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Narcotics and the Netherlands, 1920–1995

Why did the international drug regulatory regime of the twentieth century fail to stop an explosive increase in trade and consumption of illegal drugs? This study investigates the histories of smugglers and criminal entrepreneurs in the Netherlands who succeeded in turning the country into the so-called ‘Colombia of Europe’ or the ‘international drug supermarket’. Increasing state regulations and intervention led to the proliferation of ‘criminal anarchy’, a ‘hydra’ of small, anarchic groups and networks ideally suited to circumvent the enforcement of regulation. Networks of smugglers and suppliers of heroin, cocaine, cannabis, XTC, and other drugs were organized without a strict formal hierarchy and based on personal relations and cultural affinities rather than on institutional arrangements. These networks used the excellent logistics and infrastructure of the country and stimulated the development of illegal drug production from Afghanistan to Morocco. They transformed the Netherlands into a transit hub for the international drug trade, supplying other European countries and the UK. They developed direct and indirect connections between supply countries and demand in the Americas. They also created a thriving underground industry of illegal synthetic drug laboratories and indoor cannabis cultivation in the Netherlands itself. Their operations were made possible and developed because of the deep historical social and cultural ‘embeddedness’ of criminal anarchy in Dutch society. Using examples from the rich history of drug smuggling, this book investigates the deeper and hidden foundation of the illegal drug trade, and its effects on our drug policies.

Suriname under Dutch rule, 1750– 1950

Explaining how leprosy was considered in various historical settings by referring to categories of uncleanliness in antiquity, is problematic. The book historicizes how leprosy has been framed and addressed. It investigates the history of leprosy in Suriname, a plantation society where the vast majority of the population consisted of imported slaves from Africa. The relationship between the modern stigmatization and exclusion of people affected with leprosy, and the political tensions and racial fears originating in colonial slave society, exerting their influence until after the decolonization up to the present day. The book explores leprosy management on the black side of the medical market in the age of slavery as contrasted with the white side. The difference in perspectives on leprosy between African slaves and European masters contributed to the development of the 'Great Confinement' policies, and leprosy sufferers were sent to the Batavia leprosy asylum. Dutch debates about leprosy took place when the threat of a 'return' of leprosy to the Netherlands appeared to materialise. A symbiotic alliance for leprosy care that had formed between the colonial state and the Catholics earlier in the nineteenth century was renegotiated within the transforming landscape of Surinamese society to incorporate Protestants as well. By 1935, Dutch colonial medicine had dammed the growing danger of leprosy by using the modern policies of detection and treatment. Dutch doctors and public health officials tried to come to grips with the Afro-Surinamese belief in treef and its influence on the execution of public health policies.

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The drug regulatory regime vs. criminal anarchy
Stephen Snelders

In the twentieth century a global regulatory regime supervised by the League of Nations and later the United Nations came into existence to prohibit and control drug use. This regime was embodied in national legislation such as the Dutch Opium Act, which was introduced in 1919 and underwent various changes in the course of the twentieth century. While increasingly more drugs were regulated, at the same time the Netherlands became a key hub in the international illegal drug trade. Chapter 1 outlines the key perspective and argument of this book’s historical investigation into this development. Drug smuggling was a dialectical response ‘from below’ to state policies ‘from above’. Two elements were crucial for its success. First, the organization of the smugglers in forms of ‘criminal anarchy’: the ‘ways of operation’ (de Certeau) or tactics of the smugglers opposed the drug regulatory regime with self-regulating, fluid, opportunistic, and often temporary structures. Second, the networks of the drug smugglers were social, cultural, and historical, deeply embedded and rooted in Dutch society.

in Drug smuggler nation
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Stephen Snelders

The introduction of the drug regulatory regime in the Netherlands was necessitated by the needs of the country to participate fully in the international community of nations dominated by the Allied victors of the First World War, and to protect the colonial opium monopoly in the Dutch East Indies. However, from the outset the strategies of the state were confronted by the tactics of smugglers and traffickers. Pharmaceutical companies, pharmacists, doctors, patients, and others all tested the boundaries and possibilities of the new regulatory regime in various practices of non-compliance with the new regime. New connections were forged between this ‘upperworld’ and an underworld of suppliers and smugglers. Illegal supply of morphine, heroin, and cocaine did not become the province of large criminal organizations, but rather of flexible and temporary networks of individual partners. On the one hand brokers originating from the pharmaceutical industry connected new forms of supply and demand. On the other hand, criminal entrepreneurs and smugglers began to sideline in the profitable illegal drug market. Distribution chains became socially embedded in bars, dance halls, and brothels. Availability of transport such as fast cars, trains, and river barges, and knowledge of transport routes (border crossings, rivers) that could not be fully controlled by the police made smuggling possible.

in Drug smuggler nation
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Chinese and Greek drug smugglers
Stephen Snelders

In the interwar period a multi-ethnic heterogeneity of groups became involved in drug smuggling. Chinese and Greek smugglers entered the illegal drug market and succeeded in building up successful tactics against state strategies to enforce the new drug regulatory regime. Chinese opium smuggling connected supply sources in the Middle East (Iran, Turkey) with the port towns of Europe, and sometimes collaborated with the Greek smuggling networks originating in the former Ottoman Empire. Both networks could successfully operate because of their relatively closed homogeneous ethnic and social composition; their ability to use global maritime connections, routes, and smuggling hubs through their networks in communities overseas; and because of the limitation of competing sources of supply in legal production. Other contributing factors for the Chinese were their role in the co-management of crime and labour together with Dutch law enforcement agencies and shipping companies, as well as their ability to connect to the demand side of Chinese migrants who lived in a culture of opium smoking both as a source of relaxation after work and as stimulant during work. The Greeks were not so much embedded in Dutch society as capable of establishing international connections with other ethnic groups such as the Chinese and the native Dutch. The interwar period shows the pragmatic cooperation between trafficking networks of different ethnic backgrounds that is another characteristic of criminal anarchy.

in Drug smuggler nation
The rise of cannabis smuggling
Stephen Snelders

In its first phase after the Second World war illegal cannabis smuggling in the Netherlands occurred on a very small scale. It was partly based on the time-honoured tradition of small-scale smuggling by sailors, and partly on the needs and drives of a new generation of countercultural activists. However, by 1971 the illegal cannabis market had become an increasingly interesting and profitable business for more commercially minded smugglers; so interesting that criminal entrepreneurs moved in. An underground or shadow economy came into existence that undermined the power of the state. Pakistani entrepreneurs used planes to smuggle larger cargoes to Europe. Dutch criminal entrepreneurs, embedded in the working-class-neigbourhoods and harbour districts of the big cities, used their skills, their funds, and their contacts with transporters (e.g., fishermen) in the Netherlands’ maritime trading culture to smuggle cannabis on a scale not before witnessed. What the police saw as the ‘primitive’ and flexible organization model of these entrepreneurs proved to be quite successful when transferred to the illegal drug trade. Dutch smuggling entrepreneurs and networks connected quite easily with counterparts in cultivation areas such as the Moroccan Rif Mountains and the Lebanese Bekaa Valley. Here, in response to Western demand, cannabis cultivation and trade became a profitable economic sector more or less protected by political authorities and basically left alone by the state. Containerization of the world’s shipping offered further possibilities for smuggling drugs in bulk.

in Drug smuggler nation
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Chinese triads, Turkish families, and heroin
Stephen Snelders

Chinese Chiu chow networks spanning the globe from the Far East to Western Europe reconstituted the global heroin market in the 1970s. A new public demand for heroin turned to the illegal market to satisfy its needs. The Chinese networks could flexibly connect supply and demand based on their social embeddedness in Chinese communities in Dutch society since the First World War. From the perspectives of geography and logistical infrastructure the Netherlands was an ideal transit hub for the heroin trade. While the favourite mode of transport shifted from steamships to planes, the organization and methods of smuggling remained traditional, with Chinese supervisors overseeing couriers of various national and ethnic backgrounds. In the 1980s dominance (but not control) of the market was taken over by Turkish and Kurdish groups. They connected opium production in Afghanistan with demand for heroin in Western Europe, using the time-honoured transport system by road through Asia and the trans-European motorway system that had been developing since the 1970s. Like the Chinese, these groups were embedded in migrant communities in the Netherlands. The networks and groups involved were as temporary, fluid, and opportunistic as those of other criminal groups in the drug markets. They were involved in a constant shifting of alliances and conflicts with each other and with Dutch entrepreneurs. Their successful functioning furthermore depended on making alliances in an ‘upperworld’ of transport companies and corrupt customs officials facilitating the transport through Europe.

in Drug smuggler nation
Stephen Snelders

After the liberalization of the Opium Act in 1976 the cannabis market further expanded. Illegal cannabis supply succeeded in adapting to the necessity of increasing and more standardized demand. Klaas Bruinsma and his associates evolved from small-scale dealers in a criminal underworld to large-scale international entrepreneurs. They made use of contacts in the maritime transport industry, in countries of supply, and within an upperworld of small business enterprises and families with no criminal associations that were used for covers and stashes. However, contrary to the perspective of law enforcement officers and possibly the aspirations of criminals, the supply side of the cannabis market remained fragmented. The networks around Bruinsma never evolved into a permanent structured organization. Supply remained characterized by flexibility, with different entrepreneurs and specialists working in shifting alliances. While at the end of the 1980s the police started to hunt for the presumed kingpins in the drug networks, literally hundreds of groups had entered the market by 1990. They originated from various social and ethnic backgrounds, although they were for the most part dominated by native Dutch. Kamper (mobile home) communities became an important locus of embeddedness of the cannabis trade. Various groups of smugglers succeeded in establishing crucial alliances in supply countries and within the maritime and road transport industries. They also moved from trade to production and took a share in the indoor cultivation of Dutch marihuana (‘nederwiet’) that had been set up by former hippie idealists.

in Drug smuggler nation
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Colombian syndicates and cocaine
Stephen Snelders

Colombian cocaine smuggling was not embedded in Dutch society to the extent Chinese or Turkish and Kurdish heroin smuggling were. Nevertheless it proved as successful. Colombian smugglers succeeded on a grander scale in what had been pioneered by the Greek smugglers of the interwar period: forging alliances within Dutch society in order to link supply and demand. The geographical location of the Netherlands, its logistical infrastructure swiftly connecting transport arriving from overseas with Britain and the rest of Europe, and the congenial business climate for international trade, was excellently suited for cocaine smuggling. The logistical infrastructure and the transport routes by sea and air were impossible for Dutch law enforcement agencies to close off. An additional bonus was the connections of the Netherlands with its former colonies in South America, and especially with Suriname, where the regime facilitated the cocaine trade. Unlike media images suggest, smuggling was not directed by strictly organized Colombian cartels controlling the chain of coca cultivation to distribution. Export syndicates were fragmented, temporary, and shifting in their constitution. Most of them were quite small and they are better characterized as chain networks. Envoys from the syndicates had to establish personal relationships in the Netherlands to further their trade. Their business associates were often ‘third-rate criminals’ rather than criminal masterminds. Nevertheless, despite the successes of some police operations the very fragmentation and flexibility of the smuggling networks ensured that supply was never threatened.

in Drug smuggler nation
Synthetic drugs and subverting the state
Stephen Snelders

The regulation of amphetamines, starting in 1968 and resulting in their prohibition under the revised Opium Act of 1976 led to the development of an underground production. In the 1990s this underground chemistry expanded. It supplied Europe with a large part of its illegal synthetic drugs. The geographical position of the Netherlands, its logistical infrastructure and excellent transport routes by car or ferry into the rest of Europe all contributed to the rise of this export industry. So too did the presence of a chemical industry that supplied the underground with the necessary raw materials and precursor chemicals. Different cultures came together in the constitution of underground chemistry and trade. Idealists convinced they could create a better world by a better chemistry set up an illegal LSD production and trade that was embedded in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s and remained rather apart from amphetamine and XTC production. Idealists were also involved in establishing the first production lines of MDMA and related compounds. When regulation made markets illegal while demand soared, criminal entrepreneurs noticed and took their chances and came to dominate the supply side. Criminal entrepreneurs connected to the smuggling cultures of the south of the Netherlands, as well as from the cities in other parts of the country, and later outlaw motorcycle gangs moved in on the amphetamine and XTC production and trade, sometimes in alliance with idealists.

in Drug smuggler nation