The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The Opium Airlift Command

Of South Vietnam's three major narcotics rings, the air transport wing loyal to Air Vice-Marshal Ky must still be considered the most professional. Although Ky's apparatus lost control over the internal distribution network following his post-Tet political decline in 1968, his faction continues to manage much of the narcotics smuggling between Vietnam and Laos through the air force and its relations with Laotian traffickers. With over ten years of experience, it has connections with the Lao elite that the other two factions cannot even hope to equal. Rather than buying heroin through a maze of middlemen, Ky's apparatus deals directly with a heroin laboratory operating somewhere in the Vientiane region. According to a U.S. police adviser stationed in Vientiane, this laboratory is supposed to be one of the most active in Laos, and is managed by a Chinese entrepreneur named Huu Tim Heng. Heng is the link between one of Laos's major opium merchants, Gen. Ouane Rattikone (former commander in chief of the Laotian army), and the air transport wing heroin ring. (109) From the viewpoint of the narcotics traffic, Huu Tim Heng's most important legitimate commercial venture is the Pepsi-Cola bottling factory on the outskirts of Vientiane. With Prime Minister Souvanna Phourna's son, Panya, as the official president, Heng and two other Chinese financiers began construction in 1965-1966. Although the presence of the prime minister's son at the head of the company qualified the venture for generous financial support from USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), the plant has still not bottled a single Pepsi after five years of stop-start construction. (110) The completed factory building has a forlorn, abandoned look about it. While Pepsi's competitors are mystified at the company's lac adaisical attitude, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics has an answer to the riddle. Bureau sources report that Heng has been using his Pepsi operation as a cover for purchases of chemicals vital to the processing of heroin, such as ether and acetic anhydride, and for large financial transactions. (111)

Once the heroin is processed and packaged in large, plastic envelopes, other experienced members of the Ky apparatus take charge of arranging shipment to South Vietnam. Mrs. Nguyen Thi Ly, Ky's elder sister, had directed much of the traffic from the Sedone Palace Hotel in Pakse when her brother was premier, but in 1967 she gave up her position as manager and moved back to Saigon. However, sources in Vientiane's Vietnamese community report that she and her husband have traveled between Saigon, Pakse, and Vientiane at least once a month since they returned to Vietnam. Mrs, Ly purchases heroin produced in Huu Tim Heng's clandestine laboratory and has it shipped to Pakse or Phnom Penh where it is picked up by Vietnamese air force transports. (112)

In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics believes that General Loan's old assistant, Mai Den, may also be involved in this operation. After General Loan was wounded in May 1968, Mai Den was forced out of his position as director of the CIO's Foreign Intelligence Bureau, and he exiled himself to Bangkok. (113) For two years this wily chameleon had used his CIO agents to weave a net of drug contacts across the Golden Triangle, and the Bureau of Narcotics has reason to believe he may still he using them.

Normally, those air force officers responsible for directing the flow of narcotics to South Vietnam purchase the drugs and have them delivered, often by the Laotian air force, to points in Laos, particularly Pakse, or else across the border in Pleiku Province, South Vietnam, or in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Most observers feel that the Cambodian capital has prempted Pleiku's importance as a drop point since the Vietnamese air force began daily sorties to Phnom Penh during the 1970 Cambodia invasion. In August 1971 The New York Times reported that the director of Vietnam customs "said he believed that planes of the South Vietnamese Air Force were the principal carriers" of heroin coming into South Vietnam." (114) While the director is a Thieu appointee and his remark may be politically motivated, U.S. customs advisers, more objective observers, have stated that the air force regularly unloads large quantities of smuggled narcotics at Tan Son Nhut Air Base." (115) Here Air Vice-Marshal Ky reigns like a feudal baron in his airconditioned palace, surrounded by only his most loyal officers. As one U.S. air force adviser put it, "In order to get a job within shooting distance of the Vice Presidential palace a VNAF officer has to be intensely loyal to Ky. (116)

The current commander of Tan Son Nhut and the air force's transport wing (renamed the Fifth Air Division in January 1971) is Col. Phan Phung Tien. Brother-in-law of one of Ky's close political advisers who died in the 1968 "accidents," Col. Tien served under Ky as a squadron commander in the First Transport Group from 1956 to 1960. He has remained one of Ky's most loyal followers, and one U.S. air force adviser recently described him as Ky's "revolutionary plotter" inside the air force. (117)

Ever since the Cambodia invasion of May 1970, Fifth Air Division C-47, C-119, and C123 transports have been shuttling back and fo th between Phnom Penh and Tan Son Nhut with equipment and supplies for the Cambodian army, while two AC-47 gunships have flown nightly missions to Phnom Penh to provide perimeter defense for the Cambodian capital. (118) All of these flights are supposed to return empty, but the director-general of Vietnam customs believes they are often filled with dutiable goods, gold, and narcotics. The director-general has singled out Colonel Tien for criticism in an interview with The New York Times in August 1971, labeling him "the least cooperative in his efforts to narrow the channels through which heroin reached Vietnam. (119) Moreover, Vietnamese police officials report that Colonel Tien is extremely close to some of the powerful Corsican underworld figures who manage hotels and restaurants in Saigon. (120) The accumulation of this kind of evidence has led many informed Vietnamese observers to conclude that Colonel Tien has become a central figure in Vietnam's narcotics traffic.