The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia
Long Pot Village: Rendezvous with Air America
Long Pot District, thirty miles northwest of Long Tieng, was one of the last remaining areas in northeastern Laos where the recent history of the opium traffic could be investigated. Located forty miles due west of the Plain of Jars, it was close enough to Long Tieng to be a part of Gen. Vang Pao's domain but far enough away from the heavy fighting to have survived and tell its story. Viewed from Highway 13, which forms its western boundary, Long Pot District seems a rugged, distant world. Phou Phachau mountain, casting its shadow over the entire district, juts more than sixty-two hundred feet into the clouds that perennially hover about its peak during the misty rainy season from May to October. Steep ridges radiate outward from Phou Phachau and lesser peaks, four thousand and five thousand feet high, form hollows and valleys that gouge the district's hundred square miles of territory. The landscape was once verdant with virgin hardwood forests, but generations of slash-and-burn agriculture by hill tribe residents have left many of the ridges and valleys covered with tough, chest-high savanna grass. (135)
The district's twelve villages, seven Meo and five Lao Theung, cling to ridges and mountain crests, where they command a watchful view of the surrounding countryside. The political center of the district is the village of Long Pot, a Meo community of fortyseven wooden, dirtfloored houses and some three hundred residents. It is not its size, but its longevity which makes Long Pot village important. Founded in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is one of the oldest Meo villages in northeastern Laos. Its leaders have a tradition of political power, and the highest-ranking local official, District Officer Ger Su Yang, resides in Long Pot village. While most Meo are forced to abandon their villages every ten or twenty years in search of new opium fields, Long Pot village is surrounded by a surplus of fertile, limestone-laden slopes that have allowed its inhabitants to remain in continuous residence for three generations. Moreover, Long Pot village's high altitude is ideal for poppy cultivation; the village itself is forty-two hundred feet high and is surrounded by ridges ranging up to fifty-four hundred feet. The Yunnan variety of the opium poppy found in Southeast Asia requires a temperate climate; it can survive at three thousand feet, but thrives as the altitude climbs upward to five thousand feet.
Despite all the damage done by over ten years of constant warfare, opium production in Long Pot village had not declined. In an August 1971 interview, the district officer of Long Pot, Ger Su Yang, said that most of the households in the village had been producing about fifteen kilos of opium apiece before the fighting began, and had maintained this level of production for the last ten years. However, rice production had declined drastically.(136) During a time of war, when the Meo of Long Pot might have been expected to concentrate their dwindling labor resources on essential food production, they had chosen instead to continue cash-crop opium farming. Guaranteed an adequate food supply by Air America's regular rice drops, the villagers were free to devote all their energies to opium production. And since Vang Pao's officers have paid them a high price for their opium and assured them a reliable market, the farmers of Long Pot village have consistently tried to produce as much opium as possible.
In the past rice has always been the Meo's most important subsistence crop and opium their traditional cash crop. However, opium and rice have conflicting crop cycles and prosper in different kinds of fields. Because the average Meo village has a limited amount of manpower, it is only capable of clearing a few new fields every year, and therefore must opt for either opium or rice. When the opium price is high Meo farmers concentrate their efforts on the opium crop and use their cash profits to buy rice, but if the price drops they gradually reduce poppy cultivation and increase subsistence rice production. With rice from Air America and good opium prices from Vang Pao's officers, the farmers of Long Pot had chosen to emphasize opium production. (137)
Every spring, as the time for cutting new fields approaches, each household sends out a scouting party to scour the countryside for suitable field locations. Since Long Pot Meo want to plant opium, they look for highly alkaline soil near the ridgeline or in mountain hollows where the opium poppies prosper, rather than mid-slope fields more suitable for rice. The sweeter "taste" of limestone soil can actually be recognized by a discriminating palate, and as they hike around the nearby mountains Meo scouts periodically chew on a bit of soil to make sure that the prospective site is alkaline enough. (138)
Meo farmers begin clearing their new fields in March or April. Using iron-bitted axes, the men begin chopping away at timber stands covering the chosen site. Rather than cutting through the thick roots or immense trunks of the larger trees, the Meo scale the first twenty feet of the trunk, balance themselves on a slender notched pole, and cut away only the top of the tree. A skilled woodsman can often fell three or four smaller trees with a single blow if be topples a large tree so that it knocks down the others as it crashes to the ground. The trees are left on the ground to dry until April or early May, when the Meo are ready for one of the most awesome spectacles in the mountainsthe burn-off. (139)>
When the timber has become tinderbox dry, the villagers of Long Pot form fire brigades and gather near the fields on the chosen day. While the younger men of the village race down the slope igniting the timber as they come, others circle the perimeter, lighting stacked timber and brush on the edge of the field. The burn-off not only serves the purpose of removing fallen timber from the field, but it also leaves a valuable layer of ash, which contains phosphate, calcium, and potassium, scattered evenly across the field. (140)
Even though the fields are ready for planting as soon as the burn-off is completed, the poppy's annual cycle dictates that its planting be delayed until September. If the land is left unplanted, however, it loses valuable minerals through erosion and becomes covered with a thick crop of weeds. Here it might seem logical to plant dry upland rice, but since rice is not harvested until November, two months after the poppies should have been planted, the Meo instead plant a hardy variety of mountain corn that is harvested in August and early September. The corn keeps the ground clear of weeds during the summer, and provides fodder for the menagerie of hogs, mountain ponies, chickens, and cows whose wanderings turn Long Pot village into a sea of mud every rainy season. (141)
Once the corn has been picked in August and early September, Meo women begin chopping and turning the soil with a heavy, triangular hoe. Just before the poppy seeds are sown broadcast across the surface of the ground in September, the soil must be chopped fine and raked smooth with a bamboo broom. In November women thin out the poppies, leaving the healthier plants standing about six inches apart. At the same time tobacco, beans, spinach, and other vegetables are planted among the poppies; they add minerals to the soil and supplement the Meo diet. (142)
The poppies are thinned again in late December and several weeks later the vegetables are picked, clearing the ground and allowing the poppy to make its final push. By January the bright red and white poppy flowers will start to appear and the harvest will begin, as the petals drop away exposing an eggshaped bulb containing the resinous opium. Since most farmers stagger their plantings to minimize demands on their time during the busy harvest season and reduce the threat of weather damage, the harvest usually continues until late February or early March. (143)
To harvest the opium, Meo farmers tap the poppy's resin much like a Vermont maple sugar farmer or a Malaysian rubber farmer harvest their crops. An opium farmer holds the flower's egg-sized bulb with the fingers of one hand while he uses a three-bladed knife to incise shallow, longitudinal slits on its surface. The cuttings are made in the cool of the late afternoon. During the night the opium resin oozes out of the bulb and collects on its surface. Early the next morning, before the sun drys the moist sap, a Meo woman scrapes the surface of the bulb with a flexible rectangular blade and deposits the residue in a cup hanging around her neck. When she has finished harvesting a kilo of the dark, sticky sap she wraps it in banana leaves and ties the bundle with string.
By the time the harvest is finished, the forty-seven households in Long Pot village have collected more than seven hundred kilos of raw opium. (144) Since Golden Triangle opium is usually 10 percent morphine by weight, the Long Pot harvest will yield roughly seventy kilos of pure morphine base after it has been boiled, processed, and pressed into bricks. Once the morphine has been chemically bonded with acetic anhydride in one of the region's many heroin laboratories, Long Pot's innocent opium harvest becomes seventy kilos of highgrade no. 4 heroin.
While international criminal syndicates reap enormous profits from the narcotics traffic, the Meo farmers are paid relatively little for their efforts. Although opium is their sole cash crop and they devote most of their effort to it, Meo farmers only receive $400 to $600 for ten kilos of raw opium. After the opium leaves the village, however, the value of those ten kilos begins to spiral upward, Ten kilos of raw opium yield one kilo of morphine base worth $500' in the Golden Triangle. After being processed into heroin, one kilo of morphine base becomes one kilo of no. 4 heroin worth $2,000 to $2,500 in Bangkok. In San Francisco, Miami, or New York, the courier delivering a kilo of heroin to a wholesaler receives anywhere from $18,000 to $27,000. Diluted with quinine or milk sugar, packaged in forty-five thousand tiny gelatin capsules and sold on the streets for $5 a shot, a kilo of heroin that began as $500 worth of opium back in Long Pot is worth $225 '000. (145)
In the 1950s Long Pot's farmers had sold their opium to Chinese caravans from the Plain of Jars that passed through the area several times during every harvest season. Despite the occupation of the plain by neutralist and Pathet Lao forces in 1960 and 1961, Chinese caravans kept coming and opium growers in Long Pot District continued to deal with them.
According to Long Pot's district officer, Ger Su Yang, the Chinese merchant caravans disappeared after the 1964-1965 harvest, when heavy fighting broke out on the plain's western perimeter, But they were replaced by Meo army caravans from Long Tieng. Commanded by lieutenants and captains in Vang Pao's army, the caravans usually consisted of half a dozen mounted Meo soldiers and a string of shaggy mountain ponies loaded with trade goods. When the caravans arrived from Long Tieng they usually stayed at the district officer's house in Long Pot village and used it as a headquarters while trading for opium in the area. Lao Theung and Meo opium farmers from nearby villages, such as Gier Goot and Thong Oui, carried their opium to Long Pot and haggled over the price with the Meo officers in the guest corner of Ger Su Yang's house. (146) While the soldiers weighed the opium on a set of balance scales and burned a small glob to test its morphine content (a good burn indicates a high morphine content), the farmer inquired about the price and examined the trade goods spread out on the nearby sleeping platform (medicines, salt, iron, silver, flashlights, cloth, thread, etc.). After a few minutes of carefully considered offers and counteroffers, a bargain was struck. At one time the Meo would accept nothing but silver or commodities. However, for the last decade Air America has made commodities so readily available that most opium farmers now prefer Laotian government currency. (Vang Pao's Meo subjects are unique in this regard. Hill tribesmen in Burma and Thailand still prefer trade goods or silver in the form of British India rupees, French Indochina piasters, or rectangular bars.) (147)
To buy up opium from the outlying areas, the Meo soldiers would leave Long Pot village on short excursions, hiking along the narrow mountain trails to Meo and Lao Theung villages four or five miles to the north and south. For example, the headman of Nam Suk, a Lao Theung village about four miles north of Long Pot, recalls that his people began selling their opium harvest to Meo soldiers in 1967 or 1968. Several times during every harvest season, five to eight of them arrived at his village, paid for the opium in paper currency, and then left with their purchases loaded in backpacks. Previously this village had sold its opium to Lao and Chinese merchants from Vang Vieng, a market town on the northern edge of the Vientiane Plain. But the Meo soldiers were paying 20 percent more, and Lao Theung farmers were only too happy to deal with them. (148)
Since Meo soldiers paid almost sixty dollars a kilo, while merchants from Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang only paid forty or fifty dollars, Vang Pao's officers were usually able to buy up all of the available opium in the district after only a few days of trading. Once the weight of their purchases matched the endurance limits of their rugged mountain ponies, the Meo officers packed it into giant bamboo containers, loaded it on the ponies and headed back for Long Tieng, where the raw opium was refined into morphine base. Meo army caravans had to return to Long Pot and repeat this procedure two or three times during every season before they had purchased the district's entire opium harvest.
However, during the 1969-1970 opium harvest the procedure changed. Long Pot's district officer, Ger Su Yang, described this important development in an August 19, 1971, interview:
"Meo officers with three or four stripes [captain or major] came from Long Tieng to buy our opium. They came in American helicopters, perhaps two or three men at one time. The helicopter leaves them here for a few days and they walk to villages over there [swinging his arm in a semicircle in the direction of Gier Goot, Long Makkhay and Nam Pac], then come back here and radioed Long Tieng to send another helicopter for them. They take the opium back to Long Tieng.
Ger Su Yang went on to explain that the helicopter pilots were always Americans, but it was the Meo officers who stayed behind to buy up the opium. The headman of Nam Ou, a Lao Theung village five miles north of Long Pot, confirmed the district officer's account; he recalled that in 1969-1970 Meo officers who had been flown into Tam Son village by helicopter hiked into his village and purchased the opium harvest. Since the thirty households in his village only produced two or three kilos of opium apiece, the Meo soldiers continued on to Nam Suk and Long Pot." (149)
Although Long Pot's reluctant alliance with Vang Pao and the CIA at first brought prosperity to the village, by 1971 it was weakening the local economy and threatening Long Pot's very survival. The alliance began in 1961 when Meo officers visited the village, offering money and arms if they joined with Vang Pao and threatening reprisals if they remained neutral. Ger Su Yang resented Vang Pao's usurpation of Touby Lyfoung's rightful position as leader of the Meo, but there seemed no alternative to the village declaring its support for Vang Pao. (150) During the 1960s Long Pot had become one of Vang Pao's most loyal villages. Edgar Buell devoted a good deal of his personal attention to winning the area over, and USAID even built a school in the village. (151) In exchange for sending less than twenty soldiers to Long Tieng, most of whom were killed in action, Long Pot village received regular rice drops, money, and an excellent price for its opium.
But in 1970 the war finally came to Long Pot. With enemy troops threatening Long Tieng and his manpower pool virtually exhausted, Vang Pao ordered his villages to send every available man, including even the fifteen-year-olds. Ger Su Yang complied, and the village built a training camp for its sixty recruits on a nearby hill. Assisted by Meo officers from Long Tieng, Ger Su Yang personally supervised the training, which consisted mainly of running up and down the hillside. After weeks of target practice and conditioning, Air America helicopters began arriving late in the year and flew the young men off to battle.
Village leaders apparently harbored strong doubts about the wisdom of sending off so many of their young men, and as early rumors of heavy casualties among the recruits filtered back, opposition to Va g Pao's war stiffened. When Long Tieng officials demanded more recruits in January 1971 the village refused. Seven months later Ger Su Yang expressed his determination not to sacrifice any more of Long Pot's youth:
"Last year I sent sixty [young men] out of this village. But this year it's finished. I can't send any more away to fight.... The Americans in Long Tieng said I must send all the rest of our men. But I refused. So they stopped dropping rice to us. The last rice drop was in February this year." (152)
In January Long Tieng officials warned the village that unless recruits were forthcoming Air America's rice drops would stop. Although Long Pot was almost totally dependent on the Americans for its rice supply, hatred for Vang Pao was now so strong that the village was willing to accept the price of refusal. "Vang Pao keeps sending the Meo to be killed," said Ger Su Yang. "Too many Meo have been killed already, and he keeps sending more. Soon all will be killed. but Vang Pao doesn't care." But before stopping the shipments Long Tieng officials made a final offer. "If we move our village to Ban Son or Tin Bong [another resettlement area] the Americans will give us rice again," explained Ger Su Yang. "But at Ban Son there are too many Meo, and there are not enough rice fields. We must stay here, this is our home."153
When the annual Pathet Lao-North Vietnamese offensive began in January 1971, strong Pathet Lao patrols appeared in the Long Pot region for the first time in several years and began making contact with the local population. Afraid that the Meo and Lao Theung might go over to the Pathet Lao, the Americans ordered the area's residents to move south and proceeded to cut off rice support for those who refused to obey. (154) A far more powerful inducement was added when the air war bombing heated up to the east of Long Pot District and residents became afraid that it would spread to their villages. To escape from the threat of being bombed, the entire populations of Phou Miang and Muong Chim, Meo villages five miles east of Long Pot, moved south to the Tin Bong resettlement area in early 1971. At about the same time, many of the Meo residents of Tam Son and eight families from Long Pot also migrated to Tin Bong. Afraid that Pathet Lao patrols operating along Route 13 might draw air strikes on their villages, the Meo of Sam Poo Kok joined the rush to Tin Bong, while three Lao Theung villages in the same general area-Nam Suk, Nam Ou and San Pakau-moved to a ridge opposite Long Pot village. Their decision to stay in Long Pot District rather than move south was largely due to the influence of Ger Su Yang. Determined to remain in the area, he used all his considerable prestige to stem the tide of refugees and retain enough population to preserve some semblance of local autonomy. Thus rather than moving south when faced with the dual threat of American air attacks and gradual starvation, most of the villagers abandoned their houses in January and hid in the nearby forest until March.
While U.S. officials in Laos claim that hill tribes move to escape slaughter at the hands of the enemy, most of the people in Long Pot District say that it is fear of indiscriminate American and Laotian bombing that has driven their neighbors south to Tin Bong. These fears cannot be dismissed as ignorance on the part of "primitive" tribes; they have watched the air war at work and they know what it can do. From sunrise to sunset the mountain silence is shattered every twenty or thirty minutes by the distant roar of paired Phantom fighters enroute to targets around the Plain of Jars. Throughout the night the monotonous buzz of prowling AC-47 gunships is broken only when their infrared sensors sniff warm mammal flesh and their miniguns clatter, spitting out six thousand rounds a minute. Every few days a handful of survivors fleeing the holocaust pass through Long Pot relating their stories of bombing and strafing. On August 21, 1971, twenty exhausted refugees from a Lao Theung village in the Muong Soui area reached Long Pot village. Their story was typical. In June Laotian air force T-28s bombed their village while they fled into the forest. Every night for two months AC-47 gunships raked the ground around their trenches and shallow caves. Because of the daylight bombing and nighttime strafing, they were only able to work their fields in the predawn hours. Finally, faced with certain starvation, they fled the Pathet Lao zone and walked through the forest for eleven days before reaching Long Pot. Twice during their march the gunships found them and opened fire. (155)
When Ger Su Yang was asked which he feared most, the bombing or the Pathet Lao, his authoritative confidence disappeared and he replied in an emotional, quavering voice, The bombs! The bombs! Every Meo village north of here [pointing to the northeast] has been bombed. Every village! Everything! There are big holes [extending his arms] in every village. Every house is destroyed. If bombs didn't hit some houses they were burned. Everything is gone. Everything from this village, all the way to Muong Soui and all of Xieng Khouang [Plain of Jars] is destroyed. In Xieng Khouang there are bomb craters like this [stretching out his arm, stabbing into the air to indicate a long line of craters] all over the plain. Every village in Meng Khouang has been bombed, and many, many people died. From here . . . all the mountains north have small bombs in the grass. They were dropped from the airplanes.(156)
Although opium production in Long Pot village had not yet declined, by August 1971 there was concern that disruption caused by the escalating conflict might reduce the size of the harvest. Even though the village spent the 1970-1971 harvest season hiding in the forest, most families somehow managed to attain their normal output of fifteen kilos. Heavy fighting at Long Tieng delayed the arrival of Air America helicopters by several months, but in May 1971 they finally began landing at Long Pot carrying Meo army traders, who paid the expected sixty dollars for every kilo of raw opium. (157)
However, prospects for the 1971-19 2 opium harvest were looking quite dismal as planting time approached in late August. There were plenty of women to plant, weed, and harvest, but a shortage of male workers and the necessity of hiding in the forest during the past winter had made it difficult for households to clear new fields. As a result, many farmers were planting their poppies in exhausted soil, and they only expected to harvest half as much opium as the year before.
However, as the war mounted in intensity through 1971 and early 1972, Long Pot District's opium harvest was drastically reduced and eventually destroyed. USAID officials reported that about forty-six hundred hill tribesmen had left the district in January and February 1971 and moved to the Tin Bong refugee area to the south, where there was a shortage of land. (158) Some of the villages that remained, such as the three Lao Theung villages near Long Pot village, were producing no opium at all. Even Long Pot village had lost eight of its households during the early months of 1971. Finally, on January 4, 1972, Allied fighter aircraft attacked Long Pot District. In an apparent attempt to slow the pace of a Pathet Lao offensive in the district, the fighters napalmed the district's remaining villages, destroying Long Pot village and the three nearby Lao Theung villages. (159)