The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The Politics of Heroin in South Vietnam

Geography and politics have dictated the fundamental "laws" that have governed South Vietnam's narcotics traffic for the last twenty years. Since opium is not grown inside South Vietnam, all of her drugs have to be importedfrom the Golden Triangle region to the north. Stretching across 150,000 square miles of northeastern Burma, northern Thailand, and northern Laos, the mountainous Golden Triangle is the source of all the opium and heroin sold in South Vietnam. Although it is the world's most important source of illicit opium, morphine, and heroin, the Golden Triangle is landlocked, cut off from local and international markets by long distances and rugged terrain. Thus, once processed and packaged in the region's refineries, the Golden Triangle's narcotics follow one of two "corridors" to reach the world's markets. The first and most important route is the overland corridor that begins as a maze of mule trails in the Shan hills of northeastern Burma and ends as a four-lane highway in downtown Bangkok. Most of Burma's and Thailand's opium follows the overland route to Bangkok and from there finds its way into international markets, the most important of which is Hong Kong. The second route is the air corridor that begins among the scattered dirt airstrips of northern Laos and ends at Saigon's international airport. The opium reaching Saigon from Burma or Thailand is usually packed into northwestern Laos on muleback before being flown into South Vietnam. While very little opium, morphine, or heroin travels from Saigon to Hong Kong, the South Vietnamese capital appears to be the major transshipment point for Golden Triangle narcotics heading for Europe and the United States.

Since Vietnam's major source of opium lies on the other side of the rugged Annamite Mountains, every Vietnamese civilian or military group that wants to finance its political activities by selling narcotics has to have (1) a connection in Laos and (2) access to air transport. When the Binh Xuyen controlled Saigon's opium dens during the First Indochina War, the French MACG provided these services through its officers fighting with Laotian guerrillas and its air transport links between Saigon and the mountain maquis. Later Vietnamese politicomilitary groups have used family connections, intelligence agents serving abroad, and Indochina's Corsican underworld as their Laotian connection. While almost any high-ranking Vietnamese can establish such contacts without too much difficulty, the problem of securing reliable air transport between Laos and the Saigon area has always limited narcotics smuggling to only the most powerful of the Vietnamese elite.

When Ngo Dinh Nhu, brother and chief adviser of South Vietnam's late president, Ngo Dinh Diem, decided to revive the opium traffic to finance his repression of mounting armed insurgency and political dissent, he used Vietnamese intelligence agents operating in Laos and Indochina's Corsican underworld as his contacts. From 1958 to 1960 Nhu relied mainly on small Corsican charter airlines for transport, but in 1961-1962 he also used the First Transport Group (which was then flying intelligence missions into Laos for the CIA and was under the control of Nguyen Cao Ky) to ship raw opium to Saigon. During this period and the following years, 1965-1967, when Ky was premier, most of the opium seems to have been finding its way to South Vietnam through the Vietnamese air force. By mid 1970 there was evidence that high-ranking officials in the Vietnamese navy, customs, army, port authority, National Police, and National Assembly's lower house were competing with the air force for the dominant position in the traffic. To a casual observer, it must have appeared that the strong central control exercised during the Ky and the Diem administrations had given way to a laissez-faire free-for-all under the Thieu government.

What seems like chaotic competition among poorly organized smuggling rings actually appears to be, on closer examination, a fairly disciplined power struggle between the leaders of Saigon's three most powerful political factions: the air force, which remains under VicePresident Ky's control; the army, navy, and lower house, which are loyal to President Thieu; and the customs, port authority, and National Police, where the factions loyal to Premier Khiem have considerable influence. However, to see through the confusion to the lines of authority that bound each of these groups to a higher power requires some appreciation of the structure of Vietnamese political factions and the traditions of corruption.