While U.S. drug cops continue their hot pursuit of Latin American cocaine kingpins, the heroin bandits of Southeast Asia are taking advantage of the distraction to smuggle record loads into the United States.
The lucrative heroin trade has become big business for Chinese mobs based in Hong Kong. But top drug experts tell us that there are culprits in every Southeast Asian country.
The most notorious heroin peddler is the brash Gen. Kuhn Sa of Myanmar, formerly Burma, who once offered to help the U.S. war on heroin by selling all his output to the federal government.
Kuhn Sa was indicted by a New York grand jury last December and is now near the top of America's most wanted list. In May, at a secret meeting in Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai, U.S. and Thai officials huddled about how to capture Kuhn Sa. The United States is not yet willing to stage a Noriega-style capture of Kuhn Sa, who boasts an army of 30,000.
The Bush administration claims Kuhn Sa is difficult to track, constantly changing locations and hideouts. But our associate Jim Lynch traveled to Kuhn Sa country and was told that if the United States really wanted Kuhn Sa, he could be found at home in the border town of Mae Hong Son with his feet propped on the sofa.
Kuhn Sa allegedly burst out laughing when he heard about the New York indictment. And he didn't take to the jungle to hide from the almighty United States.
Like the charismatic drug dealers of Colombia, Kuhn Sa has mastered the art of double talk, which he uses to distract the common people of his province from his criminal activities. Instead, they listen to his political talk and have come to believe he really wants a better life for the people of the Shan state of southern Myanmar.
Kuhn Sa is revered throughout the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand as a romantic outlaw. But the fact is, he is a greedy drug merchant who stands to get richer with this year's bumper crop of poppies. Justice Department sources say 40 percent of the heroin arriving in America comes from Kuhn Sa's crops.
Kuhn Sa poses as a man of the people. Members of the democratic resistance, suffering under a repressive government, wish that Kuhn Sa and his considerable army would join their rebel cause. He publicly claims he will, once he is sure they have a fighting chance. But privately, many sources told us, Kuhn Sa is tight with the government and benefits by having the current regime stay in power. Myanmar stopped all heroin interdiction efforts two years ago.
Most of Kuhn Sa's crop is smuggled across China and out to the world through Hong Kong. In May, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Hong Kong arrested four key members of Kuhn Sa's drug syndicate after they had allegedly arranged for 21 kilograms of heroin, worth $30 million, to be sent to New York.
The DEA, with the exception of Hong Kong, has not beefed up its staff in Southeast Asia. Instead it concentrates on cocaine country in Latin America. That spells smooth sailing for Kuhn Sa, giving him more to laugh about than a mere indictment.