Trafficking Cocaine: Colombian Drug Entrepreneurs in the Netherlands
The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2002
Subject, Methods, Database:
This study explores the Colombian participation in the cocaine trade in the Netherlands. Data were obtained from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam, and Bogota and Cali, respectively, between 1996 and 1999. Additional data were obtained from expert interviews and media reports. The persons interviewed in the course of the field research include 8 Colombian drug couriers, 10 importers, 13 distributors, 3 retailers and 10 helpers and employees of cocaine entrepreneurs.
The Netherlands have a long tradition in the cocaine trade. Prior to the prohibition of cocaine, the Nederlandsche Cocainefabriek was the world's largest producer of this narcotic drug. In recent years, the Netherlands have been second only to Spain as the main import and wholesale distribution center for Colombian cocaine in Europe.
To varying degrees, Colombians are involved in the import, wholesale distribution and retail distribution of cocaine in the Netherlands. They are a small, heterogeneous and changing group, with a variety of geographical, social and ethnic origins. Many of them do not live in the Netherlands or only stay temporarily.
An estimated 12,000 Colombians live in the Netherlands, of which about 2/3 are women, many of whom work either as prostitutes or as housekeepers. There are no Colombian neighborhoods and there is no ethnic economy of Colombian businesses that could provide a social support basis for cocaine traffickers.
On the import level, a number of independent Colombian importers both compete and co-operate with native Dutch and Surinamese importers, and to a lesser extent with traffickers of other nationalities. Colombian importers experience conditions that both promote and limit their opportunities. While they have privileged access to cocaine supply, they lack access to human resources and the local infrastructure in the Netherlands.
Colombian cocaine firms are informal, small, mutating and decentralized. They are more flexible than the notion of 'cartels' suggests. Some are individual enterprises, others adopt the form of temporary partnerships between two or three persons, often formed for a single project. A clear division between labor and capital is contrasted by a division of labor that is not rigid or compartmentalized in vertical lines. Despite the importance of kinship ties and the frequent use of relatives, none of these enterprises are 'family businesses'. Individuals who function as brokers play a central role in bringing about these coalitions and transactions.
Violence and the threat of violence have a permanent presence in the cocaine business. However, there are structural limitations to the excessive use of violence. In the Netherlands, Colombian drug traffickers tend to restrict the use of physical violence and keep a low profile. Cases of kidnappings and killings occur but are rare, usually connected with rip-offs. Even groups who had clashes in Colombia have preferred to ignore each other while operating in the Netherlands.
Certainly the most remarkable aspect about this book is its database. Seldom enough have organized crime researchers attempted to access "organized criminals" directly (see e.g. Johansen 1998); and where these attempts have been successful, it has been mostly either in the form of interviews with incarcerated criminals (see e.g. Reuter and Haaga 1989) or as the result of chance encounters (see e.g. Adler 1985). In his study, Damián Zaitch, an Argentinean living in the Netherlands, has taken the arduous road of systematically establishing contacts among Colombians in the hope of eventually meeting and establishing a basis of trust with those involved in the cocaine trade. The end result justifies these efforts. Zaitch presents a detailed picture of the business and social life of Colombian drug entrepreneurs and their network of suppliers, customers and helpers. Special emphasis is given to the role of violence, secrecy and trust. By stressing the embeddedness of the cocaine trade in legal economic and social structures, Zaitch arrives at a complex and multifaceted depiction of the drug trade that goes well beyond conventional perceptions.
A critical remark has to be made about the overly self-assured manner in which Damián Zaitch brushes aside the notion of using police and judicial records, and in which he tries to distance himself from established approaches to understanding organized crime. While law enforcement documents have certainly to be treated with great caution, there is no reason to ignore them altogether, especially when at the same time media reports are accepted as a data source. After all, even the impressive number of informants Zaitch has managed to develop does not provide comprehensive and exhaustive insights into the Colombian involvement in the cocaine market in the Netherlands, so that the analysis of case files could potentially have added valuable information. Regarding the right understanding of organized crime, Damián Zaitch differentiates two approaches, an "economic-bureaucratic approach" and a "criminal network approach". Both of these approaches he criticizes for neglecting the socio-economic context of criminal conduct, but it seems that this charge sticks more to the proponents of these approaches than to the approaches themselves, i.e. neither a focus on organizations nor on networks necessarily blocks the view for the broader context. On the contrary, especially the network approach, using the concept of multiplicity, seems to provide a tool for capturing the many dimensions of organized crime. What should be done is to construct a conceptual framework that permits to appreciate the organizational and network structures of criminal cooperation in all relevant dimensions, be they economic, social, cultural or political. Despite a very mature theoretical discussion, Damián Zaitch does not go all the way in that direction. Rather, he contents himself with using isolated concepts such as those of (post-Fordist) labor relations and ethnic economy.
A detailed, analytically sophisticated and empirically well-founded study of the Colombian involvement in the cocaine trade in the Netherlands. There are not many good books on organized crime, but this is certainly one of them.
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