The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

Gen. Ouane Rattikone: Winner Takes Something

In the aftermath of General Ouane's victory in the 1967 Opium War, Laos emerged as the most important processing center of raw opium in the Golden Triangle region. The stunning defeat General Ouane dealt his enemies on the Ban Khwan battlefield forced the KMT to drop its duties on Burmese opium destined for Laos. Freed from the KMT's discriminatory taxation, the Laotian army was able to impose its own import duties. Subsequently, opium refineries in the Ban Houei Sai region increased their processing of Burmese opium.

General Ouane's prominent role in the battle attracted a good deal of unfavorable publicity in the international press, and in 1967 and 1968 he was visited by representatives from Interpol, a multinational police force that plays a major role in combating narcotics smuggling. The authorities were upset that the commander in chief of a national army was promoting the international drug traffic with such enthusiasm, such vigor. Wouldn't the good general consider retiring from the opium business? General Ouane was stunned by the naivete of their request and gave them a stern lecture about the economic realities of opium. Recalling the incident several years later, General Ouane said:

"Interpol visited me in 1967 and 1968 about the opium. I told them there would be commerce as long as the opium was grown in the hills. They should pay the tribesmen to stop growing opium....

I told Interpol that opium was grown in a band of mountains from Turkey to the Tonkin Gulf. Unless they stopped the opium from being grown all their work meant nothing. I told Interpol to buy tractors so we could clear the trees off the plains. Then we would move the montagnards out of the mountains onto the plains. It's too warm there, and there would be no more opium growing. In the mountains the people work ten months a year to grow 100,000 kip [$200] worth of opium and rice. And if the weather is bad, or the insects come, or the rain is wrong they will have nothing. But on the plains the people can have irrigated rice fields, grow vegetables, and make handicrafts. On the plain in five months of work they can make 700,000 kip [$1,400] a year.

I told Interpol that if they didn't do something about the people in the mountains the commerce Would continue. Just as the Mekong flows downstream to Saigon, so the opium would continue to flow. But they simply wanted me to stop. And when I explained this reality to them they left my office quite discontented." (322)

Despite his apparent cockiness, General Ouane interpreted the visit as a warning and began to exercise more discretion. When the authors inquired about his current involvement in the opium traffic he admitted his past complicity but claimed that he had given up his interest in the business.

Before 1967 opium caravans had followed Chan Shee-fu's route entering Laos north of Muong Mounge, traveling down the old caravan trail, and crossing the Mekong into Thailand at Chiang Saen. To conceal Laos's growing role in the traffic, General Ouane apparently discouraged caravans from crossing into Laos and ordered them to unload their cargoes on the Burmese side of the Mekong River. Residents of Chiang Saen, Thailand, report that the heavily armed caravans that used to ford the Mekong and ride through the center of town in broad daylight several times a year have not passed through since 1967. (323) Some Laotian air force officers have described an opium-arms exchange they carried out in 1968 that illustrates the complexity of the new system: they loaded crates of weapons (M- Is, M- I 6s, M-79 grenade launchers, and recoilless rifles) into an air force C-47 in Vientiane; flew to Ban Houei Sai, where they transferred the crates to a Laotian air force helicopter; and then flew the weapons to a group of Shans camped on the Burmese side of the Mekong north of Ban Khwan. The opium had already been sent downriver by boat and was later loaded aboard the C-47 and flown to Vientiane. (324)

When Golden Triangle refineries began producing high-grade no. 4 heroin in 1969-1970, access to seemingly limitless supplies of Burmese opium enabled Ban Houei Sai manufacturers to play a key role in these developments. At the time of the 1967 Opium War, morphine and no. 3 heroin were being processed at a large refinery near Ban Houei Sai and at five smaller ones strung out along the Mekong north of that city. In August 1967 one Time-Life correspondent cabled New York this description of these refineries:

"The opium refineries along the Mekong mentioned in Vanderwicken's take [earlier cable] are manned almost entirely by pharmacists imported by the syndicate from Bangkok and Hong Kong. They live moderately good lives (their security is insured by Laotian troops in some locations) and are paid far above what they would receive working in pharmacies in their home cities. Most apparently take on the job by way of building a stake and few are believed to get involved personally in the trade. Except, of course, to reduce the raw opium to morphine." (325)

At the same time another Time-Life correspondent reported that "the kingpin of the Laotian opium trade is General Ouane.... He is reputed to own one of Laos' two major opium refineries, near Houei Sai, and five smaller refineries scattered along the Mekong. (326)

As the demand for no. 4 heroin among GIs in South Vietnam grew, skilled Chinese chemists were brought in from Hong Kong to add the dangerous ether-precipitation process and upgrade production capability. After the five smaller laboratories along the Mekong were consolidated into a single operation, General Ouane's refinery at Ban Houei Tap, just north of Ban Houei Sai, became the largest, most efficient heroin laboratory in the tri-border area and its trade-mark, the Double U-0 Globe brand, soon became infamous. (327) According to a CIA report leaked to the press in June 1971, it was capable of processing a hundred kilos of raw opium per day. (328) Under the supervision of a skilled chemist, this output would yield ten kilos of no. 4 heroin per day and exceed thecombined production of all fourteen opium refineries in Tachilek, Burma. Although belated American gestures forced the chemists to abandon the building in Ban Houei Tap in July 1971, it reportedly moved to a more clandestine location. The refinery operating under Maj. Chao La's protection north of Nam Keung was also forced to move in July, but it, too, has probably relocated in a more discreet area. (329)

Moreover, Ban Houci Sai opium merchants have become the major suppliers of morphine base and raw opium for heroin laboratories in Vientiane and Long Tieng. As the massive bombing campaign and the refugee relocation program reduced the amount of Meo opium available for heroin in northeastern Laos, Gen. Vang Pao's officers were forced to turn to northwestern Laos for supplies of Burmese opium in order to keep the Long Tieng laboratory running at full capacity. (330) In addition, there are reliable reports that Gen. Ouane Rattikone has been supplying the raw materials for a heroin laboratory operating in the Vientiane region managed by a Sino-Vietnamese entrepreneur, Huu Tim Heng. (331)

Despite the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, Laotian prospects for continuing success in the international heroin traffic appear to be excellent. Although most American narcotics officials hope that the Golden Triangle's flourishing heroin laboratories will be abandoned and become covered over with dense jungle once the GIs have left Vietnam, there is every indication that Laotian drug merchants are opening direct pipelines to the United States. In 1971, two important shipments of Double U-0 Globe brand heroin, which Saigon police say is manufactured in the Ban Houei Sai area, were seized in the United States:

1. On April 5 a package containing 7.7 kilos of Double U-0 Globe brand heroin was seized in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. It had been sent through the military postal service from Bangkok, Thailand.

2. On November 11, a Filipino diplomat attached to his nation's embassy in Vientiane and a Chinese merchant from Bangkok were arrested in New York City with 15.5 kilos of Double U-0 Globe brand heroin shortly after they arrived from Laos.

While these seizures established the fact that Laotian heroin was reaching the United States, they were otherwise unexceptional cases. However, the seizure of Prince Sopsaisana's sixty kilos in Paris provided ominous evidence of connections between Laotian heroin manufacturers, Corsican gangsters in Vientiane, Corsican syndicates in France, and American heroin distributors. American narcotics officials are convincedthat Corsican syndicates in France and Latin America are the most important suppliers of heroin for American distributors. But, hopelessly addicted to the myth of Turkey's importance, they have never investigated the links between Corsican syndicates in France and Corsican-French gangsters in Vientiane. This has been a costly oversight. For, in fact, Vientiane's Corsican gangsters are the connection between Laos's heroin laboratories and heroin distributors in the United States.

When the Corsican charter airlines were forced out of business in 1965, most of the Corsican and French gangsters stayed in Vientiane waiting for something new to turn up. "Doing less well than previously," reported a Time-Life correspondent in September 1965, "are opium traders, mainly Corsicans who since the fall of grafting Phourni have found operations more difficult. Some opium exporters have even opened bistros in Vientiane to tide them over until the good bad old days return-if they ever [do]." (332) A few of the bosses managed to stay in the drug business by serving as contact men, other Corsicans found jobs working for the Americans, and some just hung around.

After months of drinking and carousing in Vientiane's French bars, five downand-out Corsican gangsters decided to make one last, desperate bid for the fortunes that had been snatched out of their grasp. Led by a Corsican named Le Rouzic, who had reportedly owned a piece of a small charter airline, and his mechanic, Housset, the five men planned and executed the boldest crime in the history of modern Laos-the Great Unarmored Car Robbery. On the morning of March 15, 1966, two clerks from the Banque de I'Indochine loaded $420,000 cash and $260,000 in checks into an automobile, and headed to Wattay Airport to put the money aboard a Royal Air Lao flight for Bangkok. As soon as the bank car stopped at the airport, a jeep pulled up alongside and three of the Corsicans jumped out. Throwing handfuls of ground pepper into the clerks' faces, they fled with the money while their victims floundered about, sneezing and rubbing their eyes.

Laotian police showed a rather uncharacteristic efficiency in their handling of the case; in less than twenty-four hours they recovered almost all the money and arrested Le Rouzic, his mistress, and three of his accomplices. Acting on information supplied by Vientiane police, Thai police arrested Housset in Bangkok and found $3,940 hidden in his socks. (333) At a press conference following these arrests, the Laotian police colonel in charge of the investigation credited his astounding success to "honest citizens" and thanked the French community for "immediate cooperation." (334) Or, as one informed observer later explained, Vientiane's Corsican bosses informed on Le Rouzic and Housset in order to avoid a police crackdown on their involvement in the narcotics traffic.

Unlike these unsavory riffraff, most of Vientiane's Corsican-French bosses have respectable jobs and move in the best social circles. Roger Zoile, who owned one of the three largest Corsican charter airlines, is now president of Laos Air Charter. (335) During the 1950s and early 1960s, Zoile worked closely with the Paul Louis Levet syndicate, then smuggling morphine base from Southeast Asia to heroin laboratories in Germany, Italy, and France. Two other "Air Opium" pioneers still reside in Vientiane: Rene Enjabal, the former manager of "Babal Air Force," is now a pilot for one of Laos's many civil air lines, while Gerard Labenski, the former proprietor of the Snow Leopard Inn, "retired" to Laos in 1964 after serving four years in a Vietnamese prison for international narcotics smuggling. The co-managers of Vientiane's swingingest nightclub, The Spot, have a long history of involvement in the international drug traffic: Frangois Mittard headed one of the most powerful drug syndicates in Indochina until he was arrested for narcotics smuggling in 1960 and sentenced to five years in a Vietnamese prison; his co-manager, Michel Libert, was Paul Louis Levet's righthand man, and he served five years in a Thai prison after being arrested for drug smuggling in 1963. "My opium days are all in the past," Libert told a Thai undercover policeman in Vientiane some time after his release from prison. "Let me convince you. I'll work for you as an informer and help you make arrests to show you I'm honest." But the Thai policeman knew Libert too well to be taken in, and not wanting to become a pawn in some Corsican vendetta, refused the offer. (336) In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics has identified another Vientiane resident, Lars Bugatti, a former Nazi officer, as a drug trafficker with close ties to Corsican international syndicates. (337) All of these men have been linked to the clandestine Corsican narcotics networks that ring the globe. Through the efforts of these syndicates large quantities of Laotian heroin are finding their way toFrance and from there to the United States.

The Prince Sopsaisana affair has provided us with a rare glimpse into the machinations of powerful Laotian politicians and French heroin syndicates. When the King of Laos announced Prince Sopsaisana's appointment as ambassador-designate to France on April 7, 1971, he set in motion a chain of events that led to Sopsaisana's downfall and the lossof $13.5 million of top-grade Laotian heroin. Confident that his diplomatic passport would protect him from the prying eyes of French customs Sopsaisana apparently decided to bankroll his stay in Paris by smuggling this cache of heroin into France. According to reliable diplomatic sources in Vientiane, Gen. Vang Pao entrusted Sopsaisana, his chief political adviser, with sixty kilos of pure no. 4 heroin from his laboratory at Long Tieng and a local French hotel manager and civic leader who is on intimate terms with many of the Lao elite found a connection in Paris. (338)

Before Sopsaisana's flight landed in Paris, however, a reliable Laotian source warned the French Embassy in Vientiane that the new ambassador would be carrying heroin in his luggage. After a discreet search by airport customs officials turned up the sixty kilos, the French Foreign Ministry asked the Laotian government to withdraw its arnbassadordesignate. Prime Minister Souvanna Phourna, repaying his political debts, tried to keep Sopsaisana in Paris, and it took the French weeks of intricate negotiations to secure his removal. When Sopsaisana returned to Vientiane in late June, he made a public statement claiming that his enemies had framed him by checking the heroinfilled suitcase onto the flight without his knowledge. Privately, he accused Khamphan Panya, the assistant foreign minister, of being the villain in the plot. Sopsaisana's assertion that Khamphan framed him is utterly absurd, for Khamphan simply does not have $240,000 to throw away. However, until the ambitious Sopsaisana interfered, Khamphan had been assured the ambassadorship and had spent months preparing for his new assignment. He had even ordered the staff in Paris to have the Embassy refurbished and authorized a complete overhaul for the Mercedes limousine. (339)

Diplomatic sources in Vientiane report that he was outraged by Sopsaisana's appointment. And, only a few weeks after Sopsaisana returned in disgrace, the Laotian government announced that Khamphan Panya would be the new ambassador to France. (340)

If the heroin shipment had gotten through, the profits would have been enormous: the raw opium only cost Vang Pao about $30,000; Sopsaisana could sell the sixty kilos for $240,000 in Paris; Corsican smugglers could expect $1.5 million from American distributors; and street pushers in urban America would earn $13.5 million.

The important question for the United States, is, of course, how many similar shipments have gotten through undetected? Obviously if someone had not informed on Sopsaisana, his luggage would have been waved through French customs, the heroin delivered as planned to a Corsican syndicate, and Sopsaisana would be a respected member of Paris's diplomatic community. Another sixty kilos of "Marseille" heroin would have reached the United States and nobody would have been the wiser. But mighthave-beens did not happen, and suddenly here was more evidence of French gangsters in Vientiane finding ways to connect with Corsican syndicates in France. Unfortunately, the evidence was generally disregarded: the French government covered up the affair for diplomatic reasons, the international press generally ignored it, and the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics regarded it as a curiosity.

However, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics was not entirely to blame for its woeful ignorance about the logistics of the Laotian heroin trade. Throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s, the bureau had concentrated its efforts in Europe and paid almost no attention to Southeast Asia, let alone Laos. However, as thousands of GIs serving in Vietnam became addicted to Laotian heroin, the bureau tried to adjust its priorities by sending a team of agents to Laos, but its investigations were blocked by the Laotian government, the State Department, and the CIA. (341) Although the Royal Laotian government had told the U.N. it was enforcing a "policy of absolute prohibition" of narcotics, it was in fact one of the few governments in the world with no laws against the growing, processing, and smoking of opium. Laos had become something of a free port for opium; convenient opium dens are found on every city block and the location of opium refineries is a matter of public knowledge. Laos's leading citizens control the opium traffic and protect it like a strategic national industry. Under these circumstances, the Laotian government could hardly be expected to welcome the Bureau of Narcotics with open arms.

While the Laotian government's hostility toward the bureau is understandable, the reticence shown by the CIA and the U.S. Embassy requires some explanation. According to U.S. narcotics agents serving in Southeast Asia, the bureau encountered a good deal of resistance from the CIA and the Embassy when it first decided to open an office in Vientiane. The Embassy claimed that American narcotics agents had no right to operate in Vientiane, since Laos had no drug laws of its own. The Embassy said that investigative work by the bureau would represent a violation of Laotian sovereignty, and refused to cooperate. (342) The U.S. Embassy was well aware that prominent Laotian leaders ran the traffic and feared that pressure on them to get out of the narcotics business might somehow damage the war effort. In December 1970- thousands of GIs in Vietnam were becoming addicted to heroin processed in laboratories protected by the Royal Laotian Army-the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, G. McMurtrie Godley 111, told an American writer, "I believe the Royal Laotian Government takes its responsibility seriously to prohibit international opium traffic." (343)

When President Nixon issued his declaration of war on the international heroin traffic in mid 1971, the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane was finally forced to take action. Instead of trying to break up drug syndicates and purge the government leaders involved, however, the Embassy introduced legal reforms and urged a police crackdown on opium addicts. A new opium law, which was submitted to government ministries for consideration on June 8, went into effect on November 15. As a result of the new law, U.S. narcotics agents were allowed to open an office in early November-two full years after GIs started using Laotian heroin in Vietnam and six months after the first large seizures were made in the United States. Only a few days after their arrival, U.S. agents received a tip that a Filipino diplomat and Chinese businessman were going to smuggle heroin directly into the United States. (344) U.S. agents boarded the plane with them in Vientiane, flew halfway around the world, and arrested them with 15.5 kilos of no. 4 heroin in New York City, Even though these men were carrying a large quantity of heroin, they were still only messenger boys for the powerful Laotian drug merchants. But so far political expediency has been the order of the day, and the U.S. Embassy has made absolutely no effort to go after the men at the top. (345)

In the long run, the American antinarcotics campaign may do more harm than good. Most of the American effort seems to be aimed at closing Vientiane's hundreds of wide-open opium dens and making life difficult for the average Laotian drug user (most of whom are opium smokers). The Americans are pressuring the Laotian police into launching a massive crackdown on opium smoking, and there is evidence that the campaign is getting underway. Since little money is being made available for detoxification centers or outpatient clinics, most of Vientiane's opium smokers will be forced to become heroin users. In a September 1971 interview, Gen. Ouane Rattikone expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of the American antiopium. campaign:

Now they want to outlaw opium smoking. But if they outlaw opium, everyone in Vientiane will turn to heroin. Opium is not bad, but heroin is made with acid, which kills a man. In Thailand Marshal Sarit outlawed opium [1958-19591, and now everybody takes heroin in Thailand. Very bad. (346)

Although General Ouane's viewpoint may be influenced by his own interests, he is essentially correct.

In Hong Kong, Iran, and Thailand repressive antiopium. campaigns have driven the population to heroin and magnified the seriousness of the drug problem in all three nations. Vientiane's brand of no. 3 heroin seems to be particularly high in acid content, and has already produced some horribly debilitated zombie-addicts. One Laotian heroin pusher thinks that Vientiane's brand of no. 3 can kill a healthy man in less than a year. It would indeed be ironic if America's antidrug campaign drove Laos's opium smokers to a heroin death while it left the manufacturers and international traffickers untouched.