The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

Corsican Aviation Pioneers: "Air Opium," 1955-1965

After France's military withdrawal in 1954, several hundred French war veterans, colonists, and gangsters stayed on in Laos. Some of them, mainly Corsicans, started a number of small charter airlines, which became colorfully and collectively known as "Air Opium." Ostensibly founded to supply otherwise unavailable transportation for civilian businessmen and diplomats, these airlines gradually restored Laos's link to the drug markets of South Vietnam that had vanished with the departure of the French air force in 1954. At first, progress was hampered by unfavorable political conditions in South Vietnam, and the three fledgling airlines that pioneered these new routes enjoyed only limited success (31)

Perhaps the most famous of the early French opium pilots was Gerard Labenski. His aircraft was based at Phong Savan on the Plain of Jars, where he managed the Snow Leopard Inn, a hotel that doubled as a warehouse for outgoing opium shipments (32).Another of these aviation pioneers was Rene "Babal" Enjabal, a former French air force officer whose airline was popularly known as "Babal Air Force" (33) The most tenacious member of this shadowy trio was Roger Zoile. His charter airline was allied with Paul Louis Levet's Bangkok-based Corsican syndicate.

Levet was probably the most important Marseille underworld figure regularly supplying European heroin laboratories with morphine base from Southeast Asia in the late 1950s. Levet arrived in Saigon in 1953-1954 and got his start smuggling gold and piasters on the Saigon-Marseille circuit. After the gold traffic dried up in 1955, he became involved in the opium trade and moved to Bangkok, where he established the Pacific Industrial Company. According to a U.S. Bureau of Narcotics report filed in 1962, this company was used as a cover to smuggle substantial quantities of morphine base from northern Thailand to heroin laboratories in Europe. Through a network of four prominent Corsican gangsters based in Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Saigon, Levet used Zoile's airline to move morphine base from the Golden Triangle region to seaports in Thailand and Indochina (34) There was an enormous amount of shipping between Southeast Asia and Europe, and so arranging for deliveries presented no problem. Saigon was particularly convenient as a transshipment point, since substantial numbers of French freighters carrying corsican crews still sailed direct to Marseille. Even though Levet's syndicate was preoccupied with the European traffic, it also had a share of the regional opium trade.(35)

Although all these men were competent pilots and committed opium smugglers, the South Vietnamese government had adopted an intolerant attitude toward the opium traffic that seriously hampered their operations. In 1955 South Vietnam's puritanical President Diem closed most of Saigon's opium dens and announced his determination to eradicate the drug traffic. Denied secure access to Saigon, the Corsican air smugglers had to devise an elaborate set of routes, transfers, and drop zones, which complicated their work and restricted the amount of narcotics they could ship. However, only three years later President Diem's chief adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, reopened the dens to finance his secret police and became a silent partner in a Corsican charter airline. (36)

Named Air Laos Commerciale, the airline was managed by the most powerful member of Saigon's Corsican underworld, Bonaventure "Rock" Francisci. Tall and strikingly handsome, Francisci sported a thin, black moustache and a natural charm that won friends easily. Beginning in 1958 Air Laos Commerciale made daily flights from its headquarters at Vientiane's Wattay Airport, picking up three hundred to six hundred kilos of raw opium from secondary, Laotian airports (usually dirt runways in northern Laos) and delivering the cargo to drop points in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Gulf of Siam. While these opium deliveries were destined for Southeast Asian consumers, he also supplied Corsican heroin manufacturers in Marseille. Although a relative latecomer to the field, Bonaventure Francisci's airline had important advantages that other Corsican airlines lacked. His rivals had to take elaborate precautions before venturing into South Vietnam, but, thanks to his relationship with Nhu, Francisci's aircraft shuttled back and forth to convenient drop zones just north of Saigon. (37)

With easy access to Saigon's market restored, opium production in northern Laos, which had declined in the years 1954-1958, quickly revived. During the opium season, Corsican charter companies made regular flights from Phong Savan or Vientiane to isolated provincial capitals and market towns scattered across northern Laos-places such as Sam Neua, Phong Saly, Muong Sing, Nam Tha, Sayaboury, and Ban Houei Sai. Each of these towns served as a center for local opium trade managed by resident Chinese shopkeepers. Every spring these Chinese merchants loaded their horses or mules with salt, thread, iron bars, silver coins, and assorted odds and ends and rode into the surrounding hills to barter with hundreds of hill tribe opium farmers for their tiny bundles of raw opium. (38) Toward the end of every harvest season Corsican aircraft would land near these towns, purchase the opium, and fly it back to Phong Savan or Vientiane, where it was stored until a buyer in Saigon, Singapore, or Indonesia placed an order. (39)

Francisci also prospered, and by 1962 he had a fleet of three new twin-engine Beechcrafts making hundreds of deliveries a month. With his debonair manner he became something of a local celebrity. He gave interviews to the Vientiane press corps, speaking proudly of his air drops to surrounded troops or his services for famous diplomats. When asked about the opium business, he responded, "I only rent the planes, I don't know what missions they're used for." (40)

But unfortunately for Francisci's public relations, one of his pilots was arrested in 1962 and Air Laos Commerciale's opium smuggling was given international publicity. The abortive mission was piloted by Rene Enjabal, the retired air force officer who had founded Babal Air Force. In October 1962 Enjabal and his mechanic took off from Vientiane's Wattay Airport and flew south to Savannakhet where they picked up twenty-nine watertight tin crates, each packed with twenty kilos of raw opium and wrapped in a buoyant life belt. Enjabal flew south over Cambodia and dropped the six hundred kilos to a small fishing boat waiting at a prearranged point in mid-ocean. On the return flight to Vientiane, Enjabal fell asleep at the controls of his plane, drifted over Thailand, and was forced to land at a Thai air force base by two Thai T-28 fighters. When his "military charter" orders from the Lao government failed to convince Thai authorities he was not a spy, Enjabal confessed that he had been on an opium run to the Gulf of Siam. Relieved that it was nothing more serious, his captors allowed him to return to Vientiane after serving a nominal six-week jail sentence. While Enjabal was being browbeaten by the Thai, the opium boat moved undisturbed across the Gulf of Siam and delivered its cargo to smugglers waiting on the east coast of the Malayan peninsula. Although Enjabal had earned a paltry fifteen dollars an hour for his trouble, Francisci may have grossed up to twenty thousand dollars for his role in this nautical adventure. (41)

While this -unfortunate incident cost Francisci most of his legitimate business, it in no way hampered his opium smuggling. Even though Enjabal's downfall was the subject of a feature article in Life magazine, Francisci continued to operate with the same brash self-confidence. And with good reason. For not only was he protected by South Vietnam's most powerful politician, Ngo Dinh Nhu, he was allied with the allpowerful Guerini syndicate of Marseille. During the period these Corsican airlines operated in Laos, the Guerini brothers were the unchallenged masters of the French underworld, and lords of a criminal empire that stretched across the globe. (42) All of Francisci's competitors suffered mysterious accidents and sudden arrests, but he operated with absolute impunity. These political connections gave him a decisive advantage over his competitors, and he became Indochina's premier opium smuggler. Like the Guerini brothers in Marseille, Francisci despised competition and used everything from plastique explosives to the South Vietnamese police to systematically eliminate all his rivals.

Francisci's first victim was none other than the catnapping Rene Enjabal. On November 19, 1959, Vietnamese police raided a remote dirt runway near Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands shortly after a twin-engine Beechcraft belonging to Rene Enjabal landed carrying 293 kilos of Laotian opium. After arresting the pilot and three henchmen waiting at the airstrip, the Vietnamese impounded the aircraft. (43) With the loss of his plane, Enjabal had no alternative. Within several months he was flying for the man who in all Probability was the architect of his downfall-Bonaventure "Rock" Francisci. (44) The Vietnamese took no legal action against Enjabal and released the pilot, Desclerts, after a relatively short jail term. Desclerts returned to France and, according to a late 1971 report, is working with Corsican syndicates to ship bulk quantities of heroin to the United States. (45)

After Enjabal's airline collapsed, Francisci's most important competitor for the lucrative South Vietnamese market was Gerard Labenski, one of Air Opium's earliest pioneers, whom many considered the best bush pilot in Laos. Francisci bitterly resented his competition, and once tried to eliminate Labenski by blowing up his Cessna 195 with plastique as it sat on the runway at Phong Savan. When that failed, Francisci used his contacts with the South Vietnamese government to have his rival's entire seven-man syndicate arrested. On August 25, 1960, shortly after he landed near the town of Xuan Loc, fortyfive miles north of Saigon with 220 kilos of raw opium, Vietnamese police descended on Labenski's entire syndicate, arrested him and impounded his aircraft. Labenski and his chief Saigon salesman, Francois Mittard, were given five-year jail sentences, the others three years apiece. (46)

After languishing in a Vietnamese prison for more than two years, Labenski and Mittard were so embittered at Francisci's betrayal that they broke the Corsican rule of silence and told U.S. narcotics investigators everything they knew about his syndicate, claiming that their arrests had been engineered by Francisci to force them out of business. But Francisci was too well protected to be compromised by informers, and Air Laos Commerciale continued flying until 1965, when political upheavals in Laos forced all the Corsican airlines out of business. As for Mittard and Labenski, they were released from prison in 1964 and left Saigon almost immediately for Laos. (47)

While Enjabal and Labenski concentrated on local markets, Paul Louis Levet's Bangkok-based syndicate competed directly with Francisci for the European market. His Corsican rivals always considered Levet the "most shrewd of all the persons smuggling opium out of Laos," but he, too, was forced out of business by police action. On July 18, 1963, Levet received a telegram from Saigon that read, Everything OK. Try to have friend meet me in Saigon the 19th. Am in room 33 Continental Hotel. [signed] Poncho.

The wire was a prearranged signal. Levet and his assistant, Michel Libert, packed eighteen kilos of Burmese opium into a brown suitcase, put it in the trunk of Levet's blue Citroen sedan, and drove out to Bangkok's Don Muang Airport. Just as they were making the transfer to a courier who was ticketed on a regular commercial flight to Saigon, Thai police closed in. The unfortunate Libert was given five years in prison, but Levet was released for "lack of evidence" and deported. Levet disappeared without a trace, while Libert, after serving his full jail term, left for Laos, where he resumed an active role in Indochina's Corsican underworld.

While Francisci is the only one of these Corsican racketeers believed to have been allied with Ngo Dinh Nhu, all of the charter airlines had to reach an accommodation with the Laotian government. All airports in Laos are classified as military terminals, and permission to take off and land requires an order from the Royal Laotian Army. Opium runs were usually classified as requisition militaire-military charters-and as such were approved by the Laotian high command. One Time correspondent who examined Air Laos Commerciale's log books in November 1962 noted that a high percentage of its flights were listed as requisition militaire. (48)

Despite the destructive infighting of the various Corsican airlines, they proved to be reliable opium suppliers, and the Laos-Saigon opium commerce flourished. Guaranteed reliable access to international markets, Laos's opium production climbed steadily during the ten-year period that the Corsicans controlled its opium economy; in 1953 Laos's annual harvest was estimated at 50 tons of raw opium, but in 1968 it had expanded to 100-150 tons. (49) Moreover, these syndicates, most notably Francisci's and Levet's, made regular morphine base shipments from Southeast Asia to heroin laboratories in Italy, Germany, and Marseille. Although Southeast Asian morphine still accounted for a relatively small proportion of European heroin production in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these shipments established the first links of what was to be a veritable pipeline between the Golden Triangle's poppy fields and Marseille's heroin laboratories-links that would take on added importance as Turkey's opium production ebbed toward abolition in the late 1960s.

Although they were forced out of business in 1965 when Laotian Gen. Ouane Rattikone decided to monopolize the trade, these syndicates later served as the link between Laotian heroin laboratories and American distributors when Golden Triangle laboratories began producing no. 4 heroin in the early 1970s.