Amsterdam Has a Giant Problem With Hand Grenades

Residents are waking up to the epidemic use of these explosive use by gangs.

Robbie Mukai
Jan 4 · 5 min read

I didn’t know what to expect, but the first time a held a live grenade I was paralyzed with fear. I could only think that when I pulled this pin; if it rolled out of my hand by accident, how it would blow the half of me apart, and then the man standing next to me.

That was years ago as a young Army recruit, and I thought I would never see one again. Today, I live in Amsterdam, and for the last decade, the city has been trying to reconcile a tale of two cities.

One the one hand, according to The Economist Amsterdam is known as one of the safest in the world. But on another, the city has been struggling to stem the use of these weapons to intimidate businesses.

The cases of use in hand grenades isn’t a surprise

Because in 2017 alone, there were 22 cases of grenades being found by pedestrians. With some of those incidents, the grenades have been intentionally set off on the doorsteps of businesses. 2018 saw no better. That year their use exactly doubled. Only six months into 2019, there were already an incredible 22 cases.

This trend has been going for the last 11 years. In that time, there have been a total of 117 these incidents, but more than half of them occurred in 2018 and 2019 alone. It’s leading to questions as to why there is this sudden rise, and where gangs are even getting them in the first place.

Thanks to the Russians…

Many of the grenades are originally manufactured by the former Soviet Union. These came to be sold to armies around the world — most notably to Yugoslavia.

But when the civil war there upended the government control in the 90s, paramilitaries seized control of weapons stockpiles It brought a huge influx of arms easily available to the rest of Europe.

They are cheaper than a beer

One hand grenade is supposed to set a person back somewhere from 5 to 20 euro. In some cases, arms traders would throw in a hand grenade with the purchase of an AK-47.

Many of these are sold over the dark web using bitcoin. It’s this cheap oversupply with full anonymity that has led to criminals to use even the most frivolous of causes. Recently, supporters of ADO football club in the Hauge found a liver grenade hanging on their door.

Used for drugs and gangs

It’s most common is using them for intimidation in the illicit drug market. Cannabis has been held in a legal gray area, but the sale has still been tolerated for decades in the Netherlands. This has been the traditional business target for gangs to intimidate for extra tax.

New Times Coffeeshop was closed after two hand grenades were found last April. Others have not been so lucky. Smoke Palace in Amsterdam Oost was closed for months after two explosions in January and March.

Intimidation used to be the key motivator, but in recent years extortion is now on the top priority for gangs. That’s because Amsterdam has seen explosive growth in its real estate market. Criminals know that long-established companies have the money to pay a shakedown. That has lead to the targeting of businesses that are more mainstream.

“I’m being extorted”

These have started to include hotels located near the city center. One suffered two attacks last summer. After the second attack, the police and the mayor felt compelled to close the hotel for a period.

The 77-year-old proprietor objected, saying that she was being extorted after refusing to sell her hotel at a low price to local gangsters. The city government didn’t have to sympathize.

Right now businesses are required to eat the cost because the city will almost always close a business that has been attacked. Logic seems to say that this is playing into the extorter's hands. Criminals have started using the municipality’s policy of closing down businesses to their own advantage. Because if a hotel or other need to close during an investigation, then they might have no choice but to give in to their exporter's demands.

A spreading trend in Sweden and more

The situation would better if we could say that all this was happening in an isolated vacuum — but it’s not. Grenade intimidation and extortion are being used in other concentrated parts of Europe. And since they are used in one low crime area, it might not surprise you to know that a place like Sweden has become a hotbed for this kind o action. In fact, It’s becoming scary.

The country saw fewer than five incidents in 2014, but in 2017, there have already been 20. A further 39 grenades were seized by police. Then, in 2018, there were 162 explosions in the past two months alone.

It’s a city with an almost idealized egalitarian narrative, and yet, the hand grenade problem is far worse than Amsterdam. Recently, a 63-year-old Chilean immigrant and citizen was killed after touching a hand grenade he mistook for a toy.

It isn’t unusual to hear about a grenade being found or exploding in London, Antwerp, or France. However, there is a far more centralized focus right now in these two cities. One reason may be that both Sweden and the Netherlands are both countries that hold major ports. Another key factor is that they are also cities with growing real-estate opportunities.

Government reaction

In 2017, Dutch judges and prosecutors made an appeal for stronger sentencing laws when convictions were made. A year later, these demands were fulfilled, but even in a country with strong gun laws, prison sentences are light compared to places like America.

A first-time conviction for carrying a hand grenade will only lead to a 6 month in prison term. However, even a second conviction, or finding a large number of weapons, will lead to convicts receiving a higher sentence. However, this is still set at a maximum of six years. However, sentencing is a moot point if arrests aren't being made.

Hard to find, and hard to prove the people doing it

Police in Amsterdam has so far struggled to meet the challenge of even making arrests. Only 20 percent of cases have resulted in arrests made. There have been even fewer convictions.

Even as the police in Europe are known to employ heavy use of street cameras, they do little good since the images are often too grainy at night for anyone to make out a face.

It has gone little better in Sweden. There, only 1 in 10 cases lead to a conviction. Low numbers can be explained because grenades are found long after the perpetrator has left the scene.

In a city that is accustomed to the praise of being once of the safest in the world; but incidents with grenades and the beheading of a man are challenging that account.

The Amsterdam city police have promised a response strategy — due out later in June. With help from the community; hopefully, they can change the narrative, and bring a peaceful close to this dark chapter.

Robbie Mukai

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Social media manager: likes talking nerdy about building effective ad copy + business thought + social marketing strategy.

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