An Interview with Alfred McCoy
by David BarsamianConducted at University of Wisconsin-Madison, February 17,1990
Part TwoUnder this forced regime of occupation where you had the Nationalist Chinese forces backed by the CIA occupying the mountain areas, the prime opium growing areas in northeastern Burma, Burma went from maybe 7 or 8 tons of opium production per annum to anywhere up to 1,000 tons of production by the time the CIA's mercenaries were driven out in 1961. A thousand tons would have been, in any given year, up to 60 and 70% of the world's total illicit opium production coming from this one area as a result of a decade of CIA-Nationalist Chinese occupation.
The other Southeast Asian area was as you describe. Until 1950 France had an opium monopoly in Indochina. They were under pressure from the United States and UN to clean up. They signed the Segal(?) Convention on Narcotic Drugs with the United Nations and they abolished the opium monopoly. But it didn't disappear. The opium dens and opium shops were simply transferred from the French Ministry of Finance to French military intelligence and they, in turn, turned them over to a criminal syndicate that was running Saigon for the French, using their funds to buy daily intelligence and ferret out communist terrorists in the streets of Saigon.
The communists were running a terrorist campaign against the French. A Frenchman would sit down in a cafe and a 12-year-old boy would come up to him and put a gun to the back of his head and shoot him and disappear into a crowd. That's the kind of operation. The French were powerless to control that and they set up a very elaborate intelligence apparatus to try and stop that terror. Money was the fuel that drove that engine and the money came from drugs.
Moreover, there were Corsican syndicates that dominated the inner-city economy of Indochina, based in Saigon. They began exporting to Europe where part of the so-called Marseilles connection which has been celebrated in films - the connection where it's supposed to be opium from Turkey coming through the laboratories of Marseilles and then on to the United States - part of that production - we don't know how much - in fact, came from Saigon.
So, it's as a result of French counter-insurgency efforts in Indochina where they integrate narcotics into their intelligence operations, but primarily it's as a result of CIA operations in Burma that we get the so-called Golden Triangle where it's northeastern Burma and the adjacent area of northern Laos going into high-scale production.
When the Americans moved into Indochina after the French departed in 1955, we picked up the same tribes, the Hmong, the same politics of narcotics, the politics of heroin, that the French had established. By the 1960s we were operating, particularly the CIA, in collusion with the major traffickers exporting from the mountains not only to meet the consumption needs of Southeast Asia itself, but in the first instance America's combat forces fighting in Vietnam and ultimately the world market. Southeast Asia today, by the way, is the number one source of American heroin. That's our major source. So it's those very mountains of Burma, those very fields that were cleared and put to the poppy as a result of this Nationalist Chinese-CIA counterinsurgency intervention policy - that army that the CIA maintained there - that's supplying America's addicts today with illicit heroin.
Barsamian: Was the anti-communist ideology so powerful and so strong that the CIA would risk the worldwide opprobrium of being linked with drug trafficking? Why would they take that risk?
McCoy: It's easy. Look, it's effective. I interviewed a guy named Lt. Col Lucien Conein who, since I published my book now despises me, and I asked Col Conein why they worked with the Corsicans in Saigon, for example. He said that there aren't very many groups that know the clandestine arts. When you think about the essential skills it takes to have an extra-legal operation - to have somebody killed, to mobilize a crowd, to do what it does when societies are in flux, when power is unclear and to be grabbed and shaped and molded into a new state - you want to overthrow a government and put a new one in - how do you do it? Who does this? Accountants? - They go to the office every day. Students? They go to classes - they're good for maybe one riot or something, but they've got to get on to medical school or law or whatever they're doing. Where do you get people who have this kind of skill? You have your own operatives and they're limited. Particularly if you're a foreigner, your capacity to move something in the streets is very limited. You know, sometimes you can turn to a state intelligence agency in a country you're working with, but most effectively you can turn to the underworld. That's why the CIA always worked very effectively with the warlords of the Golden Triangle. It's worked very effectively with Corsican syndicates in Europe, worked very effectively and continuously with American Mafia - because they have the same clandestine arts. They operate with the same techniques.
And they have the same kind of amorality. They are natural allies. There was a conversion of cultures between the milieu of the underworld and the world of the clandestine operative.
Barsamian: The French intelligence services used the services of the Corsican Mafia during the first Indochina war and many of those Corsicans remained behind and the Americans picked them up. But then you have the introduction of the American Mafia itself with the full-scale American intervention in Indochina: people like Santo Trafficante getting involved.
McCoy: I was interested in discovering during the course of my research in Saigon in 1971 that the last of the founding generation of the Mafia - I read these Mafia histories and I wonder if they're accurate, but you know, if you read enough of them and they're talking about the formation of a Commission, the big five families getting together and setting this thing up - but sometimes you wonder if it isn't a fairy tale but everybody keeps repeating it. So let's just assume as kind of a footnote that this may not be accurate. But let's assume this is some kind of story that's accurate. The last of the founding generation of Mafia titans was Santo Trafficante, Jr. He was the boss of Tampa. He also ran Cuba for the Mafia. Cuba was one of the major conduits of Marseilles heroin. The raw opium would come from Indochina through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean to Marseilles - or it would come through Turkey, down through Lebanon, then across the Mediterranean to the port of Marseilles. There it was refined and it would enter the United States.
Back in 1950, because of the very substantial Mafia presence in Cuba - they owned most of the casinos, they operated a lot of the prostitution industry and they were on good terms with the Batista dictatorship. It was their major offshore operating zone. It was a kind of vice free port. Santo Trafficante is believed to have been heavily involved in narcotics importation operations in a general kind of way as somebody who was very heavily involved in Cuba. Cuba was supposed to be - again, in these Mafia fairy tales - something of a neutral zone. It was nobody's territory. But Trafficante kind of ran it, providing a certain amount of protection and order for organized crime because he was southern Florida and it was a natural territory for him to expand into.
Well, in the late 1960s, Trafficante and his consigliere, his counselor - again, in these Mafia charts, the number three man was a guy named Dominic Furchi(?). Dominic Furchi and Santo Trafficante took a trip and went to Hong Kong and they went to Saigon. When they were in Saigon they met with old man Furchi's kid, Frank Furchi. Now, Frank Furchi had set himself up in Saigon and was involved in this shady world of contracting all of these kind of murky private business operations that were what you might call black marketeering on the fringes of this massive U.S. war effort. Wherever you get armies operating in the midst of war zones you get an enormous amount of black market activity. Prostitution, clubs, entertainment, purloining of military equipment - you know, there's just so much men and movement and violence and such a risk that freelancers would come in there and wheel and deal and make money.
This young Furchi was in there. There was a group of Corsicans that was still operating left over from the first Indochina war and they were dealing. Some of them were ex-nazi Gestapo officers that had come out there as well. It was a remarkable polyglot group of adventurers. Trafficante is believed, according to Hong Kong police intelligence, to have explored getting an Asian heroin connection. Some police I talked to during this period were convinced that, in fact, he did provide the basic contacts and connections during his trip which began to see the start of substantial flows of heroin from Southeast Asia to the United States. Now, whether or not, again, this is a Mafia fairy tale, nonetheless statistically it is after about 1970 that we see the flow of Number 4 pure white powder heroin moving from Southeast Asia to the United States, being detected in chemical analysis of street samples.
Barsamian: One thing that has kind of perplexed me on this particular issue - you know, the CIA being involved in drug trafficking in Southeast Asia - very soon we see that heroin flowing into the veins of the American GIs stationed in Southeast Asia who are reputedly there to defeat the communists. That's kind of bizarre to say the least.
McCoy: When I published my book I got a lot of flak from people on the left saying that I was probably a CIA agent because I was so moderate in my analysis. The thesis in the heated political times of the early 1970s about drugs was this. The CIA had two problems - or the American ruling class - whoever these invisibles are that control this complex uncontrollable country - supposedly had two problems. One was insurgency of minorities
I'm speaking of black uprisings in the cities of America. Another was winning the war in Vietnam. So they put one and one together and they came up with two: the Southeast Asian drug trade. Their vision was - you know, like the CIA Deputy Director in charge of global narcotics trafficking sort of telling the Hmong caravans to get moving out of the highlands of Southeast Asia. "Let's get that caravan now into the lab. Okay, let's get that heroin loaded onto the aircraft right. Okay, now we've got it into Harlem. Okay, get that kid, Kid, step forward and buy the bag." Okay, you know, that's it. Potentially insurgent youth has been narcotized. Write him off for black power.
I didn't see things operating quite so comprehensively. What I saw going on was like this. And this is why I was accused by people on the left of being moderate and cowardly in my analysis. When you do this kind of research, when you move into this murky world of rumors, conspiracy, the shadow universe that is organized crime, narcotics and intelligence, you've got to adopt, I think, a minimalist approach. You can't say anything you don't have a source for. You can suspect all you want. But when you speak or write, you just don't say it. That's speculation. You have a drink and you talk it over when you're working with your colleagues trying to figure it out, then you can go into anything you want. But when you actually speak or write, you've got to stick to the facts. Otherwise, you're not doing your job ... it's nonsense. So I adopted a policy that I had to have sources. In fact, my book when it was published was gone over by a corporate lawyer at Harper & Row which is a big publishing firm. The CIA actually got a copy of the manuscript and tried to get certain passages deleted and removed. They pressured the corporation for the right to do that. Ultimately I had to stand behind every sentence. I had to have sources for it. The lawyers went through every sentence and said, "Where's this?" I had to have an interview notebook, I had to show my logic.
What I found was this. This is my image. In effect the CIA's involvement in narcotics was originally specific. It was going on in Laos and it didn't get much beyond Laos. The Agency in Laos was, just like the agency globally in the 1940s and 50s, myopic, short-sighted. It was fighting a war. It was trying to stop the Ho Chi Minh trail from operating. In order to do so it had a 30,000 man mercenary army made up largely of Hmong hill tribesmen who lived in the area and were opium growers. The consequences of their complicity in the narcotics traffic was something they just weren't interested in. From 1964-65 to 1975 they ran this secret war with a massive army of 30,000 men - an operation of an unequaled duration and size. The CIA has never, ever run as big an operation. I think that's even bigger than the Burma operation they ran. The Nationalist Chinese forces never got to that size.
Barsamian: What about Afghanistan?
McCoy: That didn't last eleven years. When did it start? About '81 and it's already over. It didn't make it. It lasted eight years. I don't think also .. you see, the Mujahadin are not as integrated with the CIA. Those were just rebels that the CIA was backing. This is a 30,000 man army that the CIA ran. It was their army. They bought every bullet, they trained every soldier, they had a mercenary officer corps under General Vang Pao that they ran. It wasn't a "hands-off' operation. It was their army. That's why we've got all these Hmong in Los Angeles and Minnesota and Wisconsin because we're looking after our loyal tribe that fought and died for us in some kind of twisted logic. But that's why they're all here. That's why we have all these mountain peasants trying to adapt to life in this country.
Anyway, the CIA was complicitous in the Laotian drug trade at a number of levels. First of all, let's look at the situation. Why would the CIA be complicitous in the drug trade? Okay. They are allying themselves with a people which grows two products up in the mountains: they grow rice for subsistence and they grow opium for cash. They've grown opium really at a high level since World War II. They grew small amounts before, but with the boom in production in the Golden Triangle their production of opium expanded and they became dependent upon it as a source for cash.
When the CIA allied itself with this tribe, after a few years, by 1970, the economy, the culture, the whole of Hmong tribal society and the CIA's secret army were one. It was a total merger. It was as much an alliance between the CIA and the Hmong as it was between the United States and Great Britain in World War II. We just didn't give the British bullets, we financed their whole economy. We integrated our economy, our polity with Britain. Two societies, two states merged.
Well, in a funny kind of way, that's what's going on in Laos right now. The rice crop disappears because of the Meo policy of slash and burn - they chop down the trees, they burn it, that clears the land and leaves ash and phosphate on the ground and you get maybe two or three rice crops out of it before the land goes bad and the men, because there's a distribution of labor in the tribes, the men have to cut down the trees. The women till the crop, harvest the rice crop. Now, opium, well done, can go ten or twelve years whereas rice can only go two or three. So once it was started, very quickly the Hmong ran out of rice and the CIA began dropping rice to them. But they still had their opium. Now, the Hmong growing opium meant the CIA felt that they had to support the Meo's opium crop because there's only two cash crops. So they started actually using their remarkably extensive energistics network of light aircraft and helicopters to actually move the opium out of the mountains for the Meo because the war had disrupted the normal caravan routes of Chinese merchants that comb the hills for the opium. That was gone by 1966 as the war spread. So the CIA collected the opium and became the major source of transport, moving the opium from field to market, getting into the actual flow of regional international commerce.
Barsamian: This is the Air America fleet?
McCoy: This is the Air America fleet, yeah. It's the CIA's contract airline. It's just a fig leaf. It was the CIA's airline.
Barsamian: I notice you use Hmong and Meo interchangeably. Is that correct?
: Yes. The word has been used traditionally, Hmong, but it means slave in Chinese. But if you look at all the ethnographic literature before the Hmong migrated to this country, it always refers to them as Meo. Since they've gotten here, the Hmong have regarded Meo as an impolite term and everybody... You know, one of the dynamics of a multi-cultural society is that the group gets to pick its own name. If African-Americans want to be African-Americans, that's what you call them and you don't worry about it. The oppressed get to pick the label of their oppression. So if the Hmongs want to be called Hmongs, we call them Hmong.
Anyway, the CIA was absolutely aware of what it was doing. I went into a Meo district - I spent ten days there in 1971 - and I went house to house and asked every farmer how much opium they grew this year, last year, the year before. I went back ten years. I said, "Okay, now, how much do you grow." They said, "Well, we each grow about ten kilos," which will make you one kilo of heroin by the time you boil it down and combine it." Most of them grow about ten kilos from their fields. So, "What do you do with your ten kilos?" "Well, up to about five years the Chinese used to come through with their mules and we'd sell it to them and they'd give us some cloth, some money, this or that and flashlight batteries, whatever, and we'd deal with them. Or sometimes we'd take it down to the market down in the provincial capital." "So what have you done over the last few years?" "What happens is the Air America helicopter comes in and officers in the army, Hmong officers in the army, get out and we sell them our opium."
Opium stinks. It's like wrapping up cow dung in leaves. You've got a whole helicopter full of cow dung and you'd say to the pilot, the American CIA pilot - do you know what you're carrying? He'd say, "Yeah, I'm carrying cow dung." "How do you know?" "Well, I can smell it." Opium, in that kind of confined space, load up a helicopter with opium and you know what you're carrying. Everybody knows what it smells like. So they all knew that they were carrying it. This entire district that I interviewed established a pattern beyond doubt. The helicopters came there and left.
Where did it go? It went down to a place name Long Tien. Long Tien was one of the most secret U.S. installations anywhere in the world. It was the headquarters of the whole secret war in Laos, this attempt to fight the Ho Chi Minh trail, to cut it with this mercenary army. Long Tien was closed to any American other than somebody that had top intelligence classification.
I learned from Hmong sources that Vang Pao operated a very large heroin lab there. At this point the CIA got hands off. They didn't mind moving the opium out of the hills, but when it came to actually carrying the Number 4 heroin that came out of that lab, they wouldn't touch that. What they did was they established a private air line for Vang Pao called Zeng Kwan(?) Air Transport, the province where he came from was Zeng Kwan. So they created, you know, home-town province airlines and gave it to Vang Pao. They were hands-off from that point.
Then what happened was there was a flow, there were other labs, and the Chief of Staff of the Royal Laotian army - 99% of the Royal Laotian army's budget came from the United States - the Chief of Staff of the Laotian army operated the largest heroin refinery in the world in northwestern Laos. This flow of heroin went down to southern Laos where Nguyen Cao Ky's sister ran a hotel. There were three routes into Vietnam from southern Laos. One was Nguyen Cao Ky's pilots would fly over from Tonsonhut(?) Airport in Saigon and would pick up and fly back in. The Prime Minister of Vietnam, the President of Vietnam also had their own distribution apparatuses. Our allies in Vietnam, the three major political players, ran heroin distribution networks. There was a time in the 1970s when I think half a dozen members of the South Vietnamese parliament were picked up by customs by mistake carrying heroin in from Laos and Thailand. You know, the whole South Vietnamese government was dealing heroin to our troops. That was where it was coming from.
On to Part Three | Back to Dark Alliance | Back to "Arm Yourself"