Up the Creek
An associate of General Quang's, former navy commander Rear Admiral Chung Tan Cang, rose to prominence during the Cambodian invasion. Admiral Cang had been a good friend of President Thieu's since their student days together at Saigon's Merchant Marine Academy (class of '47). (134) When Admiral Cang was removed from command of the navy in 1965, after being charged with selling badly needed flood relief supplies on the black market instead of delivering them to the starving refugees, (135) Thieu had intervened to prevent him from being prosecuted and had him appointed to a face-saving sinecure. (136)
Sources inside the Vietnamese navy say that a smuggling network which shipped heroin and opium from Cambodia back to South Vietnam was set up among high-ranking naval officers shortly after the Vietnamese navy docked at Phnom Penh. The shipments were passed from protector to protector until they reached Saigon: the first relay was from Phnom Penh to Neak Luong; the next, from Neak Luong to Tan Chau, just inside South Vietnam; the next, from Tan Chan to Binh Thuy. From there the narcotics were shipped to Saigon on a variety of naval and civilian vessels. (137)
As the Cambodian military operation drew to a close in the middle of 1970, the navy's smuggling organization (which had been bringing limited quantities of gold, opium, and dutiable goods into Vietnam since 1968) expanded.
Commo. Lam Nguon Thanh was appointed vice-chief of naval operations in August of 1970. Also a member of Thieu's class at the Merchant Marine Academy (class of '47) Commodore Thanh had been abruptly removed from his post as navy chief of staff in 1966. (138) Sources inside the navy allege that highranking naval officials used three of the Mekong Delta naval bases under Commodore Thanh's command-Rach Soi, Long Xuyen, and Tan Chau-as drop points for narcotics smuggled into Vietnam on Thai fishing boats or Cambodian river sampans. From these three bases, the narcotics were smuggled to Saigon on naval vessels or on "swift boats" (officially known as PCFs, or Patrol Craft Fast). When, as often happened, the narcotics were shipped to Saigon on ordinary civilian sampans or fishing junks, their movements were protected by these naval units. (139)
Some of these smuggling operations within the Vietnamese navy were exposed in the summer of 1971. Shortly before this happened, the U.S. government had finally begun pressuring the South Vietnamese to crack down on the drug smuggling. According to sources inside the navy, the American demands were a cause of some concern for General Quang and Admiral Cang. General Quang thoughtfully had Admiral Cang appointed as chairman of the National AntiNarcotics Committee and his associate, Commodore Thanh, installed as chairman of the Navy Anti-Narcotics Committee. (140)
Although these precautions should have proved adequate, events and decisions beyond General Quang's control nearly resulted in a humiliating public expose. On July 25, 1971, Vietnamese narcotics police, assisted by Thai and American agents, broke up a major chiu chau Chinese syndicate based in Cholon, arrested 60 drug traffickers, and made one of the largest narcotics seizures in Vietnam's recent history -51 kilos of heroin and 334 kilos of opium. Hailed in the press as a great victory for the Thieu government's war on drugs, these raids were actually something of a major embarrassment, since they partially exposed the navy smuggling ring. (141)
This Cholon chiu chau syndicate was organized in mid 1970 when "Mr. Big" in Bangkok, a chiu chau Chinese reputed to be one of the largest drug financiers in Southeast Asia, decided to start dealing in South Vietnam. He contacted a respectable chiu chau plastics manufacturer in Cholon, Mr. Tran Minh, and the two soon came to an agree ment. The Vietnamese navy, of course, was to provide protection (see Map 5, page 155). Sometime in mid 1970 a Thai fishing vessel arrived off the coast of Puolo Dama, a tiny Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Siam, with the first shipment. Waiting for the boat was a Vietnamese fishing boat under the command of a chiu chau captain named Tang Hai. Hired by Mr. Tran Minh, Tang Hai was the link between the Bangkok and Cholon syndicates. After two hundred kilos of opium had been transferred in mid-ocean, the Vietnamese boat chugged off toward its home port, Rach Gia, about fifty-five miles to the northeast. In Rach Gia, the bundles of opium were loaded onto a river sampan for the voyage to Saigon. Concealed under a layer of coconut shells, the opium appeared to be just another commercial cargo as it wound its way through the maze of canals that led to the docks of Cholon. Once the sampan docked at a wharf in Cholon's seventh district, the cargo was transferred to a microbus, driven to Tran Minh's warehouse in Cholon's sixth district, and eventually dispensed to the opium dens of Saigon-Cholon. All the traffic on these waterways was policed and protected by the Vietnamese navy. Tran Minh's business prospered and the smuggling continued.
By the third shipment Mr. Tran Minh had decided to expand into the GI market, and ordered ten kilos of Double U-0 Globe brand heroin as well as the usual two hundred kilos of opium. For the fourth shipment, Tran Minh was afraid the deliveries might start attracting notice and changed the transfer point to Hon Panjang, an island 115 miles southwest of Rach Gia. By mid 1971 business was going so well that the Cholon syndicate boss ordered a double shipmentfour hundred kilos of opium and sixty kilos of heroin. The heroin alone was worth more than $720,000 retail, and for the fishing captain Tang Hai and his military protectors at the Rach Soi Naval Base it turned out to be an irresistible temptation.
In early July 1971 Tang Hai kept his appointment with the Thai fishing boat and picked up the cargo near Hon Panjang Island. But instead of returning to Rach Gia, he then proceeded to sail sixty miles north to Phu Quoc Island, where he buried the opium and hid the heroin in some underbrush. Then he returned to Rach Gia and told Mr. Tran Minh's contact man that the shipment had been stolen by the Vietnamese navy. Apparently this was a convincing explanation, and the contact man relayed the news to Cholon. When Mr. Tran Minh agreed to buy back half of the shipment from the navy for $25,000, Tang Hai returned to Phu Quoc Island, dug up most of the cache, and delivered half of the original shipment to the contact man in Rach Gia after burying the difference near his home. The contact man hired the usual sampan owner to smuggle the drugs to Cholon, but he was robbed, this time for real, by three ARVN corporals only ten miles up the canal from Rach Gia.
The boatman returned to Rach Gia and reported his bad luck to the beleaguered contact man, who dutifully passed the word along to ChoIon. Now $25,000 poorer, Mr. Tran Minh informed Bangkok that he had been robbed twice and could not pay for the shipment. The Bangkok financier, however, immediately assumed that he was being cheated and decided to wipe out the entire Vietnamese syndicate. The Thai fishing captain was selected as the informer, and he approached Col. Pramual Vangibandhu of the Thai Central Narcotics Bureau with a proposition: in exchange for a guarantee of complete immunity and anonymity for the Bangkok syndicate, he would name the two key men in the Saigon operation (which were, in fact, the only names the Bangkok syndicate knew).
Colonel Pramual accepted the offer and contacted U.S. narcotics agent William Wanzeck, asking him to arrange a meeting with the Vietnamese. The two men flew to Saigon, where they met with the head of the Vietnamese Narcotics Police, Redactor Ly Ky Hoang, and U.S. narcotics agent Fred Dick. It was agreed that there should be two simultaneous raids; the Vietnamese National Police would bust the Saigon syndicate while Redactor Hoang, Colonel Pramual, and Fred Dick flew to Rach Gia to arrest Tang Hai and his cohorts.
The two raids were planned for 9:30 A.M. on July 25, less than three weeks after the drugs first arrived off Hon Panjang Island. The Saigon raid came off perfectly, but at Rach Gia, Redactor Hoang found that Tang Hai was not at home. Hoang, who was not in uniform, explained to Tang Hai's sister that the boss, Mr. Tran Minh, had sent him to negotiate for the missing drugs. After fifty minutes of skillful explanations, the sister finally agreed to take Redactor Hoang to a restaurant where her brother was "at a party drinking with some friends." The two of them clambered aboard a sputtering Lambretta taxi and disembarked about thirty minutes later in front of a restaurant in Rach Soi, a small fishing port four miles south of Rach Gia. Inside, Tang Hai was the guest of honor at a boisterous drinking party hosted by the commander of nearby Rach Soi Naval Base, Captain Hai, and attended by twenty well-armed navy officers and sailors.
Explaining that Mr. Tran Minh himself was waiting at Rach Gia, Redactor Hoang suggested that he and Tang Hai go there to discuss buying back the drugs. When the chiu chau smuggler replied that he would rather stay at the party, Redactor Hoang elaborated on his story, explaining that the boss was willing to pay $25,000 for the remaining half of the shipment. At this the navy commander insisted that Hoang use his personal jeep and driver to bring Mr. Tran Minh to the party for negotiations.
An hour later Redactor Hoang returned in a police car, accompanied by Colonel Pramual and Fred Dick. While the others waited outside, Redactor Hoang entered the restaurant alone. After suggesting that they step outside for a private word with the boss, he arrested Tang Hai, threw him into the waiting police car, and raced off for Rach Gia. Minutes later the navy officers realized their guest had been arrested, grabbed their guns, and sped off in hot pursuit.
Even though they suspected that the navy posse was not far behind, the multinational police squad stopped enroute to Rach Gia at a house belonging to Tang Hai's cousin to search for a suspected drugs cache. While Dick and Colonel Pramual took Tang Hai inside and proceeded to ransack the house, Redactor Hoang remained in the car a hundred yards down the street, radioing desperately for police assistance. Before he finally realized that the radio was out of order navy jeeps screeched to a halt in front of the house and the officers began spreading out along the opposite side of the street with their guns drawn and aimed at the house.
Hoang was pinned down in the police car, cut off from his friends and feeling rather frightened. Suddenly he spotted a Lambretta minibus coming down the road. He cocked his gun and waited. When the minibus was just abreast of his car, Hoang jumped out, raced alongside the minibus until it was parallel with the house, and then dove through the front door. When he told the others what was happening, Fred Dick started to break out a window with his pistol butt for a shoot-out, but Hoang, who had not seen as many cowboy movies, stopped him.
Fortunately for our heroes, a plainclothes policeman just happened to enter the adjoining iron shop. After Hoang explained the situation, the policeman jumped on his Honda motor bike and puttered off for help. When a well-armed squad of local police arrived ten minutes later, the naval officers, realizing they were outgunned, reluctantly climbed back in their jeeps and retreated to Rach Soi.
When search of the house turned up nothing, Hoang and the others drove Tang Hai to the Rach Gia police station for interrogation. At first the smuggler refused to talk, but after Hoang, who has considerable ability in these arcane arts, finished with a few minutes of skillful interrogation, he confessed everything-including the location of the drug cache on Phu Quoc Island. While Colonel Pramual and Fred Dick flew Tang Hai out to the island to dig up the cache ( 112.0 kilos of opium and 3.9 kilos of heroin), Hoang himself arrested the three ARVN corporals who had actually stolen half the shipment and turned them over to the Military Security Service (MSS) for questioning. Sensing that MSS would learn nothing, Hoang ordered the Rach Gia police commander to send a car around to his hotel when the MSS gave up. The military finished six hours of fruitless questioning at 2:00 A.M.; Hoang arrived at police headquarters an hour later and had his answers in only fifteen minutes. The next morning a police squad unearthed 32.7 kilos of heroin and 35.0 kilos of opium near a canal about two hours from Rach Gia. A search of Tang Hai's yard later that day uncovered an additional 7.0 kilos of Double U-0 Globe brand heroin and 88.0 kilos of opium. Meanwhile, back in Bangkok the Thai police held a press conference on July 29, only four days after the first spectacular raids. Nervous over rumors of their involvement in the international traffic, the Thai police were eager to grab credit and add a little luster to their otherwise tawdry reputation. Gen. Nitya Bhanumas, secretary general of the Thai Narcotics Board, reportedly claimed that the information tha led to the seizures came from "informants he developed in an investigation he directed last month. (142)
When the Vietnamese police picked up their newspapers the next morning, they were outraged. (143) Not only had the Thais claimed credi for what they felt was their work, but the investigation was still continuing and the Vietnamese police feared that the headlines might drive many of the syndicate's members into hiding. The Thai police had only given their Vietnamese counterparts the two names known to Bangkok's "Mr. Big"-Tang Hai and Mr. Tran Minh. Working from the top of the syndicate down, the Vietnamese were just beginning a roundup that eventually netted over sixty middle- and upper-level distributors and scores of street pushers.
According to sources inside the Vietnamese navy, these raids created a near panic in the navy smuggling ring as its leaders scrambled frantically to salvage the situation. Two of the officers involved in the Cambodia invasion command structure were speedily removed about the time that the smuggling ring was exposed. Capt. Nguyen Van Thong was removed from his command of Riverine Task Force 211 and reassigned to a command training course only a few days before the police raids took place. The commander of the coastal patrol force, Capt. Nguyen Huu Chi, was transferred to a staff college for advanced training a scarce two weeks later. (144) Although MSS has arrested the navy officers at Rach Soi directly implicated in the affair, (145) there are reports that highranking military officers are doing their best to protect them, and have managed to make sure that their arrest received almost no mention in the press. (146)