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The Politics of Heroin in SE Asia

By Alfred McCoy
Chapter Index Book On Line

Examining and exposing the true nature of the international heroin traffic has provided interesting copy for. some writers and brushes with danger for others. Very early into our research we discovered that there were facts we were just not supposed to know, people we were not supposed to talk to, and questions we were not supposed to ask.

But there was a large group of friends who cooperated with us, and we with them, in uncovering the political dimensions of the international heroin traffic. There are many persons in Southeast Asia who helped us immeasurably by supplying us with firsthand accounts of incidents and other "inside" information whose names may not be mentioned out of respect for their personal safety, but whose assistance is greatly appreciated. This group includes students, past and present government officials, law enforcement personnel, and journalists.

We would like to acknowledge the many newspapers and periodicals that opened their files to us, including Far Eastern Economic Review, La Marsedlaise, Lao Presse, Le Monde, Le Provencal, and the South China Morning Post. We are grateful to members of the press corps in Hong Kong, London, Paris, Saigon, Singapore, Vientiane, and the United States who shared their information and informants with us and gave us many leads, some of which they themselves were unaware or unwilling to follow up. Among this group we would like to thank Simon Albury (British Broadcasting Corporation), T. D. Allman, Jacques Decornoy (Le Monde), Leo Goodstadt (Far Eastern Economic Re-view), Grace Helms (Milford Citizen), John Hughes (Christian Science Monitor), and Peter Dale Scott.

We were assisted in our research in London by Adrian Cowell and Cornelius Hawkridge and in Paris by Jean Chesnqaux, Phillipe Devillers, General F. Gambiez, Annick Levy, Guy Mor­chand, Laura Summers, and Christine White. In the United States we were helped and advised by Fred Branfman, James Boyd of the Fund for Investigative Journal-ism, Antonia Dul, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Litshultz, Professor Karl Peltzer of Yale University, and Virginia Lee Read. In Laos we are grateful to our interpreter, Phin Manivong, and our photographer/guide, John Everingham.

Finally, we are most indebted to Elisabeth Jakab of Harper & Row, who, in addition to being a superb editor, was a constant source of encouragement and inspiration.

The Consequences of Complicity
Notes can be found here

AMERICA is in the grip of a devastating heroin epidemic which leaves no city or suburb untouched, and which also runs rampant through every American military installation both here and abroad. And the plague is spreading-into factories and offices (among the middle-aged, middle-class workers as well as the young), into high schools and now grammar schools. In 1965 federal narcotics officials were convinced that they had the problem under control; there were only 57,000 known addicts in the entire country, and most of these were comfortably out of sight, out of mind in black urban ghettos.(1)* Only three or four years later heroin addiction began spreading into white communities, and by late 1969 the estimated number of addicts jumped to 315,000. By late 1971 the estimated total had almost doubled-reaching an all-time high of 560,000.(2) One medical researcher discovered that 6.5 percent of all the blue-collar factory workers he tested were heroin addicts,(3) and army medical doctors were convinced that 10 to 15 percent of the GIs in Vietnam were heroin users.(4) In sharp contrast to earlier generations of heroin users, many of these newer addicts were young and relatively affluent.

The sudden rise in the addict population has spawned a crime wave that has turned America's inner cities into concrete jungles. Addicts are forced to steal in order to maintain their habits, and they now account for more than 75 percent of America's urban crime.(5) After opinion polls began to show massive public concern over the heroin problem, President Nixon declared a "war on drugs" in a June 1971 statement to Congress. He urged passage of a $370 million emergency appropriation to fight the heroin menace. However, despite politically motivated claims of success in succeeding months by administration spokesmen, heroin continues to flood into the country in unprecedented quantities, and there is every indication that the number of hard-core addicts is increasing daily.

Heroin: The History of a "Miracle Drug"

Heroin, a relatively recent arrival on the drug scene, was regarded, like morphine before it, and opium before morphine, as a "miracle drug" that had the ability to "kill all pain and anger and bring relief to every sorrow." A single dose sends the average user into a deep, euphoric reverie. Repeated use, however, creates an intense physical craving in the human body chemistry and changes the average person into a slavish addict whose entire existence revolves around his daily dosage. Sudden withdrawal can produce vomiting, violent convulsions, or fatal respiratory failure. An overdose cripples the body's central nervous system, plunges the victim into a, deep coma, and usually produces death within a matter of minutes. heroin addiction destroys man's normal social instincts, including sexual desire, and turns the addict into a lone predator who willingly resorts to any crime-burglary, armed robbery, armed assault, prostitution, or shoplifting-for money to maintain his habit. The average addict spends $8,000 a year on heroin, and experts believe that addicts alone steal at least half a billion dollars annually to maintain their habits. (6)

Heroin is a chemically bonded synthesis of acetic anhydride, a common industrial acid, and morphine, a natural organic pain killer extracted from the opium poppy. Morphine is the key ingredient. Its unique pharmaceutical properties are what make heroin so potent a pain killer and such a dangerously addicting narcotic. The acidic bond simply fortifies the morphine, making it at least ten times more powerful than ordinary medical morphine and strengthening its addictive characteristics. Although almost every hospital in the world uses some form of morphine as a post-operative pain killer, modern medicine knows little more about its mysterious soothing properties than did the ancients who discovered opium.

Scholars believe that man first discovered the opium poppy growing wild in mountains bordering the eastern Mediterranean sometime in the Neolithic Age. Ancient medical chronicles show that raw opium was . highly regarded by early physicians hundreds of years before the coming of Christ. It was known to Hippocrates in Greece and in Roman times to the great physician Galen. From its original home in the eastern Mediterranean region, opium spread westward through Europe in the Neolithic Age and eastward toward India and China in the early centuries of the first millennium after Christ. Down through the ages, opium continued to merit the admiration of physicians and gained in popularity; in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, for example, opium-based medicines were among the most popular drugstore remedies for such ordinary ailments as headaches and the common cold.

Although physicians had used various forms of opium for three or four thousand years, it was not until 1805 that medical science finally extracted pure morphine from raw opium. Orally taken, morphine soon became an important medical anesthetic, but it was not until 1858 that two American doctors first experimented with the use of the hypodermic needle to inject morphine directly into the bloodstream. (7) These discoveries were important medical breakthroughs, and they greatly improved the quality of medical treatment in the nineteenth century.

However, widespread use of morphine and opium-based medicines such as codeine soon produced a serious drug addiction problem. In 1821 the English writer Thomas De Quincey first drew attention to the problem of post-treatment addiction when he published an essay entitled, Confessions of an English OpiumEater. De Quincey had become addicted during his student days at Oxford University, and remained an addict for the rest of his life. Finally recognizing the seriousness of the addiction problem, medical science devoted considerable pharmacological research to finding a nonaddicting pain killer-a search that eventually led to the discovery and popularization of heroin. In 1874 an English researcher, C. R. Wright, synthesized heroin, or diacetylmorphine, for the first time when he boiled morphine and acetic anhydride over a stove for several hours. After biological testing on dogs showed that diacetylmorphine induced "great prostration, fear, sleepiness speedily following the administration and a slight tendency to vomiting," the English researcher wisely decided to discontinue his experiments. (8) Less than twenty years later, however, German scientists who tested diacetylmorphine concluded that it was an excellent treatment for such respiratory ailments as bronchitis, chronic coughing, asthma, and tuberculosis. Most importantly, these scientists claimed that diacetylmorphine was the ideal nonaddicting substitute for morphine and codeine. Encouraged by these results, the Bayer chemical cartel of Elberfeld, Germany, decided to manufacture diacetylmorphine and dreamed up the brand name "heroin" for its massmarketing campaign. Bayer wanted all the world to know about its new pain reliever, and in 1898 it launched an aggressive international advertising campaign in a dozen different languages.(9) Hailed as a "miracle drug" by medical experts around the globe, heroin was widely prescribed as a nonaddicting cure-all for whatever ails you, and soon became one of the most popular patent medicines on the market. The drug's popularity encouraged imitators, and a Saint Louis pharmaceutical company offered a "Sample Box Free to Physicians" of its "Dissolve on the Tongue Antikamnia & Heroin Tablets." (11) And in 1906 the American Medical Association (AMA) approved heroin for general use and advised that it be used "in place of morphine in various painful infections." (12)

Unrestricted distribution by physicians and pharmacies created an enormous drug abuse problem; in 1924 federal narcotics officials estimated that there were 200,000 addicts in the United States, (13) and the deputy police commissioner of New York reported that 94 percent of all drug addicts arrested for various crimes were heroin users.(14) The growing dimensions of heroin addiction finally convinced authorities that heroin's liabilities outweighed its medical merits, and in 1924 both houses of Congress unanimously passed legislation outlawing the import or manufacture of heroin.(15)

After a quarter century of monumental heroin abuse, the international medical community finally recognized the dangers of unrestricted heroin use, and the League of Nations began to regulate and reduce the legal manufacture of heroin. The Geneva Convention of 1925 imposed a set of strict regulations on the manufacture and export of heroin, and the Limitation Convention of 1931 stipulated that manufacturers could only produce enough heroin to meet legitimate "medical and scientific needs." As a result of these treaties, the world's total legal heroin production plummeted from its peak of nine thousand kilograms (I kilo = 2.2 pounds) in 1926 to little more than one thousand kilos in 1931. (16)

However, the sharp decline in legal pharmaceutical output by no means put an end to widespread heroin addiction. Aggressive criminal syndicates shifted the center of world heroin production from legitimate pharmaceutical factories in Europe to clandestine laboratories in Shanghai and Tientsin, China. (17) Owned and operated by a powerful Chinese secret society, these laboratories started to supply vast quantities of illicit heroin to corrupt Chinese warlords, European criminal syndicates, and American mafiosi like Lucky Luciano. In Marseille, France, fledgling Corsican criminal syndicates opened up smaller laboratories and began producing for European markets and export to the United States.(18)

While law enforcement efforts failed to stem the flow of illicit heroin into the United States during the 1930s, the outbreak of World War II seriously disrupted international drug traffic. Wartime border security measures and a shortage of ordinary commercial shipping made it nearly impossible for traffickers to smuggle heroin into the United States. Distributors augmented dwindling supplies by "cutting" (adulterating) heroin with increasingly greater proportions of sugar or quinine; while most packets of heroin sold in the United States were 28 percent pure in 1938, only three years later they were less than 3 percent pure. As a result of all this, many American addicts were forced to undergo involuntary withdrawal from their habits, and by the end of World War 11 the American addict population had dropped to less than twenty thousand." (18) In fact, as the war drew to a close, there was every reason to believe that the scourge of heroin had finally been purged from the United States. Heroin supplies were nonexistent, international criminal syndicates were in disarray, and the addict population was reduced to manageable proportions for the first time in half a century.

But the disappearance of heroin addiction from the American scene was not to be. Within several years, in large part thanks to the nature of U.S. foreign policy after World War II, the drug syndicates were back in business, the poppy fields in Southeast Asia started to expand and heroin refineries multiplied both in Marseille and Hong Kong.(19) How did we come to inflict this heroin plague on ourselves?

The answer lies in the history of America's cold war crusade. World War II shattered the world order much of the globe had known for almost a century. Advancing and retreating armies surged across the face of three continents, leaving in their wake a legacy of crumbling empires, devastated national economies, and shattered social orders. In Europe the defeat of Fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, France, and eastern Europe released workers from years of police state repression. A wave of grass roots militance swept through European labor movements, and trade unions launched a series of spectacular strikes to achieve their economic and political goals. Bled white by six years of costly warfare, both the victor and vanquished nations of Europe lacked the means and the will to hold on to their Asian colonial empires. Within a few years after the end of World War II, vigorous national liberation movements swept through Asia from India to Indonesia as indigenous groups rose up against their colonial masters.

America's nascent cold war crusaders viewed these events with undisguised horror Conservative Republican and Democratic leaders alike felt that the United States should be rewarded for its wartime sacrifices. These men wanted to inherit the world as it had been and had little interest in seeing it changed. Henry Luce, founder of the Time-Life empire, argued that America was the rightful heir to Great Britain's international primacy and heralded the postwar era as "The American Century." To justify their "entanglement in foreign adventures," America's cold warriors embraced a militantly anti-Communist ideology. In their minds the entire world was locked in a Manichaean struggle between "godless communism" and "the free world." The Soviet Union was determined to conquer the world, and its leader, Joseph Stalin, was the new Hitler. European labor movements and Asian nationalist struggles were pawns of "international communism," and as such had to be subverted or destroyed. There could be no compromise with this monolithic evil: negotiations were "appeasement" and neutralism was "im moral." In this desperate struggle to save "Western civilization," any ally was welcome and any means was justified. The military dictatorship on Taiwan became "free China"; the police state in South Vietnam was "free Vietnam"; a collection of military dictatorships stretching from Pakistan to Argentina was "the free world." The CIA became the vanguard of America's anti-Communist crusade, and it dispatched small numbers of well-financed agents to every corner of the globe to mold local political situations in a fashion compatible with American interests. Practicing a ruthless form of clandestine realpolitik, its agents made alliances with any local group willing and able to stem the flow of "Communist aggression." Although these alliances represent only a small fraction of CIA postwar operations, they have nevertheless had a profound impact on the international heroin trade,

The cold war was waged in many parts of the world, but Europe was the most important battleground in the 1940s and 1950s. Determined to restrict Soviet influence in western Europe, American clandestine operatives intervened in the internal politics of Germany, Italy, and France. In Sicily, the forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), formed an alliance with the Sicilian Mafia to limit the political gains of the Italian Communist party on this impoverished island. In France the Mediterranean port city of Marseille became a major battleground between the CIA and the French Communist party durin the late 1940s. To tip the balance of power in its favor, the CIA recruited Corsican gangsters to battle Communist strikers and backed leading figures in the city's Corsican underworld who were at odds with the local Communists. Ironically, both the Sicilian Mafia and the Corsican underworld played a key role in the growth of Europe's postwar heroin traffic and were to provide most of the heroin smuggled into the United States for the next two decades.

However, the mid-1960s marked the peak of the European heroin industry, and shortly thereafter it went into a sudden decline. In the early 1960s the Italian government launched a crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia, and in 1967 the Turkish government announced that it would begin phasing out cultivation of opium poppies on the Anatolian plateau in order to deprive Marseille's illicit heroin laboratories of their most important source of raw material. Unwilling to abandon their profitable narcotics racket, the American Mafia and Corsican syndicates shifted their sources of supply to Southeast Asia, where surplus opium production and systematic government corruption created an ideal climate for large-scale heroin production.

And once again American foreign policy played a role in creating these favorable conditions. During the early 1950s the CIA had backed the formation of a Nationalist Chinese guerrilla army in Burma, which still controls almost a third of the world's illicit opium supply, and in Laos the CIA created a Meo mercenary army whose commander manufactured heroin for sale to Americans GIs in South Vietnam. The State Department provided unconditional support for corrupt governments openly engaged in the drug traffic. In late 1969 new heroin laboratories sprang up in the tri-border area where Burma, Thailand, and Laos converge, and unprecedented quantities of heroin started flooding into the United States. Fueled by these seemingly limitless supplies of heroin, America's total number of addicts skyrocketed.

Unlike some national intelligence agencies, the CIA did not dabble in the drug traffic to finance its clandestine operations. Nor was its culpability the work of a few corrupt agents, eager to share in the enormous profits. The CIA's role in the heroin traffic was simply an inadvertent but inevitable consequence of its cold war tactics.

The Logistics of Heroin

America's heroin addicts are victims of the most profitable criminal enterprise known to man-an enterprise that involves millions of peasant farmers in the mountains of Asia, thousands of corrupt government officials, disciplined criminal syndicates, and agencies of the United States government. America's heroin addicts are the final link in a chain of secret criminal transactions that begin in the opium fields of Asia, pass through clandestine heroin laboratories in Europe and Asia, and enter the United States through a maze of international smuggling routes.

Almost all of the world's illicit opium is grown in a narrow band of mountains that stretches along the southern rim of the great Asian land mass, from Turkey's and Anatolian plateau, through the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent, all the way to the rugged mountains of northern Laos. Within this 4,500-mile stretch of mountain landscape, peasants and tribesmen of eight different nations harvest some fourteen hundred tons a year of raw opium, which eventually reaches the world's heroin and opium addicts." A small percentage of this fourteen hundred tons is diverted from legitimate pharmaceutical production in Turkey, Iran, and India, but most of it is grown expressly for the international narcotics traffic in South and Southeast Asia. Although Turkey was the major source of American narcotics through the 1960s, the hundred tons of raw opium its licensed peasant farmers diverted from legitimate production never accounted for more than 7 percent of the world's illicit supply. (20) About 24 percent is harvested by poppy farmers in South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India). However, most of this is consumed by local opium addicts, and only insignificant quantities find their way to Europe or the United States. (21) It is Southeast Asia that has become the world's most important source of illicit opium. Every year the hill tribe farmers of Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region-northeastern Burma, northern Thailand, and northern Laos-harvest approximately one thousand tons of raw opium, or about 70 percent of the world's illicit supply. (22)

Despite countless minor variations, all of Asia's poppy farmers use the same basic techniques when they cultivate the opium poppy. The annual crop cycle begins in late summer or early fall as the farmers scatter handfuls of tiny poppy seeds across the surface of their hoed fields. At maturity the greenish-colored poppy plant has one main tubular stem, which stands about three or four feet high, and perhaps half a dozen to a dozen smaller stems. About three months after planting, each stem produces a brightly colored flower; gradually the petals drop to the ground, exposing a green seed pod about the size and shape of a bird's egg. For reasons still unexplained by botanists, the seed pod synthesizes a milky white sap soon after the petals have fallen away. This sap is opium, and the farmers harvest it by cutting a series of shallow parallel incisions across the bulb's surface with a special curved knife. As the white sap seeps out of the incisions and congeals on the bulb's surface, it changes to a brownish-black color. The farmer collects the opium by scraping off the bulb with a flat, dull knife. Even in this age of jumbo jets and supersonic transports, raw opium still moves from the poppy fields to the morphine refineries on horseback. There are few roads in these underdeveloped mountain regions, and even where there are, smugglers generally prefer to stick to the mountain trails where there are fewer police. Most traffickers prefer to do their morphine refining close to the poppy fields, since compact morphine bricks are much easier to smuggle than bundles of pungent, jellylike opium. Although they are separated by over four thousand miles, criminal "chemists" of the Middle East and Southeast Asia use roughly the same technique to extract pure morphine from opium. The chemist begins the process by heating water in an oil drum over a wood fire until his experienced index finger tells him that the temperature is just right. Next, raw opium is dumped into the drum and stirred with a heavy stick until it dissolves. At the propitious moment the chemist adds ordinary lime fertilizer to the steaming solution, precipitating out organic waste and leaving the morphine suspended in the chalky white water near the surface. While filtering the water through an ordinary piece of flannel cloth to remove any residual waste matter, the chemist pours the solution into another oil drum. As the solution is heated and stirred a second time, concentrated ammonia is added, causing the morphine to solidify and drop to the bottom. Once more the solution is filtered through flannel, leaving chunky white kernels of morphine on the cloth. Once dried and packaged for shipment, the morphine usually weighs about 10 percent of what the raw opium from which it was extracted weighed. (23)

The heroin manufacturing process is a good deal more complicated, and requires the supervision of an expert chemist. Since the end of World War 11, Marseille and Hong Kong have established themselves as the major centers for heroin laboratories. However, their dominance is now being challenged by a new cluster of heroin laboratories located in the wilds of Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. Most laboratories are staffed by a three-man team consisting of an experienced "master chemist" and two apprentices. In most cases the master chemist is really a "master chef" who has simply memorized the complicated five-part recipe after several years as an assistant. The goal of the five-stage process is to chemically bind morphine molecules with acetic acid and then process the compound to produce a fluffy white powder that can be injected from a syringe,

STAGE ONE. To produce ten kilos of pure heroin (the normal daily output of many labs), the chemist heats ten kilos of morphine and ten kilos of acetic anhydride in an enamel bin or glass flask. After being heated six hours at exactly 185' F., the morphine and acid become chemically bonded, creating an impure form of diacetylmorphine (heroin).

STAGE TWO . To remove impurities from the compound, the solution is treated with water and chloroform until the impurities precipitate out, leaving a somewhat higher grade of diacetylmorphine.

STAGE THREE. The solution is drained off into another container, and sodium carbonate is added until the crude heroin particles begin to solidify and drop to the bottom.

STAGE FOUR. After the heroin particles are filtered out of the sodium carbonate solution under pressure by a small suction pump, they are purified in a solution of alcohol and activated charcoal. The new mixture is heated until the alcohol begins to evaporate, leaving relatively pure granules of heroin at the bottom of the flask.

STAGE FIVE. This final stage produces the fine white powder prized by American addicts, and requires considerable skill on the part of an underworld chemist. The heroin is placed in a large flask and dissolved in alcohol. As ether and hydrochloric acid are added to the solution, tiny white flakes begin to form. After the flakes are filtered out under pressure and dried through a special process, the end result is a white powder, 80 to 99 percent pure, known as "no. 4 heroin." In the hands of a careless chemist the volatile ether gas may ignite and produce a violent explosion that could level the clandestine laboratory.(24)

Once it is packaged in plastic envelopes, heroin is ready for its trip to the United States. An infinite variety of couriers and schemes are used to smugglestewardesses, Filipino diplomats, businessmen, Marseille pimps, and even Playboy playmates. But regardless of the means used to smuggle, almost all of these shipments are financed and organized by one of the American Mafia's twenty-four regional groups, or "families." Although the top bosses of organized crime never even see, much less touch, the heroin, their vast financial resources and their connections with Chinese syndicates in Hong Kong and Corsican gangs in Marseille and Indochina play a key role in the importation of America's heroin supply. The top bosses usually deal in bulk shipments of twenty to a hundred kilos of no. 4 heroin, for which they have to advance up to $27,000 per kilo in cash. After a shipment arrives, the bosses divide it into wholesale lots of one to ten kilos for sale to their underlings in the organized crime families. A lower-ranking mafioso, known as a "kilo connection" in the trade, dilutes the heroin by 50 percent and breaks it into smaller lots, which he turns over to two or three distributors. From there the process of dilution and profitmaking continues downward through another three levels in the distribution network until it finally reaches the stree t.25 By this time the heroin's value has increased tenfold to $225,000 a kilo, and it is so heavily diluted that the average street packet sold to an addict is less than 5 percent pure.

To an average American who witnesses the daily horror of the narcotics traffic at the street level, it must seem inconceivable that his government could be in any way implicated in the international narcotics traffic. The media have tended to reinforce this outlook by depicting the international heroin traffic as a medieval morality play: the traffickers are portrayed as the basest criminals, continually on the run from the minions of law and order; and American diplomats and law enforcement personnel are depicted as modern-day knightserrant staunchly committed to the total, immediate eradication of heroin trafficking. Unfortunately, the characters in this drama cannot be so easily stereotyped. American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels: (1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) abetting the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; (3) and active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin. It is ironic, to say the least, that America's heroin plague is of its own making.

Copyright 1991 - 2008 The Akha Heritage Foundation