Rumors that the CIA orchestrated the meth and heroin trade in Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam War have been examined in Patrick Winn’s excellent new book, Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel that Survived the CIA.
During the Viet Nam War the CIA was faced with a critical choice. The agency could undermine the drug trade of a Burmese tribal people called the Wa who occupied land next to the Chinese border, or they could leave the Wa alone to block Communist China’s expansion into the mountainous Golden Triangle area of Burma and beyond. Being the CIA, they threw their full support behind the Wa and their illicit drug activities.
The Wa were a simple, primitive people. They wore loin cloths and practiced head hunting, decapitating unwelcome intruders entering into their territory and proudly displaying the severed trophies nailed to skull posts. Wa occupation of the mountains of the Golden Triangle discouraged the inward migration of people from China and thus any Chinese national expansion. China in turn supplied the Wa with chemicals and the instructions needed to produce crystal meth, as well as materials to produce heroin from the opium harvested in the Wa’s local poppy fields. As a result, wartime US military personnel serving in Thailand and Viet Nam had easy access to nearly-pure heroin for a mere seven dollars per generously filled vial container. One-in-six American military service members were estimated to have used China White heroin and many became addicted.
When the DEA entered the scene the agency sought to capture and formally execute the leader of the Wa drug empire, Wei Xuegang. However, the Wa drug kingpin was considered an important ally by the CIA in the US battle against Asian Communists. In a spy versus spy series of events, the slick culprit always managed to elude captivity with a little help from his friends in Langley, Virginia.
By the end of the Viet Nam conflict the DEA had proven no match for the CIA and its version of a drug war. The Wa retained a drug empire that generates $60 billion in worldwide meth sales. It’s defended by 30,000 well-equipped Wa fighters. Winn attributes the DEA/CIA performance mismatch to differences in the recruitment tactics between the two agencies. The CIA prefers Ivy League types or members of top universities, while the DEA typically hires former law enforcement officers and
the sons (and sometimes daughters) of working class stock. Straight shooters by nature, they never smoked pot in high school. Their worldview skews monochrome: we’re the good guys, drug dealers are “scumbags”….