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The Politics of Heroin
CIA Complicity In The Global Drug Trade

a book by Alfred W. McCoy with Cathleen B. Read and Leonard P.Adams II




"To an average American who witnesses the dismal spectacle of the narcotics traffic at the street level, it must seem inconceivable that the government could be implicated in the international drug trade. Unfortunately, American diplomats and CIA 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) support of the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; and 3) 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."

Twenty years of research have led to this revised and updated edition of Alfred W. McCoy's classic, The politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. In it, he concludes that, with global production and consumption of narcotics at record levels and heroin use in America on the rise, it is time to confront the failure of the U.S. government's drug policy and to put an end to the CIA's complicity in the narcotics trade, which since World War II has been an integral part of the agency's efforts to maintain U.S. power abroad. A remarkable expose of official U.S. hypocrisy in its approaches to one of the world's greatest social problems, The Politics of Heroin offers an analysis that is destined to influence the public debate on drugs for years to come.

Alfred W. McCoy:

Writing this book has been a long journey, from america to Asia and from youth to middle age. In 1971, then twenty-five and in my second year at Yale Graduate School, I set out on a trip around the world to study the politics of the global heroin trade. Somehow I survived the unanticipated adventures that followed and two years later I published The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, a book that was more expose than explanation. Over the next fifteen years, I returned to Southeast Asia several times to research revisions to that first book and to gather materials for a second, entitled Drug Traffic, a study of heroin's impact on crime and corruption in Australia. Finally, in the summer of 1990, I combined my own data on Southeast Asia with the research of others on Central America and South Asia to produce the present volume.

My work on the heroin trade began in the fall of 1970 as an outgrowth of a book I had edited on Laotian politics. Elisabeth Jakab, my editor at Harper & Row, suggested that I use my knowledge of Southeast Asian politics to write a book providing a historical perspective on the sudden spread of heroin addiction among American troops in South Vietnam. What began as a small project based on library research soon mushroomed into a much larger one after three more or less chance encounters.

During spring break, I took time off from research in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library to conduct interviews in Paris with former French officers about the opium trade during their Indochina War of the early 1950s. My meeting with General Maurice Belleux, the former chief of French intelligence for Indochina, inadvertently revealed that the CIA was involved in the opium trade as their French counterparts had been before them. Receiving me in the offices of a helicopter company he now headed, Belleux responded to a broad question about opium by explaining in detail how his agency had controlled Indochina's illicit drug trade and used it to finance clandestine operations against Communist guerrillas. The general added that "your CIA" had inherited his network of covert action allies when the French quit Vietnam in 1964. He suggested that a trip to Saigon would reveal that American intelligence was, like its earlier French counterpart, involved in the opium traffic. Other French veterans, notably the paratroop commander Colonel Roger Trinquier, conffrmed both the general's information and his suggestion.

It was not only General Belleux who convinced me that the Vietnam drug problem needed investigation. At a street demonstration in New Haven for Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, I met the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who insisted that the CIA was deeply involved in the Southeast Asian opium trade. To back his claims and aid my research, he mailed me a carton containing years' worth of unpublished dispatches from Time-Life correspondents that documented the involvement of America's Asian allies in the opium traffic.

The third chance encounter was the most unlikely of all. At a society wedding in New York City for the sister of a former Columbia fraternity brother, I was astonished to hear a group of marine officers, guests of the groom, tell stories of North Vietnamese soldiers found dead with syringes in their arms on the slopes of Khe Sanh and Communist truck convoys rolling down the Ho Chi Minh trail in South Vietnam loaded with heroin for American troops.

After submitting overdue term papers to my tolerant Yale professors, Karl Pelzer and John Whitmore, I started for Southeast Asia in the summer of 1971. On the way, I stopped in Washington, D.C. to interview the legendary CLA operative Edward Lansdale, General Belleux's successor in Saigon. Both Lansdale and his former CIA aide Lucien Conein received me in their modest suburban homes not far from the CIA's Langley headquarters and told stories about drug trafficking in Saigon by the French, the Corsicans, and the intimates of President Ngo Dinh Diem. A former Saigon coup leader, General Nguyen Chanh Thi, now exiled to an apartment near Dupont Circle, confirmed the CIA stories and, more important, gave me introductions to some of his friends in South Vietnam. The Washington bureau of Dispatch News Service, a fledgling agency best known for its expose of the My Lai massacre, told me that one of its stringers, an Australian named John EveAngham, was writing about CIA helicopters carrying opium in Laos.

How could I find him? Easy. Everingham was the only white man in Saigon who wore a blond ponytail and "Viet Cong-style black pajamas."

During one of my last interviews in the States, I received the first of the death threats that accompanied this research. Moving west, I stopped at a restored nineteenth-century flour mill on the banks of a stream in Readyville, Tennessee. Its owner, a young man named Joe Flipse, had recently returned from volunteer service with tribal refugees in Laos. Over coffee at his kitchen table, he finished the interview by threatening to kill me if I sourced any information to him.

By the time I landed at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport in July, I was armed with some introductions and an idea for a new way to ask controversial questions. Instead of working like a journalist tracking the visible signs of the current heroin trail, I would start my interviews with questions about opium use in the past-when it was legal and not at all controversial. Working forward to the present, I would compile information about the illicit traff~c and individual involvement that would lead, slowly perhaps, to those who controlled the current trade. Instead of confronting the protectors and drug dealers with direct accusations, an unproductive and dangerous method, I would try oblique and apparently unrelated questions, seeking to confirm the profile I had built up from documents and other interviews. In short, I would use historical methods to probe the present.

During my first days in Saigon, General Thi's introduction opened the door to the home of Colonel Pham Van Lieu, an influential leader of South Vietnam's "third force" who had once commanded the country's marines and national police. Over the next month, Lieu arranged meetings in his living room with senior Saigon officers who presented details and documentation about the role ~f senior government officials in the sale of heroin to U.S. troops.

A number of young Americans working in Saigon as stringers and researchers for the famous by-line reporters helped me check this information. Mark Lynch, now a Washington lawyer, gave me access to the files in Newsweek's offices, where he worked as a researcher. A Cornell graduate student, D. Gareth Porter, was in Saigon working on current politics and shared information. A friend from Yale Graduate School, Tom Fox, now editor of the National Catholic Reporter, was then in Saigon stringing for The New York Times. One night he took me on a six-hour odyssey from the flashy neon bars at Saigon's center to the tin-shed brothels at the fringe of Cholon's sprawling shantytowns, rebuff~ng the advances of prostitutes and calling for heroin at every stop. For an outlay of twenty dollars, I returned to my hotel room with pockets bulging from vials of high-grade heroin worth maybe five thousand dollars on the street in New York. As I flushed the powder down the drain that night, I thought about trying it just once. I can recall raising a vial to my nose before hesitating and tipping it into the toilet.

During my last week in Saigon, I was walking up and down Tu Do Street at Saigon's center looking for the Dispatch stringer when I spotted a tall white man in black pajamas striding down the other side of the street. I screamed out "Everingham, Everingham" above the roar of the rock music spilling from the bars and the revs of the Saigon-cowboy motorcycles. He paused. Over coffee, we agreed to meet at 5:00 P.M. two weeks later at the bar of the Constellation Hotel in Vientiane, Laos. Yes, he had been in tribal villages where CIA helicopters had flown out the opium. He could take me to those villages to see for myself. He was trying to get a start as a photographer and asked that I use his pictures in my book.

Two weeks later, I was sitting at the bar of the Constellation Hotel nursing a Coca-Cola when John Everingham walked in with Phin Manivong, our young Lao interpreter. Next day at dawn, we took a taxi out of Vientiane, hitched a ride on a USAID highway truck north for most of the day, and then started hiking up a steep path that climbed from road's edge into the hills. By nightfall we were sleeping in a Yao hill tribe village near the peak of a mile-high mountain. After a few days spent watching the women plant opium in the valleys around the village, we traveled north through mist-shrouded mountains with the look of ancient Chinese scroll paintings to Long Pot village, a Hmong settlement at the edge of the battle lines. Approaching just before dark, we were escorted to the house of Ger Su Yang, the local Hmong leader who held the post of district officer.

Over a dinner of pig fat and sticky rice, Ger Su Yang asked Everingham, through our interpreter, what we were doing in his village. Knowing the Hmong leader from earlier visits, Everingham was frank and told him that I was writing a book on opium. For a man who did not read a daily newspaper, Ger Su Yang proposed a bargain that showed a keen sense of media management. He would provide armed men to escort us anywhere in his district and would allow us to ask anything we wanted about the opium. If he did that, could I get an article in a Washington newspaper reporting that the CLt had broken its promise? For ten years, he explained, the men of his village had died fighting in the CLA's army until only the fourteen-year-old boys were left. When he refused to send these boys to die, the CIA had stopped the rice airdrops that fed his village of women and children. After six months the children were visibly weak from hunger. Once the Americans in Washington knew about his situation, surely, said Ger Su Yang, they would send the rice. I promised.

Over the next five days, we conducted our opium survey, door-to-door, at every house in the village. Do you grow opium? Yes. After the harvest, how do you market the opium? We take it over to that hill, and the American helicopters come with Hmong soldiers who buy the opium and take it away in the helicopters.

We also learned that we were being watched. A Hmong captain in the CIA's Secret Army was radioing reports to the agency's secret base at Long Tieng. On our fourth day in Long Pot, a helicopter marked "Air America," the CIA's airline, spotted us on a nearby hill as it took off from the village. It hovered just above our heads, pilot and copilot staring for a long minute before flying off. On the f~fth day, we were hiking to the next village with an escort of f~ve Hmong armed with carbines when a shot rang out. The escort went ahead to the next ridge and waited momentarily before motioning for us to proceed. As we slipped down the face of that slope wet from the monsoon rains, several automatic weapons opened up from the next ridge, spraying the hillside with bullets. We fell back into a small hollow. While our escorts gave us a covering f~re, we slithered on our bellies through the elephant grass to get away. Overweight and out of shape from months in Sterling Memorial Library, I rose to my knees. Everingham slammed my face into the mud. Somehow we all made it to safety behind the ridge and assembled, laughing at our luck to escape from the "Communist guerrillas" who we assumed were the authors of our ambush.

The next day, as we were interviewing in a nearby village, a tribesman whispered to our interpreter that it had not been the Communists. We had been ambushed by the Hmong soldiers of General yang Pao, commander of the CIA's Secret Army. The next morning, we cut short our research and fled down the path toward the highway, later hitching a ride on a truck heading north, not south for Vientiane, fearful of another ambush. An hour later, we came to a junction where a U.S. army major was supervising a helicopter ferrying Royal Lao troop detachments into the Communist zone. Worried about what might be waiting for us on the road south to Vientiane, I decided to lie. I told the major that I was an adviser to the U.S. embassy on tribal matters and needed to borrow his helicopter for an urgent trip to Vientiane. He was going back to the capital anyway and would give us a lift. When we landed at the outskirts of the city later that afternoon, two unshaven Americans approached us with light machine guns slung over their shoulders. They demanded that we go with them, claiming that they were U.S. embassy security officers. We refused and took a taxi instead.