At the time of the Armistice ending the First World war in 1918, 'the supply of drugs for the purposes of abuse was not actually illegal in most countries'. It was the advent of international drug regulations - supervised by the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations), which created new opportunities to make money. Smugglers exploited the loopholes and the cracks in the systems which tried to restrict or suppress the import of drugs.
Imperial Britain ruled the opium trade in the 1800s by selling Indian (under British control) produced opium to China in exchange for tea and silk, and fought (and won) the 'Opium Wars', preserving its power to distribute the narcotic into China. As a result, an estimated two million Chinese people became addicted to the drug. It was the drug prohibitionist policies of the USA and Europeans, however, which spurred the eruption of the crime of drug smuggling on a global basis.
But even before restrictive laws concerning drug transport were established, the trafficking of drugs for profit was a large (and profitable) market, controlled, not by organized crime, but by the pharmaceutical companies which produced the addictive products.
The Swiss pharmaceutical dynasty of Hoffman-La Roche (H-LR) began with the marriage between Fritz Hoffman (the son of a Basle merchant) and Adele La Roche who, together grew their successful business through the sales of their orange-flavoured cough syrup. Growth of the firm hit a wall with the Russian revolution and the loss of the Russian market in 1917 at which point in time the company decided to exploit every opportunity to stay afloat.
In 1925, the Canton Road smuggling case revealed that Hoffman-La Roche had shipped 180 cases of opium from Constantinople (Istanbul) to China along with 26 boxes of heroin from Basle, Switzerland.
The League of Nations claimed that H-LR had supplied 760 kilograms of narcotics to a known convicted Polish drug smuggler in 1927 through the free port of Hamburg. The Chinese representatives of the 'Opium Advisory Committee' in 1923, claimed that Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Japan and the USA were producing morphine 'by the ton' which was then sold to smugglers.
A Frenchman, Henri de Montfried settled in Djibouti in 1911, deciding that 'Europeans lived too artificial a life', learned the local dialect, converted to Islam and started his career by running guns into Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
By 1920, he had started to smuggle hashish, exporting the drug from Djibouti in boxes marked as flour and macaroni. His next step was the purchase of morphine and cocaine, legally and under licence, from the pharmaceutical company Merck.
Montfried then sold these drugs on to international traffickers. Merck had been established in 1891 as the American subsidiary of the German company now known as Merck KGaA. The US branch was confiscated by the US government during WWI and subsequently established as an independent American company and is currently one of the world's seven largest pharmaceutical companies.
The Prussian Wars of 1866 and 1870 followed by the First World War (1914-1918) resulted in large numbers of narcotic-addicted soldiers (and nurses) who had been exposed to the drugs following injury as well as through the stress of work.
American drug laws and drug prohibition forced its way into European laws and treaties. The Opium Conference of Geneva of 1924-1925, greatly influenced by US delegates, attempted to push for the absolute abolition of the importation of non-medicinal use of drugs such as opium.
Signatories were committed to control the manufacture, sale, and transport of dangerous drugs, the individual governments accepting responsibility for al import and export trade. By 1932, the legal quantity of manufactured morphine in the world fell by nearly 50% and heroin by 66%.
But some European governments were not entirely 'on-board' with the restrictions of the agreement. From 1927 to 1928, the Chemische Fabriek Naarden, a company licensed by the Dutch government, exported 3000 kilograms of heroin, 950 kilograms of morphine and 90 kilograms of cocaine to the Far East.
In France, the factory of Roesler et Fils, located close to the Swiss border city of Basle supplied 6414 kilograms of heroin and 943 kilograms of morphine to a Polish intermediary who then shipped the drug to India in diplomatic baggage between 1925 and 1930.
The world's cocaine supplied originated from Latin America and the Dutch East Indies. In 1917, a Japanese firm, Hoshi Pharmaceuticals bought 3000 square kilometers of land in Peru, specifically to grow coca plants. But the Japanese plan failed as it became difficult to compete with Dutch exports of coca from colonial Java.
|Chemische Fabriek Naarden|
The Nederlandsche Cocainefabriek ( Dutch Cocaine Factory) opened in Amsterdam in 1900, and was soon the world's largest supplier of cocaine. European cocaine producers attempted to create a cartel 1920s (in order to 'stabilize' prices) but the medical use of cocaine was in rapid decline and cocaine production by the large manufacturers, Nederlandsche Cocainefabriek, Hoffman-La Roche, C.F. Boehringer Sohne and Merck soon went 'black market'.
In February 1926, the Viceroy of India announced the reduction of non-medicinal opium exports, an act which opened the door to the much cheaper, illegal opium from China. Opium poppy cultivation shifted from India to China and Persia then to Serbia, Turkey and Bulgaria.
|Nederlandsche Cocainefabriek - Java Plantation|
In 1924, a French company, Comptoir Central des Alcaloides purchased land in Serbia for poppy cultivation. In 1927, a Japanese-financed company in Istanbul was producing 10 kilograms of heroin daily for export. Within a few years, two French companies established factories for heroin production in Istanbul, each factory with an output of 2000 kilograms of heroin every month.
In Bulgaria between 4 and 8 narcotics factories were in operation by 1933, the heroin production alone being more than twice that which was legitimate for the entire world.
In the Japanese colony of Taiwan became a large and legal producer of opium. Hoshi Pharmaceuticals began as a challenge to the German domination of the morphine business but with he firm's collapse following a smuggling scandal in 1921, heroin and morphine production shifted to ronin (soldiers of fortune) with close contacts in the Japanese military. In 1934, the Japanese invaded Manchuria and brought with them drug traffickers under military protection.
British colonies in the Far East, before WWI granted the (legal) opium monopoly to local governments. Income from the opium trade became a major source of government revenue. In 1925, Malaysia (the Straits Settlements) obtained 37% of its taxes from opium; Brunei, 21% and North Borneo, 24%. At the same time, as much illegal (mostly from China) as legal opium was being consumed.
|Japanese Ronin (Soldier of Fortune)|
After the Russian revolution of 1917, Soviet officials as well as exiles set up drug trafficking enterprises in Harbin, central Manchuria. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, led to trafficking opportunities in Vienna where multilingual immigrants and refugees were able to cross cultural lines and spread their product across Europe.
In 1924, Austria's annual medical requirements for morphine was 60 kilograms but wholesalers took possession of over 210 kilograms, leaving 150 kilograms 'unaccounted for' (used by addicts locally or exported). At the same time, the post war German Weimar Republic, inflationary pressures led to productive capacities too great for local demand in large pharmaceutical firms such as Merck, resulting in the smuggling of the 'excess' product to the rest of Europe and the world. Even soldiers of the occupying forces became traffickers, drawn by the huge profits the drug trade offered.
During the 1920s, Swiss producers exported 95% of their morphine and cocaine production in chocolates, toilet preparations, light bulbs and chair upholstery. The premises of Hoffman-La Roche was even sometimes used to package narcotics on-site, the narcotics then smuggled overseas, labeled as 'Carbolic Acid' or 'Sulphide of Soda'.
In the 1920s, Chile had become a center for the distribution of opium throughout the Americas. Using diplomatic passports, officials passed through customs with immunity and without inspection, bringing into North America and Europe heroin and other narcotics.
But, by then, at the American end, organized crime had already entered the business. In 1928, the Peruvian consul, Carlos Fernandez Bacula took 150 kilograms of heroin to New York in diplomatic baggage, passing the product on to a man named Wilhelm Kofler. The next day, Kofler's body was found, exsanguinated through slashes in both wrists. The heroin was gone and had fallen into the hands of Jack (Legs) Diamond, a New York mobster.
In the Middle East, a narcotics decree
in 1925 in Egypt made trafficking as well as possession, criminal offences.
Opium poppy cultivators were expelled from the country and the prisons filled
with narcotics convictions. The price of narcotics sky-rocketed and heroin use
|Jack (Legs) Diamond|
Supplies of the drug were traced to a Swiss factory near Zurich where a chemist had designed a compound called 'Dionyl', indistinguishable from heroin but different enough chemically that it could be sold without infringing Swiss narcotics laws. Other organized 'gangs' imported narcotics from Vienna through diplomatic baggage.
In Asia, around 1900, the Celestial Empire (China) produced over 20 million kilograms of opium each year. In the first 10 years of the 20th century, $40 million worth of opium entered the international port of Shanghai. Merchants formed groups the market their (legal) product, one group known as the Swatow (Chaozhau) Clique which later conspired with local warlords and organized criminals known as the Green Gang (qing-bang) to monopolize the illegal opium trade.
Four licensed merchant houses (David Sassoon and Co., E.D. Sassoon, S.J. David, Edward Ezra) supplied the opium to the local smoking houses and the Sassoons later formed the Shanghai Opium Merchants Combine which later used their Dahloong Tea Company as a front to continue the trade which involved not just Chinese (semi-legal) opium but also illegal product imported from India. Turkey and Persia. Eventually the Shanghai opium trade grew into the world's largest illicit drug cartel.
In 1939, the smoking of opium was still a legal practice in British Malaya, Brunei, Formosa (Taiwan) Sarawak, Burma, India, Ceylon, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), British North Borneo, Thailand, Macao and Iran. During and following the Second World War, with the threat of American forces not coming to their aid from Japanese invasion, opium use and cultivation was halted in these regions.
In 1969, less than seven months after taking office, President Richard Nixon declared a global campaign against drugs and drug traffickers. Under the name Operation Intercept, 2500 miles of US-Mexican border was closed and over a three-week period, nearly half a million individuals were searched.
This resulted in more marijuana being grown within the US borders. Small, independent Mexican drug suppliers were driven out of business, opening the way for the larger and more sophisticated gangs to take control. Production of Colombian marijuana increased and soon these groups were also bringing in their own local product, cocaine.
|Chasing the Dragon|
Marijuana arrests escalated and when the cannabis supply was cut, soldiers began to use the more easily concealed and compact drug, heroin. Due to the purity of the heroin in South-East Asia, users could obtain an effective 'hit' by smoking the drug in cigarettes or inhaling the heroin ('chasing the dragon').
The CIA became involved in the heroin trade through their support of anti-communist Chinese Nationalists near the China-Burma border whose income derived largely from the import of opium from Shan province.
The CIA also supported Hmong tribesmen in Laos, battling communists at the North Vietnam frontier. The Hmong's main cash crop was the opium poppy and the CIA helped transport the product to laboratories in the 'Golden Triangle' (the converging borders of Laos, Burma and Thailand). The heroin produced from these poppies found its way into South Vietnam and to American servicemen.
President Nixon's Operation Intercept, put into effect in 1969, resulted in many traffickers of (the relatively innocuous) marijuana focusing on cocaine (easier to transport, easier to hide and much more profitable).
|The 'Golden Triangle'|
Pinochet immediately handed over several drug traffickers to the US government, resulting in Chile losing its predominance as the leading South American source of illegal drugs. Within a short time, Colombian organized crime group were in command of the business and had taken over cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia and cocaine refining in Chile.
|General Augusto Pinochet.|
The Colombian drug cartels used couriers on commercial flight with drugs hidden within their luggage to bring the product into the US. By the early 1980s, cocaine had surpassed coffee as the primary earner of foreign exchange for Colombia.
Since the 1970's, Colombia has been home to some of the most sophisticated drug trafficking organizations in the world. Colombian traffickers today have enough capital under their control to build sophisticated smuggling equipment, such as a high tech submarine that was recently discovered by the Colombian National Police.
The largest center of cocaine business was the city of Medellin, capital of Antioquia province, Colombia.
Huge profits (so much greater for smuggling cocaine than marijuana) attracted a mix of characters into the business.
Huge profits (so much greater for smuggling cocaine than marijuana) attracted a mix of characters into the business.
Fabio Ochoa Vasquez was a smuggler of alcohol and electrical equipment until 1978 when he was convinced by a man named Pablo Escobar to apply his smuggling skills to the drug business.
Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha had roots in Colombia's murky emerald trade. The Ochoa brothers were from a well-respected ranching and horse-breeding family and Pablo Escobar began his criminal career stealing cars and stealing headstones from graveyards then re-selling them in other villages of Antioquia as well as to smugglers from Panama. But it was Pablo, the common street thief who was the mastermind of the criminal enterprise that became known as the Medellin cartel.
These men from Medellin joined together with a young marijuana smuggler named Carlos Lehder, who convinced the leaders that they could fly cocaine in small airplanes directly into the United States, avoiding the need for countless suitcase trips.
The large quantities and the growing appetite for cocaine in the United States led to huge profits, which the cartel began re-investing into more sophisticated labs, better airplanes and even an island in the Caribbean where the planes could refuel. By the end of 1981, the team had smuggled more than 19 tons of cocaine into the US.
Pablo Escobar was an extremely violent man and, in his quest for power, bribery, threat and murder led to a stand-off between the cartel and the government. During the 1980's, the cartel revolted against the government's threats to extradite the traffickers to the United States.
In 1989, the Medellin cartel assassinated a presidential candidate and the Colombian government became more 'focused'. Rodriguez Gacha was gunned down by the Colombian police. Fabio Ochoa turned himself in to the Colombian government in the early 1990s in exchange for lenient prison terms.
Pablo Escobar was hunted down and killed by the Colombian police after a long series of battles.
|The Death of Pablo Escobar|
The Cali cartel was Medellin's true rival and was probably responsible for much if not most of the information about Escobar and his group that fell into the hands of the Colombian government.
The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers and Santacruz Londono were the founders of the Cali cartel and they focused their work on the New York City market, preferring bribery to murder as their first line of persuasion.
The Cali leaders were astute businessmen and invested heavily in political protection. Both a former president of Colombia, Ernesto Samper and hundreds of Congressmen and Senators have been accused of accepting campaign financing from the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers. When cocaine use in the United States began to drop, the Cali group began shipping more and more into Europe and Asia. The leaders are thought to own huge swaths of land in Colombia, along with dozens of very successful legitimate businesses.
The leaders were finally arrested in the mid-1990s and sentenced to 10 to 15 year prison terms. Many believe they actually worked out an arrangement with the Colombian government under similar terms to the Ochoas, that they would not be extradited to a US prison cell. Agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) believe they are still running their empire from their prison cells.
Colombian Marxist guerillas (FARC) protect the fields and the labs in remote zones of Colombia in exchange for a large tax that the traffickers pay to the organization. Information provided by the DEA and the Colombian National police suggest that there are more than 300 active drug smuggling organizations in Colombia today. Cocaine is shipped to every industrialized nation in the world and profits remain incredibly high.
The Juárez Cartel is another well-organized enterprise, a Mexican drug cartel based in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, across the border from El Paso, Texas. The Juarez group has been violent and ruthless, known to decapitate their rivals, mutilate their corpses and dump them in public places.
The Sinaloa Cartel is another Mexican drug gang, considered by some to be 'the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world' and 'Mexico's most powerful organized crime group'. The Sinaloa Cartel is based in the city of Culiacan, Sinaloa, operating in the Mexican states of Baja California, Sonora, Durango and Chihuahua.
The Sinaloa Cartel is associated with the label 'Mexico's Golden Triangle', which refers to the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango, this region being a major producer of Mexican opium and marijuana.
In 2010, over one thousand U.S. cities reported the presence of at least one of four Mexican cartels. In July, 2012, a video was found which showed members of the Mexican Gulf Cartel using machetes to behead five men from the rival Zetas Gang. This was apparently in revenge for what had occurred one month before when a Zetas Gang member dumped 49 mutilated bodies in a northern Mexico town square.
The drug trade through Mexico is worth an estimated $13-billion annually. In the past 5-6 years, authorities have seized more than $10.9-billion worth of drugs. Despite multiple arrests, there have been more than 55,000 drug-related killings and more than 6,000 disappearances since President Felipe Calderon’s six-year offensive against the cartels began in 2006. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice says drug demand is increasing and Mexican cartels are positioned to meet the rise and keep the drugs flowing across the U.S. border.
Mexican labs supply 70% of all the methamphetamine consumed in the US. Mexican cartels grow marijuana in large open plantations in Mexico but also as far north as Oregon and Washington State. Cocaine, the most lucrative of illegal drugs brings in more than $88 billion each year on the street. Two-thirds of all Andean cocaine which is transported from South America to the US passes through the hands of the Mexican cartels, meaning that the largest smuggling organisations, once based in Colombia, are now centered in Mexico.
It seems that despite all the effort, laws and drug enforcement officers throughout the world, the disease of drug abuse simply keeps on growing. According to a report from 1997, one full year's heroin supply for all users in the USA can be manufactured from poppies grown on 20 square miles (less than 5200 hectares or 12,800 acres) of farmland. One year's supply of cocaine for all entire US can be carried in 13 truck trailers.
In 1998, in Colombia alone, there were 101,500 hectares of coca and 6000 hectares of opium poppies under cultivation.
In 1995, the cost of producing one ounce of pure powder cocaine was about $9 US. Once this ounce had been packaged (and adulterated), it was worth over $2000 US in East Harlem - a difficult-to-resist incentive to work in the illicit drug trade.
In 1929, the Egyptian Central Narcotics Intelligence Bureau was created, in part as a response to an epidemic of malaria caused by needle-sharing among drug addicts. In 1934, three heroin users in New York City were infected with malaria through needle-sharing.
Hepatitis C was documented as being transmitted through needle-sharing as early as 1968. Transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) due to needle-sharing became evident in the 1980s. In the US, drug users being treated for HIV infection rose from 3% in 1981 to 17% in 1984. Even the threat of disease is not effective in diminishing or discouraging illicit drug use.
History shows that, in the beginning, drug trafficking was carried out by big business, mostly in Europe, some in Asia - Hoffman-La Roche, Hoshi Pharmaceuticals and others - along with hundreds of smaller players and independent 'businessmen' along with the aid of military, police forces and politicians.
Today, the drug trade is still big business (such as the Medellin and Juarez cartels), along with smaller players, aided by corrupt police and military forces and politicians. The only aspect that has changed, perhaps, is that the 'big business' is not a recognized legal enterprise (such as Hoffman-La Roche in the early 20th century) and the base of these businesses is not in Europe but rather in places like South America and Mexico.
Times may change but the workings of the world never really do.
*The history of drug addiction: subject of research for the novel Whip the Dogs - Amazon Kindle