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re Burma heroin traffic
CIA COVERT ACTIONS & DRUG TRAFFICKING, Part I
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
"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
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
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 - -