The Opium Alliance

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Chapter 3
The Opium Alliance

The opium route—beginning in the poppy fields of Asia and ending thousands of miles away in hundreds of American and European cities—was built and operated by an illicit and sometimes violent opium alliance. America's opium addicts are the final link in a chain of secret criminal transactions that begin in the fields, pass through clandestine processing and packaging laboratories, and enter the United States through a maze of international smuggling routes. This highly coordinated, complex opium alliance is the world's most profitable criminal enterprise, involving millions of peasant farmers, thousands of corrupt government officials, disciplined criminal cartels, and organized American crime syndicates. Most of those involved in the opium route will never meet.

This underground industry is largely controlled by cartels. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that 90 percent of the opium sold around the world is done so under the direction of about thirty cartels, which are well-organized and well-financed family-run businesses that control opium's production, distribution, and prices.

All nations involved in the opium trade repudiate the drug, yet the business flourishes. The success of this multinational, multibillion-dollar-a-year partnership begins with simple ingredients: earth, water, sunshine, and a tiny seed half the size of an ant's head. Many geographical locations are well suited for the opium poppy, but none more so than two locations in Asia whose names reflect the value of the crop grown there: the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent.

The Golden Triangle is a narrow, triangular-shaped band of mountains that stretches along the southern rim of the Asian landmass encompassing Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Laos in Southeast Asia. Myanmar is the leading producer of opium within the triangle, according to the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP).

The name Golden Crescent describes the opium poppy fields lining the crescent-shaped sweep of mountains running through Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in southwest Asia. Estimates by the UNDCP indicate that this region is responsible for up to 80 percent of the world's opium production and that Afghanistan leads all nations in production. In 1999, according to field and

satellite surveys performed by the UNDCP, Afghanistan produced an estimated forty-five hundred tons of the drug. Recently Mexico, Colombia, and Peru joined these two leading opium centers as opium-growing nations.

Poppies provide a comfortable living for opium farmers, but growing and harvesting an illegal crop for export requires greater sophistication and organization than they can provide. Coordinating the efforts of so many individuals requires the financial and organizational muscle of opium cartels.

Opium Cartels

Opium cartels are run and organized like any large corporation. At the top are the presidents, referred to by a variety of names such as bosses, masters, warlords, and drug barons. Wealthy, politically influential within local governments, and known to use violence, they oversee a cadre of midlevel and low-level managers, accountants, attorneys, security forces, and hundreds of thousands of general field workers, all of whom support the growing, manufacturing, distributing, and selling of opium.

The success of cartels is closely tied to corruption. Much of their money is spent on bribes to silence law enforcement officers and politicians and to keep newspaper owners from publishing stories illuminating their corrupt practices. If bribery fails, cartels have other ways to achieve their objectives. Threats and occasional assassinations are not unusual. Another successful tactic is to spend drug money on the election campaigns of friends and family members who, if elected, will protect the cartels' illegal activities. On rare occasions, when all these measures fail and a senior cartel member is arrested, bosses hire lawyers to fight convictions and jail sentences. So many politicians and judges are controlled by the cartels that justice is rarely carried out. According to Don Ferrarone, a DEA agent in Myanmar, most drug lords avoid jail by one tactic or another:

[Government] organizations that were supposed to be out there combating this problem had a very cozy, tight relationship [with drug bosses]. In fact, over twenty years we know of nobody of any significance that went to jail. A few would get arrested but they were right back out again. There was a very efficient penetration of certain politicians in critical locations that were simply getting their palms greased.21

Does Anyone Understand the Opium Alliance?

The illegal and secretive activities of members of the opium alliance make it difficult for law enforcement to understand its operations. Almost all data about the opium alliance comes from either the U.S. government or the United Nations. Critics of programs to eradicate opium poppies are skeptical about U.S. and UN figures citing decreases in opium production throughout the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent. Critics allege that opium plantation owners lie about the extent of their fields and have shifted field locations to avoid satellite and aerial detection. Many fields have been moved away from roads used by authorities and international observers.

In the article "Officials, Critics Clash over Myanmar Opium Questions," one critic, interviewed in northern Thailand, said, "No one knows how much opium is being grown in Myanmar," adding, "the U.N. and U.S. surveys have no validity." Verifying an observation frequently made by government critics, the same article claimed, "The Myanmar government periodically burns opium for visiting reporters, but it is all for show. We also saw a field destroyed for television cameras, but only after the sap had been harvested."

At the heart of the opium controversy and misunderstanding is money; money made in the production and sale of opium and money made by agreeing not to produce and sell opium. In this sense, opium farmers and government officials in poppy-growing nations profit both from producing it and from promising not to produce it. Critics charge that poppy growers and government officials in poppy-growing nations falsely report reductions in opium production because by doing so they will receive more financial aid from the United States, Great Britain, and the United Nations.

The success of cartels is also closely tied to violence. Cartels are protected and maintained by an arsenal of weapons familiar to professional armies. These arsenals consist of the usual small arms as well as heavy artillery, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 105-millimeter mortars, and even surface-to-air missiles for use against government helicopters. Violence is also used against many civilians not associated with the opium trade. Cartel armies invading a rival's opium fields often encounter mined footpaths intended to blow up an invading squad. To prevent losing their men to land mines, invaders entering unknown territory coerce local villagers to act as human mine detectors by forcing them to walk in front of the troops.

The Opium Bosses

At the head of the opium cartels are the bosses. These positions are kept within families and handed down from father to son. Cartel bosses typically remain detached from the opium fields and distribution routes. For reasons of security, most conduct business behind the walls of well-guarded estates rivaling those of the world's wealthiest people. Cartel bosses travel in expensive imported luxury cars on their way to the finest restaurants and resorts.

Many own multiple homes in the world's major cities that serve as vacation sites and as safe havens should they ever need to take refuge from authorities.

Although this opulent lifestyle appears glamorous, it has its dark side. Cartel bosses have many enemies within rival cartels and are subject to arrest by international law enforcement agencies. Wherever the bosses or their family members go, armed bodyguards accompany them, and their cars are custom fitted with armor to withstand gunshots and bomb blasts. To achieve the same level of security in their estates, high walls and electronic monitoring devices deter attacks.

The most dominant opium boss for the past thirty years has been Khun Sa, who heads the Shan United Army in Myanmar. Khun Sa is internationally recognized as the opium king. He boasts an army between twenty and twenty-five thousand soldiers, who protect the fields and trade routes and provide security for himself, his family, and his associates. At the height of Khun Sa's dominance in the mid-1990s, his share of the Myanmar opium market was estimated at 80 percent, or more than $1 billion annually. Don Ferrarone made the following observation about Khun Sa's life in a 1996 interview:

The man is first and foremost a drug trafficker. He had a lot of skirmishes with other insurgent ethnic and trafficking organizations in the Shan State. These battles were [fought by] folks with M16's and AK47's and grenade launchers and artillery and mortars and the whole nine yards. There's an enormous loss of life on both sides. He used intelligence practices that are military intelligence gathering techniques. And yet they paid for all this, for the most part, by getting opium and heroin into the U.S. market.22

The opium trade begins in the fields when more than a million farmers plant and harvest the annual poppy crop. This segment of the labor force, the largest under the umbrella of a cartel, is the cornerstone of the cartel.

Cultivating Poppies

The opium that will one day end up on the streets of America begins thousands of miles away where Asian farmers cultivate their fields. A household of several members cultivates and harvests about one acre of opium poppy per year on average. Most of the more fertile fields can support cultivation for ten years or more without fertilization before the soil is depleted and new fields must be cleared.

Farmers plant poppy seeds in shallow holes. Within six weeks a cabbagelike plant emerges, and eight weeks later the poppy plant grows to about two feet. At this point, the farmers move through the fields thinning the weaker plants to allow the stronger ones enough room to mature.

Each poppy has one long primary stem and secondary stems called tillers. As the plant grows, one and occasionally two buds develop at the tip. After ninety days, the buds blossom into flowers with four petals in a variety of vibrant colors. When the petals fall away, generally in January, only the green pods remain, and they continue to grow to the size and shape of an egg. Inside the pods the sap of opium develops over ten days while the pods ripen. Once the pods reach maturity, standing on stalks between three and five feet tall, alkaloid production stops. A typical one-acre poppy field has about 100,000 plants that produce 125,000 to 200,000 pods. The actual opium yield will depend largely on weather conditions and the precautions taken by individual farmers to tend and safeguard the crop.

Growing poppies worth thousands of dollars per acre is unlike tending any other crop. The farmer and his family generally move from their homes to the edge of their field two weeks prior to harvest, setting up a small, temporary hut. If they do not, they run the risk of poachers stealing their crop. Ghulam Shan, a poppy

farmer east of Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul, works for the drug lord Hazrat Ali. Shan tends his fields carrying an AK-47 automatic rifle given to him by Ali to protect his family and his crop.


Harvesting the opium crop requires unusual skill. As the pods reach maturity, harvesters move through the fields in the coolness of the late afternoon selecting only the ripest pods and slitting each with a special, curved knife. The incisions are made with great care to avoid cutting too deeply into the wall of the pod, which causes the opium to drip into the interior of the pod, rather than ooze to the surface where it can be collected. If the incisions are too shallow, the flow is

too slow and the opium coagulates over the incisions and blocks the flow. To cut perfectly requires considerable practice.

As the milky white sap, or sheera, oozes to the surface, it darkens and thickens in the sun, forming a brownish gum called apeen or taryak. Early the next morning, harvesters scrape the sticky opium gum from the surface of the pods with a short-handled, crescent-shaped, flat iron blade. The opium gum is then scraped into a wood container that hangs from the harvester's neck or waist.

Opium harvesters work their way backward across the field with their elbows tucked tightly to their waists to avoid brushing up against the scored and oozing pods. The pods continue to secrete opium for up to five days until the sap is depleted. During the short harvest period, workers spent each day tending the pods: scoring those newly matured, collecting the sap from previously scored pods, and cutting down and discarding those depleted of their sap.

When harvesters return from their fields after a day of collecting, they scrape the thick sap from their containers, pack it into brick-, pancake-, or ball-shaped forms, and wrap them in a simple material such as banana leaves that will allow the sticky mass to dry. Each harvester then tags his or her bundle with colored string or yarn to keep it separate from those of other harvesters.

Excessive moisture and heat can cause the opium to deteriorate slightly. When an entire field is harvested, owners can expect about ten to fifteen pounds of opium per acre, a number that can fluctuate depending upon environmental variables.


Before opium is ready to be sold, it is cooked to remove vegetable matter and other impurities that detract from a high-quality product. To prepare the sap for cooking, farmers and their families chop wood and dig a shallow pit. They dump the opium into a large pot filled with water. The wood is placed in the pit under the pot and set on fire to boil the concoction, causing the sticky glob to dissolve. Any soil, twigs, or plant scrapings remain suspended in their solid form, and when the entire solution is strained, the impurities are captured and discarded.

The filtered brown liquid is then reheated over a low flame until any remaining water evaporates, leaving behind a thick paste called prepared opium, cooked opium, or smoking opium. It is then dried in the sun until it has a putty-like consistency. The net weight of the cooked opium has now dropped by about twenty percent. At this point in the process, most farmers separate 10 or 15 percent of the paste for sale to local users.

The farmers carry the remaining opium to large villages or cities, where buyers examine it, assess its purity, and offer a price. Buyers are skilled at their craft and look for hidden impurities intentionally mixed into the opium to increase its weight and thus its price. Such adulterants include tree sap, sand, flour, and a variety of vegetation ground and colored to camouflage its presence. Once a price is agreed upon, the buyer sells the opium paste to middlemen who own simple factories. There, the paste is further purified, combined into larger quantities, molded into standardized bricks weighing precisely five or ten kilograms (one kilogram equals 2.2 pounds), and wrapped in heavy plastic. The middlemen in turn sell the packaged product at a considerably higher price to a network of international distributors.

Distribution from Asia

Distributors are highly skilled and astute men and women responsible for guiding the opium from rural villages until it reaches its final destinations in London, Moscow, New York, Hong Kong, or any other of a dozen or more metropolitan centers. Shipments of opium travel on the backs of smugglers or goats working their way over jagged mountain passes, on camels across expanses of desert, on dugout canoes paddled down inland rivers, or on trucks to a port where either an oceangoing freighter or a 747 jetliner carries it to its final destination.

Getting opium out of the Golden Crescent or Golden Triangle is a deadly business. In 2003 in Iran, for example, gun battles claimed the lives of 170 Iranian police and more than seven hundred traffickers along a 650-mile antidrug barrier intended to stop smuggling. Reporter Mike Corcoran, who witnessed the smuggling of opium, noted the sophistication of the distribution network:

The drug runners are armed with the best weapons money can buy—even highly sophisticated Stinger missiles trained on Iran's patrolling helicopters. The head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters reveals that in one year 200 drug runners were executed for their crimes and another 85,000 are currently serving prison terms on drug related offences.23

If distributors elude border guards, they then run a gauntlet of checkpoints once they reach airports and loading docks along wharves. Distributors are masterly at concealing opium in large containers or equipment such as washing machines and truck engines. They also weld packages of opium inside steel construction

Money Laundering

Opium cartels transact business exclusively with cash, preferably U.S. dollars. Any use of checks or credit cards by bosses working outside international law to purchase opium would lead law enforcement to their bank accounts and homes. Yet depositing millions, if not billions, of cash dollars in bank accounts around the world can also attract attention unless opium bosses can show that the cash came from legitimate activities.

The process of changing the identity of cash from drug money to legitimate money is termed money laundering. Once money is laundered, it is impossible for law enforcement to prove where or how it was made and who made it. According to one official who contributed to the "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report," which can be found on the U.S. Department of State Web site, "Money laundering is organized crime's way of trying to disprove the adage that 'crime doesn't pay.' It is an attempt to assure drug dealers that they can hide their profits and to provide them the fuel to operate and expand their criminal enterprises."

One of the most common money-laundering tricks is to take millions of dollars to large gambling casinos such as those found in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, or Paris. Opium bosses purchase gambling chips with opium money, gamble for a few days, and when they are finished, they cash in their remaining chips for casino cash. As they depart with a receipt from the casino, no one can know for certain whether their money came from gambling winnings or not. The actual laundering occurs as the opium cash is exchanged for casino cash. At that point, the identity is lost, or laundered.

material, and press them into common, unassuming items such as jewelry boxes, tennis shoes, and food cans emptied of their contents.

The likelihood of passing inspection points trouble free is regularly increased through bribery. Most distributors spend millions of dollars a year bribing inspection officials, from the highest-ranking officers down to the men and women who perform the inspections. The bribes that corrupt inspectors accept can often exceed the amount of their annual salaries. Under such circumstances, no amount of sophisticated monitoring devices, X-ray machines, sensitive odor detectors, or drug-sniffing dogs are able to uncover the contraband.

Once opium shipments reach America, customs officials assisted by the DEA screen as much cargo as possible but openly admit that only a fraction can be searched. The DEA estimates that it is able to intercept about 10 percent of all smuggled drugs, but other agencies charged with interdicting narcotics believe the percentage is more likely half that.

Distribution from Mexico

According to the DEA, the easiest entry for opium smugglers into the United States is across the Mexican border. There are several reasons why this border provides easy access. First, Mexico is an opium-growing nation. Second, it is impossible for law enforcement to patrol the entire border, which stretches all the way from east Texas to California. It is also difficult to monitor the large daily volume of vehicular traffic crossing the border and thousands of Mexicans who illegally move back and forth across it. According to a National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee report, "In recent years, this infrastructure [American opium trafficking] has become heavily dependent on the smuggling services of drug gangs operating from Mexico, which has enabled the drug gangs there to emerge as sophisticated and powerful international drug trafficking organizations within their own right."24

Once opium enters America, it is picked up by the next link of the opium alliance, one of many American drug bosses.

American Opium Bosses

American opium bosses control all opium imported into the United States for sale and distribution, operating in a similar manner to opium bosses in Asia and Mexico. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the majority of American drug bosses belong to one of several crime syndicates that collectively make up the American Mafia.

For more than one hundred years, the Mafia has been actively engaged in a variety of criminal activities, including gambling, drug dealing, prostitution, and extortion. The FBI is constantly monitoring their activities and arresting members whenever sufficient evidence can be gathered to prosecute them.

The Rise of Mexican Opium

During the 1980s Mexican opium cartels entered the international opium industry by planting their first large opium fields. The geographic climate in much of Mexico is well suited for opium. To an impoverished nation, opium is an attractive crop that can be sold just north of the border in the United States. With long-established trafficking and distribution networks first set up for marijuana and cocaine, Mexico successfully entered into the opium business. Mexico grows only about 3 or 4 percent of the world's opium crop, but virtually all of it is shipped across the border to the United States.

According to a report published by the General Accounting Office in March 1996, Drug Control—Long-Standing Problems Hinder U.S. International Efforts, a DEA administrator testified: "Drug trafficking organizations in Mexico have become so wealthy and so powerful over the years transporting opium and cocaine that they can rival legitimate governments for influence and control. They utilize their vast financial wealth to undermine government and commercial institutions. We have witnessed Colombia's struggle with this problem, and it [is] not unexpected that the same problems could very well develop in Mexico."

Just as Asia's production of opium has posed a major threat to America, the DEA anticipates that Mexico's production will increase the tonnage of opium annually smuggled into the United States in cars and trucks passing through dozens of border checkpoints.

American bosses rely on bribery and violence to protect their enterprises. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agents

occasionally accept bribes to conceal illegal opium transactions, although corruption is not nearly as common as in grower nations. Nonetheless, according to Alfred W. McCoy, a Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, bribery finds its way even to high-level American politicians and law enforcement officers:

American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels: (1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) abetting the traffic by covering up for known traffickers and condoning their involvement; (3) and active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin. It is ironic, to say the least, that America's opium and heroin plague is of its own making.25

Violence is commonly used to control the opium trade. Without access to law enforcement and America's legal system to operate their illegal businesses, crime syndicates provide their own system of justice, which often relies upon violence to force payment of debts and to monopolize the sale of opium in major cities.

High-level members of America's Mafia are tipped off to the cargo locations of the five- and ten-kilogram bricks when they enter the country. Once the bricks are retrieved from their hiding places, the probability that they will be detected drops dramatically because of the impossibility of searching millions of cars, trucks, trains, and buses. Although the top American opium bosses never see, much less touch, the opium, their vast financial resources and their connections with corrupt American officials play a key role in the importation and distribution of the country's opium supply.

The top American bosses usually purchase bulk shipments of bricks totaling twenty-five to one hundred kilos for which they pay several hundred thousand dollars. At this point along the opium route, its value has increased six to seven times the amount the farmers earned in their villages. The average cost for each one-kilogram brick of opium that initially brought peasant farmers $750 is purchased by American bosses from international distributors for about $5,000. After a shipment arrives, the bosses divide it into lots of one to five kilos for sale to their underlings in the organized crime families. A lower-ranking boss, known as a kilo connection, further divides the opium into smaller quantities that are sold to street dealers.

Footing the Bill of Corruption

The high profit margins common to the opium business have always been sufficient to bribe authorities to ensure the continuous flow of opium across international borders, from state to state, and from city to city in the United States. At the heart of the bribery scenario—what makes it work so effectively much of the time—is the principle of paying bribes to people in positions of authority that exceed their normal salary.

An example of how money in the form of bribes moves opium occurred in Southeast Asia. A train was used to smuggle opium from Laos to the Vietnamese port city of Da Nang, where a cargo ship would take it to Hawaii. The driver of the train's locomotive, whose monthly railroad salary was $40, was paid an additional $200 for carrying a packet of opium worth $4,000 on each trip. A provincial governor in Laos, however, knowing that smugglers were using the train, promised a railroad inspector the equivalent of his weekly $3 salary for every packet of opium he confiscated. To counter this generous offer, the smugglers paid the same inspector $6 for every undetected packet that found its way to the harbor in Da Nang.

A similar scenario played out onboard the cargo ship, where more inspectors and ship's officers were again paid to look the other way. The opium packet moved across the ocean to Hawaii, where the bribery scheme was again repeated. In all cases, as the opium packet moved around the world, everyone involved was a financial winner. So who foots the bill for all of these illegal transactions? The answer is the last person in this chain of events, the addict.

Selling Opium on America's Streets

Street dealers sell opium directly to the final link in the opium alliance, the addicts. Street dealers are often opium addicts who work independently, unaffiliated with any syndicate. They generally purchase opium from a kilo connection in packets known as bundles, which weigh about one ounce and cost roughly two hundred dollars. The street dealers divide the bundles into one-gram quantities called deals or bags. The most commonly distributed amount weighs one gram. Selling for ten dollars, it is known as a "dime bag." Occasionally a half-gram amount known as a "nickel bag," is sold for five dollars. Although opium may actually be packaged in bags, the preferred packaging is small party balloons. Balloons are ideal because the dose is easily carried and kept dry. Some addicts, when pursued by police, swallow the balloon to hide the evidence and retrieve it later.

As the nickel and dime bags are distributed and consumed, the opium inflicts its damage. Two of the objectives of America's law enforcement and medical communities are to seize opium before it can be used and to counsel the public to avoid its use before its damage can be done.

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The Opium Alliance

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