Monday, March 25, 2013

"Smuggler Nation" by Peter Andreas (2013)

Americans have always had a strange and fascinating relationship with smuggling. From the molasses used for the making of rum, all the way to the present day and the smuggling of illicit drugs; and people; we have changed precious little over the centuries. And in this all-encompassing new book by author Peter Andreas, the reader gets a look at not only the smuggling itself; but the geo-political forces which drive it, making it possible for the drug trade to thrive even as we throw every available resource at the problem.

The author has cleverly divided the book into 5 sections; beginning with “The Colonial Era” and culminating with “The Modern Age.” While much of those two chapters were familiar to me, it was the other 3 which really put the “hook” into this book. During the Colonial Era, the average American did all within his power to avoid paying taxes on anything possible. Molasses was the chief ingredient in the making of rum, and so it was one of the first items to be smuggled to the colonies in order to avoid paying the tax imposed by the British. This is what Samuel Adams, along with many other merchants, did.

The American Revolution sort of set the template for the course of the next 2 centuries as the British threw up their blockade and we immediately began to “run” it. The main political problem which caused the blockade was twofold; first, we were in open rebellion to the Crown; second, the English and French were at war, with both sides attempting to supply their armies from America. There was also another component involved, as the blockade running served the purpose of diverting the other sides’ naval resources in their fight against one another. Of course, this put the newly founded United States in a precarious position, but trade was all important to the new nation.

The French, who were fighting with the British in the Napoleonic Wars, grew increasingly irritated with our new nation over the duplicity of our so-called “neutrality”.  The United States was supplying both sides; resulting in the brief “Quasi War” in 1798. It was also about this time when the British began to board our ships in search of contraband, as well as English citizens who had illegally emigrated to the former colonies. To do so, at the time, was against the law. This led to the War of 1812. And even in that war there was the smuggling of arms and ammunition to be dealt with.

After the War of 1812 came a period of relative posterity for America as she grew from a former colony into a respected nation. But slavery was now the issue. After the importation of new slaves was put in force, smugglers turned to the islands of Jamaica and Cuba to buy slaves illegally, who would then be transported to New Orleans, which had become the center of the illegal slave trade. As a matter of fact, New Orleans, along with the pirate brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, had been instrumental in winning that war. It was the first, but not the last time, that our government would turn to criminals for help in a time of war. The War of 1812 also made a millionaire of John Jacob Astor, who was engaged in the smuggling of furs through Canada. Clearly, smuggling was not only a way to make a fortune, but was also an entryway into high society.

During the Gilded Age, that era from the 1870’s through the gay Nineties, some of the most unusual smuggling took place. With “hoopskirts” being the style of dress for most women of fashion, it became commonplace for them to smuggle anything that would fit beneath their skirts. Many women came home from trips abroad with boxes of cigars suspended beneath their skirts. With no female Customs Agents to search them, it was a winning proposition. Yards and yards of silk could be wound around a woman’s body and hidden beneath her fashionable dress. The list of items smuggled in this fashion is endless.

With the end of the Gilded Era came the end of the 19th Century and many of the taboos that had defined it. The two most prevalent ones were sex and drugs. Prostitution, along with the first forms of birth control, were both banned. So, they both became extremely desirable to obtain. The trafficking in condoms was a big surprise to me. I never thought of it as something illegal, or even out of reach. But, in the later years of the 19th Century, and on through the First World War, these little devices were not only smuggled, but were also made by bootleggers.

Before latex rubber had been perfected, animal skins were the most prevalent type of condom. When the importation of them was stopped, smugglers simply turned to buying animal skins, and made them here at home. Fortunes were made. And, when the First World War broke out and the United States entered it, the government once again turned to illicit sources to provide the necessary amount of condoms to “protect” our troops while overseas.

Pornography was also a staple of the smuggler in the 19th Century. With the advent of photography had come the ability to reproduce sexual images, which were in great demand. When the problem got too prevalent, the government made up a campaign concerning “White Slavery”, as a way to scare people away pornography. Meantime, they were getting ready to pounce on liquor as the ultimate evil with an experiment called “Prohibition.” The only thing accomplished with that experiment was a mirror image of the violence and wide spread glamorization that would mark the War on Drugs some 60 years later.

When World War Two rolled around, the United Sates once again turned to the organized criminals and smugglers to help take down the Italian dictator Mussolini. Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano were involved in that effort, and rewarded with being allowed to become the largest distributors of heroin in the United States. It was the Corsican run, Marseilles based, “French Connection”, which operated for over 20 years, supplying the entire eastern coast of the United Sates with their poisonous product.

Vietnam brought new problems to the table, and by the time the United States declared an all-out “war” on drugs in 1980, many people felt the war had already been lost. And to a large extent that is true. With the passage of NAFTA in the 1980’s the distribution of drugs became even more complex and difficult to stem. And when we backed the Afghan rebels against the Soviets in the 1970’s, we really dropped the ball. We never seem to learn that working with the bad guys will always result in a bad return.

With this very thoroughly researched and well written book, Mr. Andreas has once again delivered a powerful insight into the subject of which he writes.

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