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Drugs Burma

re Burma heroin traffic

June-July 97
by Alfred McCoy

     Professor of Southeast and Asian history at the University of
     Wisconsin, Author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global
     Drug Trade.

     "Allegations linking CIA secret operations and drug trafficking
     have persisted on and off ever since the Agency's founding in
     1947. Rep. John Conyers, Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus,
     convened a special seminar on Capitol Hill to focus on the issue.

     A distinguished panel of experts discussed the new revelations as
     well as CIA covert actions in Southeast Asia. Their testimony is
     startling. [See the following transcript of Alfred McCoy's
     remarks]. The CIA was invited but declined to appear. " --David
     Barsamian, Director, Alternative Radio

     In August of last year, the San Jose Mercury newspaper in the San
     Francisco Bay Area reported that a syndicate allied with
     Nicaragua's CIA-backed contras had delivered tons of cocaine to
     Los Angeles gangs during the 1980s. The Mercury concluded, "The
     contra-run drug network opened the first conduit between
     Colombia's cartels and L.A.'s black neighborhoods. It's
     impossible to believe that the CIA didn't know." . . . . The
     Congressional Black Caucus demanded an investigation. But CIA
     Director John Deutch shot back, "The Agency neither participated
     in nor condoned drug trafficking by contra forces."

     This racially charged debate raises four questions about the CIA
     and drugs, questions which now, I believe, demand answers. Did
     the Agency ever ally with drug traffickers? Did the CIA protect
     these allies from prosecution? Did such alliances and protection
     contribute significantly to an expansion of global drug trade
     over the past fifty years? And finally, did the CIA encourage
     drug smugglers to target African American communities?

     For the past quarter century I have been looking at this
     question, focusing on alliances between the Agency and the Asian
     drug lords during the half century of the Cold War. I believe
     that this history offers precise parallels, particularly the
     Afghan operation, that can shed considerable light on the current
     debate over alleged CIA involvement in the contra cocaine trade.

     Throughout the Cold War, the CIA used gangsters and war lords,
     many of them drug dealers, to fight communism. As the Cold War
     ends, our list of CIA's assets who use their alliance with the
     Agency to deal drugs grows ever longer. It includes Marseilles
     Corsicans, Lao generals, Thai police, Nationalist Chinese
     irregulars, Afghan rebels, Pakistani intelligence, Haitian
     colonels, Mexican police units, Guatemalan military, and look
     through your local paper for further listings. 

During the forty years of the Cold War, government intelligence services-our own
     CIA included--forged covert action alliances with some of Asia's
     key opium traffickers, inadvertently contributing to an initial
     expansion of opium production. 

In one of history's accidents, a very important accident, the Iron Curtain came crashing down
     along the Asian opium zone that stretches for five thousand miles
     from Turkey to Thailand, making these rugged, opium-producing
     highlands a key front of Cold War confrontation. During the Cold
     War, the CIA and allied agencies mounted operations in this opium
     zone. It found that ethnic warlords were its most effective
     covert action assets.

     These leaders exploited the CIA alliance to become drug lords,
     expanding opium production and exporting refined heroin. The
     Agency tolerated such trafficking and when necessary blocked
     investigations. Since ruthless drug lords made effective
     anti-Communists, and heroin profits amplified their power, CIA
     agents, operating alone, half a world away from home, did not
     tamper with the requisites of success in such delicate
     operations. Surveying the steady increase in America's drug
     problem since the end of World War II, I can thus discern
     periodic increases in drug supply that coincide, if only
     approximately, with covert operations in the drug zones.

     Let me now turn to Southeast Asia, the site of these earliest CIA
     alliances with drug lords. 

Let's look at the background here
     because the background is important. On the eve of World War II,
     most Southeast Asian governments sponsored state opium monopolies
     that sold legal smoking opium to registered addicts and generated
     substantial tax revenues. Despite this extensive opium
     consumption during the prewar colonial era, Southeast Asia had
     remained a major opium consumer but very importantly for our
     story, a very minor opium producer. In 1940, Southeast Asia
     harvested only fifteen tons in a region that produces today over
     three thousand tons. 

Why? Why was it so low before the war?

     Since British colonial India supplied these colonial governments
     in Southeast Asia with limitless, low cost opium, Southeast Asian
     colonial governments had no reason to encourage local opium

The sudden growth of the Golden Triangle opium
     production in the 1950s appears in retrospect a response to two
     stimuli: prohibition and protection. Let me look at each of these

     Responding to pressures from the UN, Southeast Asia's governments
     abolished legal opium sales. They closed the legal opium-smoking
     dens between 1950 and 1961, thereby creating a sudden demand for
     illicit opium in the cities of Southeast Asia.

     The second factor: protection. 

An alliance of three intelligence agencies, Thai, American and Nationalist Chinese, played a
     catalytic role in promoting the production of raw opium on the
     Shan Plateau of northern Burma. 

During the early 1950s, the CIA covert operations in northern Burma fostered political alliances
     that inadvertently linked the poppy fields of northern Burma with
     the region's urban drug markets. After the collapse of the
     Nationalist Chinese government in 1949, some of its forces fled
     across the border into Burma, where the CIA equipped them for
     several aborted invasions of China in 1950.

     To retaliate against Communist China for its intervention into
     the Korean War, President Truman had ordered the CIA to organize
     these Nationalist elements inside Burma for an invasion of China.

     The idea was that the masses of southwestern China would rise up
     in revolt against communism and China would evidently pull its
     troops out of Korea, and our troops in Korea would be saved. The
     logic was bizarre, and the records for this operation remain
     secret, I suspect, because it was one of the most disastrously
     foolish operations mounted by any agency of the U.S government.

     After their invasions of 1950 were repulsed with heavy
     casualties, these Nationalist troops camped along the border for
     another decade and turned to opium trading to finance their
     operations. Forcing local hill tribes that produced opium, the
     Nationalist troops supervised a massive increase of opium
     production on the Shan Plateau of Burma. 

After the Burmese army evicted them in 1961, the Nationalist forces established a new
     base camp just across the Burma border in Thailand and from there
     dominated the Burma opium trade until the mid-1980s. By the early
     1960s, when this CIA operation finally ended, Burma's opium
     production had risen from fifteen to three hundred tons, thus
     creating the opium zone that we now call the Golden Triangle.

     As in Burma, so in Laos, distance would insulate the Agency from
     the consequences of its complicity in the drug trade. Let's look
     at the background to Laos. 

During their own Vietnam War, French military integrated opium trafficking with covert operations in a
complex of alliances that the CIA would later inherit. 

After abolition of the opium monopoly in 1950, French military imposed
     centralized covert controls over an illicit drug traffic that
     linked the Hmong tribal poppy fields of Laos with the opium dens
     then operating in Saigon, generating profits that funded French
     [covert] operations during their Vietnam War from 1950-1954. When
     America replaced the French in Vietnam after 1954, the CIA fell
     heir to these covert alliances and their involvement in opium
     trading. In Laos during the 1960s the CIA battled communists with
     a secret army of 30,000 Hmong highlanders, a secret war that
     implicated the CIA in that country's opium traffic. 

Although the Agency did not profit directly from the drug trade, the combat
     strength and covert action effectiveness of its secret army was
     nonetheless integrated with the Laotian opium trade. 

How and why?

     The answer lies in the CIA's doctrine of covert action and its
     consequent reliance upon the influence of local military leaders
     or warlords. In Laos a handful of CIA agents relied on tribal
     leaders to motivate their troops and Lao generals to protect the
     cover of this operation. 

After fighting in Vietnam spilled over into Laos in 1965, the CIA recruited 
30,000 Hmong highlanders into this secret army, making the tribe a critical CIA asset.

Between 1965 and 1970 the Hmong guerrillas recovered downed U.S.
     pilots, battled local communists, monitored the Ho Chi Minh
     Trail, and, most importantly, protected the radar that guided the
     U.S Air Force bombing of North Vietnam.

     By 1971, according to a U.S. Air Force study, every Hmong family
     had lost members. To fight this secret war, the CIA sent in
     American agents in a ratio of one for every thousand Hmong
     guerrillas, numbers that made the Agency dependent upon tribal
     leaders who could mobilize their people for this endless

The CIA gave its chosen client, Hmong General Vang Pao, 
control over all air transport into Hmong villages scattered
     across the mountain-tops of northern Laos-the shipment of rice,
     their main subsistence commodity, into the villages and the
     transport of opium, the tribe's only cash crop, out to markets.

     With his chokehold over the household economy of every single
     Hmong family, General Vang Pao was transformed from a minor
     tribal warlord into a powerful man who could extract boy soldiers
     for slaughter in an endless war. Since opium trading reinforced
     the authority of these Hmong officers, the CIA found it necessary
     to tolerate the traffic.

     The CIA's policy of tolerance towards its Laotian allies did not
     change even when they began producing heroin to supply U.S.
     combat forces fighting in South Vietnam. In 1968-1969, CIA assets
     opened a cluster of heroin laboratories in the Golden Triangle
     region where Burma, Thailand and Laos converge. 

When Hmong officers loaded opium on the CIA's Air America and the Lao army's
     commander-in-chief opened a heroin lab to supply U.S. troops in
     South Vietnam, the Agency was silent. In a secret internal report
     compiled in 1972, the CIA Inspector General said the following to
     explain their inaction: "The past involvement of many of these
     officers in drugs is well-known. But their goodwill considerably
     facilitates the military activities of Agency-supported

     All of this heroin was smuggled into South Vietnam. Where? 

By 1971, according to a White House survey, 34%, or more than
     one-third, of U.S. troops were addicted to heroin. 

Instead of trying to restrain drug trafficking by its Laotian assets, the
     Agency participated in, engaged in, concealment and cover-up.
     When I went to Laos to investigate in 1971, the Lao army
     commander very graciously opened his opium account books to me,
     but the U.S. Mission stonewalled. 

In a Hmong village where we were investigating opium shipments on Air America, CIA
     mercenaries ambushed my research team. A CIA operative threatened
     to murder my Lao interpreter unless I quit my investigations.

     When my book The Politics of Heroin was in press, the CIA's
     Deputy Director for Plans pressured my publisher to suppress it.

     The CIA's General Counsel demanded deletions of all references to
     Agency complicity.

     After my book was published, unaltered, CIA agents in Laos
     pressed my sources to repent and convinced investigators from the
     House Foreign Relations Committee that my allegations were

Simultaneously, however, the CIA's Inspector General
     conducted a secret internal investigation that confirmed the core
     of my allegations: 

"The war has clearly been our overriding priority in Southeast Asia, 
and all other issues have taken second place,"
the Inspector General said in defense of their
inaction on drugs.
 "It would be foolish to deny this, and we see no reason to do so."

     Why didn't my exposé of CIA complicity produce a firestorm of
     protest back in the 1970s? Indeed, by 1974 Southeast Asian
     syndicates were supplying a quarter of the demand for U.S. heroin
     with Golden Triangle heroin. 

But Asia was too remote for any allegations of CIA complicity to pack a political punch.

     Alfred McCoy serves as director of the federally funded Center
     for Southeast Asian Studies and holds degrees from Columbia
     University, Berkeley, and Yale. His testimony will continue in
     the next issue of NCX. The transcript of this special seminar on
     CIA secret actions and drug trafficking came to NCX from David
     Barsamian, noted journalist, interviewer, and Director of
     Alternative Radio.

     If readers would like the 2-tape set and/or the complete
     transcript of the special seminar, they can order them directly
     from Alternative Radio by calling David Barsamian's 800 number,
     1-(800) 444-1977, or writing Alternative Radio, 2129 Mapleton,
     Boulder, CO 80304.

     June-July 97 - - Archives - -