containers at Wouwse Plantage has surprised narco watchers across the world. After all, what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned cellar and a couple of crowbars?

Jeremy McDermott, who runs the investigative InSight Crime agency from the Colombian trafficking hub of Medellin, says: “It seems a lot of theatre.

“In Latin America it tends to be much more primitive. It’s done anywhere and with whatever the tools are at hand.

“We’ve never come across anything as theatrical as this, and I have never come across the need for a torture infrastructure.”

The precedent for systematic use of torture among Euorpean drug gangs is limited.

In 2018 two members of a Belgian gang known as the Turtles were kidnapped and filmed being mutilated with a soldering iron. In recent years Balkan gangs have also been known to dabble, with residents of Belgrade complaining of “sawing sounds”. But comparable examples are few and far between.

However, if a narco gang in supposedly quiet and civilised western Europe decided to go in for torture in a big way, wouldn’t they have to do it like this?

Niko Vorobyov, author of Dopeworld and a former drug dealer, says: “The Netherlands and Belgium are pretty safe countries overall, so you can’t get away with widescale butchery and littering the streets with bodies.

“That’s one of the reasons why the Morocans are slowly being brought down at the moment. In Colombia you can just take them [victims] out to the sticks and cut their fingers off, whatever – witnesses are too scared to tell. But here it makes sense to have a dedicated place.”

So, although Roger P, aka “Piet Costa”, has allegedly strong links to Latin America, it seems unlikely that he got the idea for his torture chamber there.

Perhaps popular culture, and in particular Hollywood, is as much to blame as real-life Medellin or Cali. After all, torture sells, and in recent decades scenes depicting it have become some of the most memorable in cinema history.

Think of Pulp Fiction, with the gangland boss Marsellus Wallace bellowing at his whimpering captive of his plans to “get medieval on your ass”.

Or Reservoir Dogs, and its unforgettable moment where a whimsically sadistic armed robber, played by Michael Madsen, slices the ear off a captured policeman.

“It’s amusing to me to torture a cop,” he explains, helpfully, before doing so.

Echoes of Wouwse Plantage?

And what of waterboarding? Would P and his associates have – allegedly – thought to inflict the controversial practice had it received so much airtime and movie representations since 9/11?

Whatever its origins, P’s alleged wholesale embrace of torture raises questions about the maturity of his gang’s business approach, according to Mr McDermott, the South America expert.

“Torture can be used in specific circumstances, but on the whole it’s not good for business,” he says.

“Certainly in Colombia the idea of torturing women and children is not commonplace. It’s usually the sign of rather an unsophisticated organisation.”

He explained that, although of course still wading in bloodshed, the Colombian cocaine trade has developed an adjudication system to cut down on tit for tat violence.

“It means if things do go wrong you don’t have to kill each other. You can go to a third party called the Officina, and they will sort it out.

“You have to abide by its rulings, and if you ignore the decision they send the sicarios (assassins).”

But if P and his rivals’ business practices are less mature than those of South American narcos, that’s hardly surprising: the Dutch and Belgian cocaine market – at least on this scale – is itself far newer.

Rival gangs are fighting like snakes in a sack for a share of the mind-blowing profits. Meanwhile, everyone else is having to learn to live with the increase of violence on their streets.

At the opening of the trial, prosecutor Koos Plooij spoke of his hope that the gruesome details of the torture chamber might jolt a change of behaviour in those whose drug habits fuel the flames.

“The question is how many people are willing to admit that there is indeed a connection between their cocaine use – whether it is to party, deal with work stress or suppress psychological problems – and the underworld that is happy to answer demand but according to its own rules: corrupting, undermining, tough, sparing nothing and nobody.”

It’s the right question. 

But to hope that the already iconic image of that chair will prompt a collective shudder strong enough to dent society’s appetite for cocaine seems fanciful. If anything, the trope has already entered the cultural imagination, which may have prompted it in the first place.

“We have a TV show in The Netherlands called Mocro Mafia and in a recent series they included a shipping container converted for torture,” says Meeus.

“It’s very, very popular.”

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