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Amsterdam to clean up seedy Red Light District

Authorities announced a major crackdown on organized crime in Amsterdam’s Red Light District on Thursday, for the first time bringing national police investigators and tax authorities to bear on what had long been seen as a local problem.
Prostitutes stand behind red-lit windows, waiting for customers in Amsterdam's Red Light District in 1997.
Prostitutes stand behind red-lit windows, waiting for customers in Amsterdam's Red Light District in 1997.Peter Dejong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities announced a major crackdown on organized crime in Amsterdam’s Red Light District on Thursday, for the first time bringing national police investigators and tax authorities to bear on what had long been seen as a local problem.

With its scantily clad prostitutes posing in brothel windows and coffee shops oozing the pungent aroma of marijuana smoke, the area’s seediness has always been part of its attraction.

But the district is a magnet for petty criminals and, authorities believe, human traffickers, drug lords and mobsters who take advantage of the situation to launder money.

Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and coffee shops are licensed to sell small amounts of marijuana. But prostitutes don’t have cash registers and drug vendors don’t give receipts, making it easy for them to launder money for crime lords.

Authorities said they hope to detect and prosecute money-laundering by building a national database of tax returns and other information that would allow them to compare cafe and brothel owners’ legal income to assets they hold around the country. And local authorities promised to enforce other existing laws more strictly.

“Our aim is simple: to get rid of the criminal part of the Red Light District,” said Justice Ministry spokesman Wim van der Weegen.

Detailed accounted laws enforced
Amsterdam has been conducting its own cleanup program for nearly five years, using a 2002 law that forces business operators to disclose detailed accounting in order to have their licenses renewed.

Last year, the city used the law to order the closure of one-third of all brothels in the Red Light District that were unable to comply.

But Amsterdam’s District Court blocked the closures while brothel owners fight the decision. That case is still making its way through the courts.

FILE - Prostitutes stand behind red-lit windows, waiting for customers in Amsterdam's Red Light district in this May 2, 1996 file photo. With its scantily-clad prostitutes posing in brothel windows and coffee shops oozing the pungent aroma of cannabis smoke, Amsterdam's Red Light District has always thrived on its illicit atmosphere. But while the city has long tolerated coffee shops where marijuana is sold openly and fully legalized prostitution, authorities say the network of cobbled alleys and canals is a haven for organized crime where mobsters launder money through real estate, brothels and bars. "We are very worried about the mixing of the underworld with the above board in the center of Amsterdam," the city said Thursday in a press release. "Particularly in the Red Light District, money laundering from real estate... and involvement of organized crime in prostitution, coffee shops, smart shops, and parts of the hotel industry is a cause for concern." The problem is well-known, but few dare to file complaints and evidence is difficult to gather, the statement said. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)Peter Dejong / AP

City spokeswoman Marga Kuperus said women, especially illegal immigrants, are often forced into prostitution, but few dare to file complaints for fear of immigration authorities or of retaliation from their pimps.

Minor drug dealers operate on the street with impunity.

Drug lords and human smuggling rings are believed to control the area, and the city has witnessed a series of gangland killings in recent years.

Prostitution group praises move
The connection between the underground and the legal “is one of the things we’re trying to get a grip on,” by cooperating with national authorities, Kuperus said.

The Red Thread, a prostitutes’ rights organization, welcomed the announcement.

“We’ve been pleading for something like this for years,” spokeswoman Metje Blaak said.

She said Amsterdam police had agreed to respond quickly to any calls for help from prostitutes who are being harassed by criminals.

If the men can’t identify themselves, they’ll be in trouble for violating the country’s national ID law, introduced in 2003; and if they are criminals, they’ll be arrested.

“The hope is just that this will chase them away from the area,” she said.