The Eastern Bloc, the Cold War and International Drug Trafficking

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the final in the two-part series from Dr. Ned Richardson-Little on drug use in East Germany during the Communist period. Richardson-Little is a Freigeist Fellow at the University of Erfurt, Germany, where he is currently leading a major research project on the history of “deviant globalization” in modern Germany. Originally from Canada, he studied at McGill University and received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has previously worked at the University of Exeter (UK). If you’re interested in learning more about the sources in this post, contact Richardson-Little at ned.richardson-little@uni-erfurt.de.

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Dr. Ned Richardson-Little

One of the staples of Eastern Bloc propaganda was the notion that socialism produced a drug-free society. Under capitalism, young people were driven to narcotics due to the emptiness of consumerism and the despair of exploitation; under socialism there was no such need for escape. To some extent, this propaganda was actually based on reality. In contrast to the post-war West, there was no mass drug culture in Eastern Europe. Cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other restricted substances were also banned or strictly regulated in the East, but there were comparatively few arrests for possession or dealing. The black market could provide many imported products normally unavailable in state stores, but very rarely did that include trafficked narcotics. As one East German put it, hashish was as “hard to get your hands on as explosives.”

Was this, however, really an effect of the enlightened social policies of state socialism? Possibly for some, but the main driver was economics: Eastern Bloc citizens lacked the hard currency needed to purchase narcotics from traffickers. Few international criminal smuggling operations were interested in the socialist market, where – in the absence of Western money – they would need to barter for locally produced goods. As it turns out, not many people in the heroin business are willing to trade their product for a Trabant. And thus, the proliferation of international trafficking routes in the post-war era largely bypassed the Eastern Bloc. While China was once one of the great centres of opium addiction, its consumption dropped off almost completely after the Communist Revolution. Although Cuba was once a hotspot for organized crime, the mafia relocated after the Castro regime took control in 1959

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El Chapo Guzmán (beta, 1.0) – Prison Escape and Drug Smuggling in the Early 20th Century

El Chapo It’s no secret that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most wanted drug cartel kingpin, was recently recaptured and imprisoned in Mexico. After all, between his two previous high profile prison escapes and a recently published interview with Sean Penn in Rolling Stone magazine, El Chapo has frequently been front and center in the national media of late. As so often is the case when it comes to news coverage on the war on drugs in the United States, there’s been a deep sense of presentism in framing the nature of El Chapo’s rise to power and infamy. This is especially true when discussing his penchant for using tunnels – to smuggle drugs, evade capture, and of course, escape from prison. Indeed, Penn’s Rolling Stone piece went so far as to claim: “In 1989, El Chapo dug the first subterranean passage beneath the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and pioneered the use of tunnels to transport his products and to evade capture.” Yet, while there’s no denying El Chapo’s tunnels are widespread, impressive and effective, to suggest he was the first drug smuggler to use such methods ignores the history of more than a century of drug smuggling on the U.S.-Mexico Border.

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