Monthly Archives: August 2021

‘Drug Smuggler Nation: Narcotics and the Netherlands, 1920-1995.’ By Stephen Snelders

A review by Christopher Hallam

Despite its reputation as a centre of illicit drug trafficking and the oft-times bane of the international drug control regime, relatively little has been written by academics on the historical background of that ‘Drug Smuggler Nation’, the Netherlands.

Stephen Snelders sets out to address this lacuna, exploring trafficking in the Netherlands between the end of the First World War and the 1990s, a key era in the establishment and development of both the drug trade and the international drug control apparatus. In a series of nine chapters including an introduction and a conclusion, a series organized both chronologically and in terms of broad thematic strokes, he elaborates this history through the use of certain conceptual tools, central amongst which is the idea of ‘criminal anarchy’. This conception deconstructs the popular notion of the strictly hierarchical crime syndicate with ‘Mr Big’ at the helm and a variety of low level ‘soldiers’ carrying out the dirty work of drug supply and associated criminality: the ‘pyramid model’.

Snelders notes that the advent of the international drug control regime created new opportunities for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, a point which is equally valid in various other national contexts. The new system of controls, combined with an increasing public appetite for newly illegal drugs, ‘led to the proliferation of a ‘hydra’ of small, anarchic groups and networks ideally suited to circumventing the enforcement of regulation’ (p.2). He goes on to state that, ‘When one head of this hydra was chopped off, another one grew in its place’ (p.2).  These groups included what Snelders calls ‘sailor-smugglers, idealists from countercultural scenes, and criminal opportunists.’ Forming fluid and mobile temporary alliances, they worked together with other groups and networks, and with legitimate ‘upperworld’ figures, especially in the chemical and maritime sectors. Coming from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds (Dutch, Chinese, Turkish, Kurdish, Moroccan etc), they made use of the Netherlands’ highly developed logistics and infrastructure and its rail, road, and maritime connectivity to turn the country into an important transit hub in the international trade, moving drugs on to other continental countries and to the United Kingdom.

Elaborating the political economy of the drug trade, Snelders critiques the theory of Robert McBride, a US social scientist whose PhD was entitled ‘Business as Usual’ and which argued that the illegal drug trade was structurally akin to that for legal intoxicants. McBride believed that criminalisation meant that the illicit market would tend toward monopolisation, high prices, and domination by organised crime groups (p.8). According to Snelders, however, predictions of ‘increasing monopolization of the market, higher prices, and control by vertically organized ‘enterprises’ have…not been validated; rather the contrary’. He observes that heroin and cocaine prices fell during the 1980s and 1990s; the market has witnessed increased competition and drug availability, ‘finding its own dark niche in the economic system’ (p.8).

The author contrasts the hierarchical model with a recurring spontaneous order that he terms ‘criminal anarchy’, as discussed above. He is careful to distinguish this flexible order from a mere mass of chaos and random linkages. Rather, its horizontal organization and dynamic connections were perfectly compatible with efficient smuggling and other supply mechanisms. Criminal anarchy deployed these horizontal connections to forge alliances and to embed itself within the host society. Some of those involved were drawn from what had been a licit supply economy and became criminals as a result of the establishment of the drug control apparatus and its new arrangement of roles and definitions; others were already criminals but saw the opportunities for profit in a novel area of illegal work and income. Snelders states that:

To understand the historical vicissitudes in the seemingly chaotic and unpredictable world of drug trafficking it is essential to observe the patterns of criminal anarchy (p.9).

The book illustrates its themes by use of a broad range of archival and other historical resources, citing well known examples such as the 1930s trafficker Ellie Eliopoulos. Despite a pervasive popular myth, Eliopoulos’ organization was not constructed along the lines of the pyramid model, with Eliopoulos as a Mr Big at the summit; instead, Snelders contends that he is best understood as a businessman who operated in the illegal drug markets as a facilitator, using his connections to forge linkages between supply and demand on an international scale. He made use of the loosely connected networks (including those in the upperworld) of criminal anarchy.

Chapter two of the book explores trafficking during the interwar period, beginning with the Dutch Opium Act of 1919, in which the Netherlands complied with its obligations as a signatory of the 1912 International Opium Convention. Like other colonialist nations, the Netherlands was ambivalent about the convention, as the Dutch state had substantial incomes from its opium regime in Asia. Domestically, companies often responded to the new controls by recourse to ‘off the books’ transactions, and individuals whose opium licences had been withdrawn continued their business by means of connections in the rapidly developing illicit market. The interwar years, says the author, witnessed the advent of Dutch criminal anarchy embedded in the border towns and ports, linked to an upperworld of respectable manufacturers and facilitators.

Three chapters of the book deal with what Snelders calls ‘global perils.’ This theme is highly significant, as the models of multi-ethnic cooperation frequently enabled the illicit market to outwit the control apparatus that was located within the strictly demarcated relationships of nation states. The first of these chapter on ‘global perils’, chapter 2, directs the focus onto this multi-ethnic dimension of the illicit market, looking primarily at Chinese and Greek smugglers in the interwar years. It was then that the Netherlands emerged as both an end point and a transit hub for illicit opioids produced in Asia. The country’s role in maritime trade is to the fore here, as the state sought to impose controls while limiting the damage to its licit trade. The Dutch East Indies provided the key opium connection, with many Chinese residents of the islands in the habit of smoking opium for pleasure and medical uses, a habit which had been introduced to much of Asia though colonial contacts with European sailors and merchants. The Chinese role in manning the ships on which colonial trade depended enabled them to transport their drug use and supplies back to the European end of the pole.

In a fascinating history, the book explores the emergence of the Chinese ‘secret society’, which came to haunt the Dutch and the wider European imagination. From this spectre congealed the ‘triad’ secret society, a term that originated in the Chinese ‘three dots society’. These shadowy networks pre-dated the creation of Fu Manchu and the ‘Yellow Peril’, which loomed large in European culture in the years between the world wars. They were, according to Snelders, mutual aid societies resembling the masonic societies of Europe, although their membership was drawn from a lower social class. The chapter weaves a fascinating and pungent narrative of the Dutch urban underground and its transnational links.

As Snelders summarises:

The interwar period already shows the pragmatic cooperation between trafficking networks of different ethnic backgrounds that is a characteristic of criminal anarchy…Their decentralization and fragmentation facilitated rather than hindered operations and made access to the market relatively easy (p.67).

The book then moves on to the post war drug trade and the countercultural movement of the 1960s, during which time the major drug of Dutch trade changes from opium to cannabis. Sourced from countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, and Afghanistan, where cultivation and production increased to meet an expanding western demand, hashish began its shift toward market dominance in the Netherlands in 1967. Those supplying the trade were at first counter-cultural youth travelling the hippie trail, and sailors. Hippie smugglers helped to forge connections with local producers in those countries named above, where borders were leaky and smuggling simple. The counterculture was international and transnational; its networks spanned the Netherlands, the UK and all of western Europe. Distribution was easy if one was part of these networks, and the aim was usually to make small profit and- probably most importantly- to access supplies for oneself and one’s friends. Sailors continued the mostly small-scale smuggling they had carried on before the war, and often had more of a motive in cash profit than their hippie counterparts. They were soon followed by criminal entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity to make serious money. These groups generally shipped larger quantities, and made use of the maritime trade, sometimes chartering ships and bringing several thousand kilos of cannabis into the Netherlands. By the 1970s, and in a step change in the business, they were employing container ships.

Chapter 5 is the second on ‘global perils’, and deals with the Chinese triads and Turkish families who trafficked in heroin. The Dutch heroin market was large by 1971, with an ‘epidemic’ of consumers. The US Drug Enforcement Agency alleged in the mid-1970s that Amsterdam was the capital of a global, Chinese-run heroin hub, operated by the triads. Dutch police had been focussed on the triads since 1973, in particular the Hong-Kong based ‘14K’ triad, which Snelders describes as a loose network of independent gangs’ (p.121).

By the 1980s, Turkish and Kurdish groups had assumed a dominant position in the heroin trafficking business. The Dutch cannabis trade bloomed after 1976, with the first of the country’s (in)famous  coffee shops opening in the early 1970s. The cannabis trade is discussed in chapter 6, while the subsequent chapter discusses the arrival of the Colombian ‘cartels’ in the 1980s. The 1990s saw the advent of the synthetic drugs market, which was accompanied by fears that democracy, social authority, and the Dutch state would be subverted by organised crime, with a large and thriving underground economy of drug production and export and a partnership between criminals and chemists. The authorities’ anxieties focussed particularly on the country’s southern provinces, especially North Brabant and Zeeland, where drug smuggling became deeply embedded in a deviant cultural milieu. At the same time, Snelders argues in his concluding chapter that a curious pride existed in relation to the Netherlands’ underground multinationals; global adventuring and maritime trade constituting a longstanding facet of Dutch national identity. Alongside this paradox, the author notes another, more familiar in drug policy history: namely, that increases in demand have followed the intensification of expanded prohibition.

By way of conclusion, at the heart of Snelders’ book lies the concept of criminal anarchy. His historical research is marshalled to demonstrate the continuing role of the patterns of criminal anarchy in the development of the Netherlands as a major hub in the international illicit drugs market, and he builds an argument that this reviewer finds powerful, bringing into view as it does the networking, mobility and dynamism of a market that has resisted a century of unsuccessful attempts to control it. The patterns and modes of illicit trading and production relationships brought to light by the lens of ‘criminal anarchy’ help to show us how the market has achieved its continued effectiveness, and in doing so Snelders has made a highly significant contribution to historical and sociological understanding.