For two decades, the Burmese warlord Khun Sa controlled nearly 70 percent of the world’s heroin supply, yet there has been little written about the legend the U.S. State Department branded the “most evil man in the world”—until now. Through exhaustive investigative journalism, this examination of one of the world’s major drug lords from the 1970s to the 1990s goes behind the scenes into the lives of the DEA specialists assigned the seemingly impossible task of capturing or killing him. Known as Group 41, these men would fight for years in order to stop a man who, in fact, had the CIA to thank for his rise to power. Featuring interviews with DEA, CIA, Mafia, and Asian gang members, this meticulously researched and well-documented investigation reaches far beyond the expected and delves into the thrilling and shocking world of the CIA-backed heroin trade.
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About the Author
Ron Felber is the CEO of Chemetell, North America, and the author of eight books, including Il Dottore: The Double Life of a Mafia Doctor, Presidential Lessons in Leadership, and Searchers: A True Story of Alien Abduction. He lives in Mendham, New Jersey.
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The Hunt for Khun Sa
Drug Lord of the Golden Triangle
By Ron Felber
Trine Day LLCCopyright © 2011 Ron Felber
All rights reserved.
Lord of the Golden Triangle
Khun Sa is a monster ... the worst enemy the world has.
Viraj Jutimitta paged through a two-inch-thick operational plan. Developed in the mid-1990s, it had been dubbed "Tiger Trap," based on Khun Sa's penchant for dried tiger penises, trumpeted by him to be an aphrodisiac. Viraj could hear Don Ferrarone, the DEA's bespectacled, slightly balding country attaché, briefing Director Thomas Constantine in the American embassy's high-security wing on details of the agency's most ambitious mission ever.
It was a strategy intended to take down Khun Sa, aka Chang Shee-fu, and his Mong Tai Army — the source of nearly 60 percent of the world's heroin supply — by dismantling its smuggling mechanisms, its primary distribution and redistribution networks, and freezing its financial assets.
Major General Viraj of the Royal Thai Police had been dogged in his determination, working for nearly twenty years with multiagency US operatives worldwide to reach this stage of Tiger Trap's evolution. But it hadn't been easy. After all, how did one trap a tiger?
Tigers were intelligent. They were perceptive, dangerous, and rarely drifted from the safety of familiar environs. Still, there was a way that he and the other members of the operations team believed they had found: study the tiger much as the tiger studies its prey.
What were its strengths? What were its vulnerabilities? Analyze the information and interpret what it tells you about how to proceed. Was it territorial? Did it hunt alone? Stripping out every iota of emotion, pessimism or optimism, translate what you have learned into an action plan to trap or kill the tiger. What resources were necessary? What time frame would be most effective? Was lethal force necessary, or desirable?
Well, now they had it. It was a strategy that teamed the DEA, Thai police, FBI, CIA, and US Joint Special Operations Command to coordinate a plan of attack that promised to neutralize the sixty-nine-year-old drug lord in a way that had never before been attempted.
Observation, analysis, and plan of attack: that was what Tiger Trap was all about. Staged in three distinct phases and to be executed in major cities, back-road towns, and mountainous supply routes throughout Southeast Asia, Operation Tiger Trap set traps with snares that were about to be pulled on sixteen of Khun Sa's most valuable operatives, who had been lured from the protective cover of Burma's Shan State either to Hong Kong or to Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in Thailand.
But less than an hour before, they had discovered that even their most calculated efforts had been dashed somewhat by a leak. Tipped-off through a radio intercept that Khun Sa was aware of the operation, US Army radio dispatchers had been jamming, for the past eight hours nonstop, Mong Tai Army headquarters transmissions out of Homong, Burma. Viraj prayed that they could block communications that would forewarn their targets.
His eyes, once compared to those of boxing champion Roberto Duran, darted across the DEA conference room now transformed into a tactical command center. Aerial maps lined the walls. Electronic equipment cluttered the main table's rectangular top, with images of arrest sites dancing across sixteen-inch monitors and the anxious voices of on-the-ground teams reconciling GPS surveillance data with US Army recon units circling thirty thousand feet above.
"Lock on target," a voice called through the static. "Have you established visual contact?"
"Roger that," shot back the clipped answer of Bangkok's team leader, Chris Kabel. "Target headed for rendezvous location."
The exchange piqued Viraj's curiosity enough to notice, but only momentarily, before he turned back to the bound sheaf of papers marked TIGER TRAP. Within were arrest packages, each complete with rap sheet, biography, known associates, fingerprint card, and photograph. As he glanced at the papers, his mind was focused on one imperative.
This time, they had to succeed.
On the morning of September 11, 1983, Khun Sa, leader of the Shan United Army in Burma, had awakened feeling suspicious, as he had a right to be. Double-crosses and byzantine plots concocted on the third floor of the US Embassy in Bangkok or out of Rangoon, Burma's capital, had been his standard fare since first becoming a jungle combatant in the early 1950s.
But at least then the sides were clear. After Mao's Communist victory over US-backed Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Khun Sa and thousands of other Burmese insurgents were used to battle Communist forces back over the Chinese border. "Keep 'em honest" he remembered men like CIA Station Chief Anthony Poe telling him, and they had.
But now all of that had changed. Jennifer Welles' Blonde on Blonde X-rated video played while Khun Sa chain-smoked State Express 555 filter kings in the privacy of his jungle fortress. Two of his four live-in "wives" snuggled up beside him.
Exactly when US policy had reversed was difficult to say, but this much was certain: men like CIA Agent Edgar Buell, the Indiana farmer sent by the United States to help the Shan apply modern agricultural techniques to the cultivation of their poppy, had never had an issue with heroin. Not until now, with the Vietnam question settled and the Chinese on friendlier terms with the United States. Now the chickens had come home to roost, as the Americans liked to say: their cowboy president, Ronald Reagan, and his war on drugs had stopped the "drugsfor-arms" program.
Even Khun Sa, the half Shan, half Chinese narco-warrior, chuckled at the irony. Such scheming! Such intrigue! And to him the apple's rotten core was never more visible: archrival General Li Wenhuan, the Chinese Nationalist drug smuggler whose tentacles reached all the way to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. God, how he hated that man! He was convinced that Li, stung by Khun Sa's success in the heroin trade, had been behind his arrest by the Burmese government so many years before for "high treason."
It had taken his old comrade Charlie Win to negotiate his freedom after five years in a Mandalay prison: by kidnapping two Russian doctors in broad daylight off the streets of Taunggi and holding them for ransom until the Americans finally arranged a prisoner exchange.
Of course, there had been the usual public show that the Thai government put on to please the Americans. In July 1981, the Thai authorities even announced that a fifty-thousand-baht price had been put on his head. The sum itself was laughable. Originally the equivalent of only two thousand US dollars, it was later elevated to four thousand, via leaflets, with a caveat: "Valid only until September 1982."
Ah, yes, those Americans were a funny breed. The oversized Sony video screen allowed his consorts to note Ms. Welles performing a sexual act that would soon be part of their nightly repertoire. Yes, Americans! They were funny, but dangerous.
Only recently, US Ambassador to Thailand William Brown had called him "a monster ... the worst enemy the world has." Brown's words had been carried not just in the Bangkok Post, but also in Burma's government- controlled Morning Light. President Reagan! Yes, it had to be due to the cowboy. But why? Why this sudden turn on him after all the years of American cooperation?
Khun Sa admired Reagan almost as much as actor John Wayne, whom he often imitated, donning a diamond-andsapphire embroidered gun belt and demonstrating quick-draw like the "Duke" in the privacy of his bedroom.
Fickle! It was the only conclusion that Khun Sa could come to. Wasn't it just like those crazy bastards!
After all, for the past three years, men like General Li had humored officials at the US Drug Enforcement Agency by having public burnings of tons of opium in the streets of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Huge blazes! Thousands of spectators! Yet all they were observing were phony opium conflagrations: massive quantities of soybean, banana, and hemp being consumed while State Department bureaucrats applauded like grinning apes, having contributed millions of dollars to the cause! And all of this while General Li, one of his main competitors in the global heroin market, was secretly in bed with corrupt police officials in Thailand and Burma.
Khun Sa's discerning eyes scanned the empty sky above his jungle compound. His headquarters now housed upward of three thousand troops and was armed to the teeth with US-made M1 carbines, recoilless rifles, M79 grenade throwers, and 3.5-inch rocket launchers. But lately even Khun Sa, famous for his fabled sense of humor, had become less amused at what was happening. Three months earlier, a thirty-nine-man assassination squad had trekked from the border town of Mae Sai to attack his headquarters. At first, he could only assume that they were Burmese government troops out to get him. But he later discovered they were not, after having killed every last one of them and combing through the corpses. Most wore "TIA" — Thai Independence Army — uniforms and were under the command of Thai generals. More troubling was the fact that those who led the attack were Caucasians — American CIA operatives, he was forced to presume, leaving only one conclusion for the rebel leader to draw: this time, the Americans meant business.
Drawing the final drag from his State Express 555, he stubbed it in a jade ashtray and lifted his eyes to the tree line, where he saw six helicopter gunships with support airplanes circling on the horizon. As the sweeping image of the aircraft registered in his brain, the gunships cut across the sky in formation and began blasting into his village. In a single motion, Khun Sa shed his paramours, leaping from the couch and screaming, "Chu ji! Wo men bei gong ji le!" Attack! We are being attacked!
Within seconds, Khun Sa's jungle home, ringed as it was by bunkers housing .50-caliber antiaircraft machine guns, came alive, responding in kind to the onslaught, just as one thousand paramilitary forces, as well as some Thai border police and military rangers, swarmed toward the compound's clearing to mount a ground attack.
Khun Sa, himself a guerilla warrior since adolescence, ran to a nearby gun rack, where he grabbed one of his Israeli-made Uzi machine guns. Rushing into the thick of it, he began slaughtering his attackers, groups at a time, as they emerged from the jungle, but he was not yet aware of the critical damage already inflicted on his troops by the gunships' awesome weaponry.
Fierce fighting would rage for days in the tiny village of Ban Hin Taek. One hundred thirty Thai troops would be killed, and nearly double that number among the Shan United Army, before Khun Sa would retreat across the border into Burma.
Western law enforcement agencies like the DEA and CIA lauded the victory against the "world's most notorious drug lord." In Bangkok, combat medals were given to the wounded, and posthumously awarded to the dead, during lavish public ceremonies attended by US Ambassador to Thailand William Brown and a parade of US Department of State notables.
Unmentioned in the general celebration was the fact that, shortly after the battle, Khun Sa's agents methodically carried out a string of high-level assassinations, which included the demolition of General Li's fortified villa in Chiang Mai, along with forty other dwellings, by a truck carrying two tons of TNT.
Even more alarming to US intelligence analysts was the fact that, within one year, the Shan United Army had rebuilt its strength along Burma's border with Thailand and merged with another rebel force. Its leader had named this new army Mong Tai, the Shan Land, a force of forty thousand soldiers.
Khun Sa, the drug lord of the Golden Triangle, now commanded the largest rebel army in all of Southeast Asia.CHAPTER 2
You can't make that kind of cash winning the lottery.
In the summer of 1986, Group 41 came together to combat the raging tide of Southeast Asian heroin entering the United States. Nick Caruso was recollecting those early days as he glanced at the clock on the wall at the DEA's Manhattan headquarters. Having now been directed by Supervisor Ritchie LaMagna for the past eighteen months, Group 41 ran the spectrum, from street busts and cultivation of Chinatown informers to interrogation of 14K Triad members and execution of operational plans in Hong Kong.
Nobody knew this better than Caruso. Group 41's agent identification numbers had run chronologically since its inception: 4101, 4102, and so on. Caruso, at number 4108, was one of the unit's pioneers. He smiled wryly, thinking back on Group 41's humble beginnings: no informers, no wire intercepts, no convictions. Nothing except reams of teletypes from alternate DEA locations and Interpol, the agency whose job it was to track the whereabouts of fugitives through a series of "blue notes," or APBs.
What the gathering of agents, intelligence analysts, and prosecutors did have was the makings of a nationwide heroin catastrophe. As Caruso's boss, the bespectacled LaMagna, reminded them daily, heroin addiction in New York, where 250,000 users resided, had hit an all-time high. Of the $400 billion annual illicit drug trade in the United States, $190 billion was now derived from the most addictive substance known to man: heroin.
There were good reasons for heroin's resurgence, and Caruso knew them intimately. The first was money. One unit of heroin, seven hundred grams, came in the form of a brick sold to "brokers" for about $20,000. The brokers then resold it to "distributors" for $60,000. From there it was cut with quinine, bringing it from 90-percent purity to 8-percent, with a street value of $250,000. As street gang leader Ernesto Lee, the "Cuban Kid," would note: "You can't make that kind of cash winning the lottery. The mark-up just from my end is 4,000 percent!"
LaMagna had driven the second factor — purity levels — into the battle-scarred psyches of Caruso and the other Group 41 operatives. The DEA did "street monitoring," buying China White, the name for Southeast Asian heroin, through undercover agents in order to track purity and, indirectly, levels of supply. In 1975, a typical street gram had contained just 4 percent heroin and cost $850. By 1988 that same gram was 80-percent pure and cost $110, a combination of increased purity and affordability that led to a countrywide crisis of emergency room overdoses and on-the-street fatalities.
The final phenomenon responsible for heroin's "comeback," as the dealer in Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction described it, was social acceptability. Many of the young, affluent drug users, who had feared using a needle and syringe because of AIDS, found heroin's alternate methods of use as appealing as cocaine, but with a more sublime, less frenetic high. Once purity levels exceeded 50 percent, heroin had a strength that made mainlining a matter of choice, not necessity. Addicts snorted or smoked heroin, a practice called "chasing the dragon" because of the serpentine fumes that emanated when the heroin was heated over a flame on a piece of tin foil.
Nick shook himself out of his reverie and scrutinized the entrance to Group 41's division office. He was treated to the sight of his best pal, Pete Carpanini, entering from the sixth floor hallway.
"Hey, Pete!" he called out to him. "Where have you been? You're late!"
His old partner from the FBI days looked as lost as a school kid on his first day of class. He was arriving for an interview for a position with the DEA. Meticulously dressed in a three-piece suit, compared to the jeans and black turtlenecks that Nick favored, Pete Carpanini could have passed for Nick's twentyeight-year-old brother. Both men were six feet tall and trim, their thinning black hair cut short. But Nick was thick and muscular, a weightlifter, while Pete, pale and wiry, had the long-muscled physique of a sprinter.
"Nick, they told me to go downstairs ...?"
"Who cares what they told you," Caruso interrupted. "You're gonna be in Asian heroin with Duke McConnell and me!" he said forcefully. Nick grabbed his buddy's arm. "Now come on, I want you to meet my boss, Ritchie. He's Group 41's supervisor here. We told him all about you. He's seen your résumé, and if he likes you, he's gonna put you on the team. A new agent's slot has just opened."
Caruso dragged Carpanini into LaMagna's office, where he introduced the two men and left them alone so they could get to know each other. Then, like a worried parent, Caruso waited tensely, drinking coffee, writing reports, and considering what it would be like to have Pete as his partner again.
Excerpted from The Hunt for Khun Sa by Ron Felber. Copyright © 2011 Ron Felber. Excerpted by permission of Trine Day LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsGlossary of Terms, xii,
1. Lord of the Golden Triangle, 5,
2. Group 41, 11,
3. The Mafia Connection, 17,
4. Monster, 29,
5. Heroin, 41,
6. Chinatown, 57,
7. The Cuban Kid, 67,
8. Chains, Guns, and Machettes, 77,
9. Living Large, 87,
10. The Residue of Other People's Adventures, 97,
11. Mr. Lin, 111,
12. A Roaming Nightmare, 121,
13. Informant SWH-4-0002, 133,
14. Burdens of Command, 143,
15. Operation Tiger Trap, 159,
16. Apocalypse Now, 169,
17. Fubria, 179,
18. Death of a Drug Lord, 187,