The Double-Edged Sword of Dutch Hit Drama ‘Mocro Maffia’

The brutal, fast-paced TV show has soared to success depicting violent gangs, but critics say it reinforces associations between ethnic minorities and crime

The Double-Edged Sword of Dutch Hit Drama ‘Mocro Maffia’
Dutch TV sensation “Mocro Maffia.” (Videoland/Skoop Media)

In July 2020, special unit police in the south of the Netherlands, in the province of Brabant, had tracked a band of criminals to an abandoned trailer park. Bodycam footage shows the officers, clad in combat fatigues and armed with machine guns, bust open an unsuspecting shipping container. They were expecting money or drugs, but what they found was much harder to process: The inside was covered in a soundproof layer of shimmering aluminum foil. Scattered on the floor were pincers, scalpels, and a pair of hedge shears. In the center of the space stood a dental chair fitted with straps for the wrists, ankles and neck.

Just under a year later, Dutch citizens watched a similar spectacle unfold on their screens. This time, it wasn’t on the news, but during an episode of “Mocro Maffia,” a crime drama about rival gangs warring over control of Amsterdam’s criminal underworld. During the third season, one of the gang leaders, a gaunt, fuzzy-haired Dutch Moroccan called “The Pope,” is betrayed by the family of his most trusted lieutenant. He is thrown into the trunk of a car and driven to a remote trailer park in Brabant. The Pope has no idea what is inside the container his captors open up — but as the screen went dark, the audience did.

The first season of “Mocro Maffia” premiered in 2018 on streaming service Videoland, the Dutch competitor to Netflix, and was immediately met with critical and commercial success. Its Hollywood-level production quality, suspenseful script and charismatic actors have made it one of the country’s most celebrated television productions, spawning several Dutch spinoffs and earning multiple awards. But it’s not just the killer plot and breakneck pacing that helped make “Mocro Maffia” — whose sixth and final season is set to come out in 2024 — the cultural sensation that it is today. Equally important to the show’s success story is its role in a wider Dutch-Moroccan history, a history which is also vital background to the recent electoral victory of far-right, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders.

Currently available to view in Belgium, France, Germany, Japan and Indonesia, “Mocro Maffia” has raked in 50 million streams in the Netherlands alone, almost three times its total population. The show is one of the first Dutch productions to be made by, and feature, mostly people of color: a welcome development in a country whose media landscape is yet to reflect its multicultural makeup, where nearly 1 in 4 citizens are immigrants or the children of immigrants, according to government data, with the largest minority groups hailing from Turkey, Morocco, Suriname and Indonesia.

Forty-year-old Achmed Akkabi, a successful former child actor born to Moroccan parents in The Hague, adapted a nonfiction crime book of the same name for the show, in which he also stars.

In the Netherlands, the term “Mocro Maffia” (in Dutch it’s written with two “f”s) refers to a vast, transnational network of loosely connected crime syndicates that smuggles drugs through the harbor cities of Rotterdam, Antwerp in Belgium and Algeciras in Spain, and then distributes them across the continent. The syndicates derive their name from their demographic makeup: Although counting a variety of nationalities, from Turkish to Surinamese, many of their members are Dutch and Belgian citizens of Moroccan origin.

Although members of the real-life Mocro Maffia mostly fight among themselves and against other criminal organizations, traces of their shadowy confrontations frequently spill out into broad daylight. Almost a decade ago, Curacaoan kingpin Gwenette Martha was killed after leaving an Amsterdam restaurant, his body pierced with over 80 bullets. In 2016, the residents of Amsterdam’s Schinkelbuurt neighborhood discovered the severed head of 23-year-old gangster Nabil Amzieb lying in front of a local shisha lounge. Police had found Amzieb’s decapitated body the day before inside a burning car, and speculated his head had been taken to intimidate some of the lounge’s frequent visitors.

More shocking stories were revealed in the bestselling 2014 book. Written by seasoned crime journalists Wouter Laumans and Marijn Schrijver, the book — whose title helped popularize the term — hardly concerns top dogs like Martha. Instead, its narrative unfolds from the perspective of foot soldiers: workers down on their luck, alienated teenagers flirting with petty crime and immigrants struggling to find their place in a society that doesn’t seem to want them.

Instead of making a straightforward adaptation, Akkabi used the book as the backdrop for an original story, one that — although inspired by real-life individuals and events — ultimately became a work of fiction. In the script, Martha transforms into a character called Romano Tevreden, a cocaine boss from Suriname. His best friend and henchman, The Pope, played by Akkabi, is more of a chimera. His relationship to Tevreden is a nod to Martha’s second in command, Moroccan criminal-at-large Houssine Ait Soussan. Other characters, like The Pope’s enforcer Tatta, which is Moroccan slang for “Dutch person,” are inventions that fit nicely into the alternate universe Akkabi and his co-writers have created.

Key to the show’s representation of ethnic minorities is the hostile environment in which they live. Turkish and Moroccan nationals first moved to the Netherlands in the 1960s in search of jobs in a country wrecked by World War II. Initially welcomed for their cheap labor, their families later became victims of widespread discrimination, and neutral phrases like “guest worker” and “foreigner” made way for more xenophobic terms such as “vreemdeling” (stranger), “buitenstaander” (outsider) and “uitkeringstrekker” (benefit recipient). Conservative politicians stressed the need for cultural assimilation, while those on the far right pushed for deportation and stricter immigration policies. During the early 2000s, Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States facilitated the rise of demagogues like Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) turned status anxiety into identity politics, painting the Islamic faith as jihadist and the Arab world as backward: an existential threat to the Western way of life. His party’s recent campaign manifesto proposes bans on Islamic schools and headscarves in government buildings. “The Netherlands is not an Islamic country,” it reads. “Islam will never be part of our DNA.”

Over time, such widespread prejudice led to profound social and economic inequality. On average, Dutch Moroccans are poorer than their ethnic Dutch counterparts, and far less likely to attend university. “I understood from a young age we stood at the bottom of the ladder,” Akkabi told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant in 2021. “In the game of life, I was playing at a disadvantage.” While a lack of opportunity and a deeply rooted sense of alienation has pushed some youths to petty crime, Akkabi’s father urged him to develop a thicker skin and put up with the maltreatment others understandably refuse to tolerate. When a teenage Akkabi applied to work in a boutique clothing store, the manager only hired him under the condition he introduce himself to the wealthy, white shoppers not as Achmed from Morocco, but as Carlo from Sicily.

Today, instead of shying away, passersby rush toward him in the hope of getting an autograph. The show has not just helped his own career, but also those of other people of color struggling to break through in the Dutch entertainment industry. Remembering what it was like to be in their shoes, Akkabi has continuously taken chances on actors with limited experience. In 2020, he offered a leading role to Khalid Alterch, a Dutch-Moroccan rapper who, prior to his work on “Mocro Maffia,” didn’t have a single acting credit under his belt; his character, the delightfully foul-mouthed gangster Tonnano, is now a fan favorite. A year later, Akkabi would do the same for 19-year-old Marouane Meftah, who plays a juvenile delinquent looking to escape the underworld before it’s too late. This approach even extends to the end credits, which often feature rap songs from up-and-coming artists.

Beyond serving as a launchpad for Moroccan talent, “Mocro Maffia” has made tremendous progress in the on-screen representation of Moroccan culture. Car chases, drive-by shootings, and torture sessions were interspersed with scenes depicting Moroccan weddings, funerals, and complex family dynamics. In a country where English-language shows are frequently dubbed into Dutch, many of the characters in “Mocro Maffia” speak in Arabic, or a mix of Arabic and Dutch.

“Mocro Maffia” is not without its critics, however. Abdessamad Bouabid, an assistant professor of criminology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, studying the intersection of migration, stigmatization and crime, stopped watching the show after its first season. Not because he thinks it is bad — “It’s very good,” he clarifies over Zoom — but because he fears it will have a bad influence on those who watch it, and reinforce negative stereotypes many ethnic Dutch have about Moroccans. Several shocking scenes from the show come to mind. The episode where an underling of The Pope abducts and rapes a rival gang member’s sister, for instance, could promote the notion (propagated by the likes of Wilders) that Moroccans are misogynistic and prone to sexual violence against women, while the episode where rival gang members are burned with an iron, or forcibly injected with heroin, could give viewers the impression they are dangerous and sadistic.

Bouabid, himself of Moroccan descent, says the show’s arguable glorification of the criminal lifestyle could convince disenfranchised youth flirting with crime to take things a step further. For all its cruelty, the show’s charismatic protagonists do have a seductive charm to them reminiscent of other antiheroes, like Walter White from “Breaking Bad” or Tommy Shelby from “Peaky Blinders.” Moreover, “Mocro Maffia” clearly highlights the wealth and status successful criminal undertakings can produce: When, in the first season, Romano’s gang gets its hands on a multimillion-dollar stash of cocaine, the music we hear is Kanye West’s thumping “POWER.”

“I don’t like to speak of a ‘Mocro Maffia,’” Bouabid tells New Lines, “because it links Moroccan identity to crime. The real-life organization consists of so many different ethnicities, they wouldn’t need a diversity department.”

Akkabi, when confronted with these criticisms, usually has a counterargument: Just as watching “The Sopranos” doesn’t make you treat every Italian like a mobster, so too “Mocro Maffia” will not have you believe every Moroccan is a bloodthirsty cocaine dealer. At best, “The Sopranos” will have people greet their local pizza baker with a “Ciao, va bene?” because they feel they understand the culture a bit better. It’s the same with Akkabi’s show. “We’re not saying every Moroccan child should become a criminal,” he told Volkskrant. “We’re saying: You want to become a criminal? Then you’re gonna die. Yes, you might have some money for a while, and buddies, but the end result is: you’re gonna die.”

Akkabi is not wrong. From the beginning, the story of “Mocro Maffia” presents itself as an almost Shakespearean cycle of senseless, retaliatory violence where nobody wins and everybody suffers, especially the innocent. One might even argue it is this philosophy, more so than the copious amounts of sex, drugs and money, that made “Mocro Maffia” the hit it is today. Much like “Game of Thrones,” it is the kind of show where any character could die at any moment, and not even the protagonists are safe.

The higher the bodies pile up, the more the survivors question their actions. Revenge plots, of which there are many, always end in anticlimactic fashion, with the vengeful winding up under the ground or, in the rare instances when they do succeed, failing to find satisfaction in their achievement.

Admirers of the show see it as a brutally honest and ultimately informative illustration of the socioeconomic factors underpinning both Dutch crime as well as the stigmatization it leads to. Its detractors, meanwhile, insist “Mocro Maffia” is a sensational take on a topic that should be handled with even greater nuance, a wish-fulfilling fantasy exacerbating the societal problems it aims to address. Bouabid goes as far as to argue the show is a form of commercial exploitation, placing “Mocro Maffia” in the same class as popular blaxploitation movies produced in the U.S. since the 1970s. Bouabid concludes, “We need movies and shows that depict Dutch Moroccans not as criminals, but human beings.”

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