Obits for "Fabled Hero" of Vietnam War, Vang Pao, Omit CIA Drug Connection
By Conn Hallinan
Foreign Policy in Focus
January 11, 2011
Cynicism, as the late Molly Ivins once noted, is the
death of good journalism, but reading through the New
York Times and the Associated Press' obituaries of
Laotian-Hmong leader General Vang Pao made that
sentiment a difficult one to resist.
Vang Pao, who died Jan. 6 in Clovis, a small town in
California's Central Valley, was described in the Times
as "charismatic" and in AP as a "fabled military hero"
who led a Hmong army against the communist Pathet Lao
during the Laotian civil war. Van Pao's so-called
"secret army" was financed by the U.S. Central
Intelligence Agency as part of the U.S.'s war against
North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in
Well, "financed" is a slippery word, and while, it was
true Vang Pao got a lots of money and arms from the
CIA, a major source of his financing was the opium
trade run out of Southeast Asia's "Golden Triangle."
That little piece of history never managed to make it
into the obits, which is hardly a surprise. The people
the CIA hired to run dope for Vang Pao went on to run
dope for the Contras in the Reagan Administration's war
against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And
talking about close ties between drugs and the CIA in
Southeast Asia and Central America might lead to some
very uncomfortable questions about the people we are
currently supporting in Afghanistan.
Readers should search out a book by Alfred McCoy called
"The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia," and pull
up a Frontline piece entitled "Drugs, Guns and the CIA"
by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn. What they will find is
not in the Times and the AP obits.
A major source for the Frontline piece was Ron
Rickenback, who headed up the U.S. Aid and Development
Program (USAID) in Laos. Rickenback says he witnessed
drugs being transported from outlying areas in Laos
aboard U.S. Air America aircraft, which was then put on
larger aircraft for shipment to southern Laos and
Thailand. Air America was on contract with the CIA.
Rickenback says the CIA knew drugs were being run on
their airplanes, but that the drug trade helped finance
the war against the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese. To cover
their tracks, the CIA took an Air America C-47, painted
it, named it Sing Quan Airlines, and gave it to Van
Pao. Sing Quan quickly became known as "Opium Air."
Frontline also tracked down several pilots that flew
Sing Quan and Air America planes (some of them were in
jail for running cocaine out of Central America), who
confirmed that opium was a major part of their cargo.
Journalist John Everingham's investigation also linked
Vang Pao to the opium trade.
Leslie Cockburn also managed to land an interview with
Tony Poe, the CIA's key man in Laos and the model for
the out-of-control CIA agent in Apocalypse Now. Poe,
who was driven out of the Agency when he refused to go
along with the dope dealing, confirmed Van Pao's
central role in drug running.
The trade in opium and heroin in Laos was linked in
turn to the U.S.-supported regime in South Vietnam led
by President Nguyen Van Thieu. Much of that heroin
ended up in the bodies of American GIs-during the
height of the war there were between two and three
fatal overdoses a day-as well as decimating
neighborhoods back in the U.S.
The history of drugs and U.S. foreign policy is a long
and dark one. At the end of World War II, the Agency
made common cause with the Corsican Brotherhood and La
Cosa Nostra to drive the Left out of the Port of
Marseilles. Drug running was a major source of money
for the two Italian criminal organizations.
The same people who ran the CIA's drug operation in
Southeast Asia turned up running drugs and guns for the
rightwing Contras in the 1980s Nicaraguan civil war.
Cocaine money was used to buy weapons and supplies for
the Contras, with anti-Castro Cubans acting as
organizers and middlemen.
And lest we think this is all ancient history, maybe
Congress should take a close look at our current allies
in Afghanistan: the Karzai government and the Northern
First, a few facts.
The United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crimes
estimates that the Afghan opium trade generates about
$3.4 billion a year, of which about 4 percent goes as
taxes to the Taliban. There is some dispute over how
much cash this represents: the UN says $125 million a
year; U.S. intelligence agencies estimate $70 million a
year. Some 21 percent goes to the farmers. What happens
to the 75 percent left over?
According to Julian Mercille, a lecturer at University
College, Dublin, the bulk "is captured by government
officials, the police, local and regional power brokers
and traffickers." This includes President Hamid
Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Northern
Alliance general, Nazri Mahmad.
Mercille argues that the U.S. has an "historical
pattern of toleration and empowerment of local drug
lords in [its] pursuit of broader foreign policy
The pattern-established after the Second World War in
Europe, and then later in Southeast Asia and Latin
America-is that drugs are a handy way to generate lots
of off-the-books money, and an easy way to buy loyalty.
It is also good business. That UN report also found
that between 90 to 95 percent of illegal opium sales
over the past several years-some $400 to $500
billion-were laundered through western banks. Part of
that money ended up being used to keep some of those
banks from going under during the recent economic
What these policies leave in their wake are ruin and
destruction. Over 35,000 members of Van Pao's army were
killed fighting a losing war with the Pathet Lao, and
some 200,000 Hmong were re-settled in the U.S., mainly
in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. Nicaragua is
still trying to recover from the Contra War, and
Afghanistan has turned into a bleeding ulcer.
Vang Pao was a pawn, first of the French, in whose
colonial army he served, and later of the U.S. In the
global chess game called the Cold War, he and his
people were disposable. So were the Nicaraguans, and so
are the Afghans. The dead are at peace; the living
should remember, and the media should help preserve,
not obscure, those memories.
More of Conn Hallinan's work can be found at Dispatches
from the Edge. http://dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com/
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