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Patrick Winn’s latest book isn’t about drugs so much as it is a book about realpolitik, but it does point to the complex intermingling of interests that drive the global drug trade.

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Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel that Survived the CIA
by Patrick Winn, published 2024

Conversations about drugs are steeped in moral judgement, framed as matters of criminality or individual moral failing. Drugs are presented as poisonous threats that we need to go to war against. But the reality is that these substances are inanimate objects with no inherent power over humans. What they are is a commodity that can be traded; a business that can reap so much profit it might even prop up a nation.

If you consult any world map, Wa State is officially part of the sovereign country of Myanmar. In reality, the Myanmar government has no sway there. Wa State has its own administration, its own politics, its own army. The ruling United Wa State Party and its military wing, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), also have their own ways to earn revenue—and, for a long time, much of this money came from the illicit drug trade.

A nation-within-a-nation. A military that’s also a major narcotics trafficking organisation. A largely isolationist administration, uninterested in integration with the wider world. A curious American journalist would likely be most unwelcome—“the UWSA regards all US citizens as potential spies”. Yet Patrick Winn, who previously wrote about drugs and the Southeast Asian underworld in Hello, Shadowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia, was determined to try.

He never makes it to Panghsang, Wa State’s de facto capital, but the story that Winn tells in Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel that Survived the CIA sounds like it should be an original Netflix series. (They would need at least three seasons.) As Winn puts it: “It is the saga of an indigenous people who’ve tapped the power of narcotics to create a nation where there was none before.” There are headhunters—by which I don’t mean corporate recruiters, but literal heads-on-a-stake stuff—from mountain tribes, white saviour Christian missionaries on foolhardy missions, communists, espionage and plots galore. Warlords collaborate with CIA spies. Children from impoverished families are given up to debtors as slaves, and grow up with chips on their shoulders that have reverberating impacts on the fate of an entire ethnic minority group. Self-proclaimed ‘good guys’ strike deals and shake hands with drug cartels.

Drugs are central to Narcotopia, but the book isn’t about consumption or addiction. Everyone in Wa State has an agenda, and for many, narcotics—or the raw materials that go into making these highly illegal yet profitable substances—are a means to an end. For an uneducated Wa villager in the 1960s, living in rural environs far from modern luxuries and opportunities, opium was a means of survival, because poppies thrive in the Wa soil where other crops might fail. Based on research and interviews, Winn recounts an instance of Chinese traders doing business with the Wa in 1967: 

Wa families poured out of the fortress with clay pots, merrily walking toward the visitors to lay opium at their feet. The Chinese trade brigade had arrived on a long column of donkeys and mules, all strung together, known as a caravan. They pulled sacks off the beasts’ backs and dumped the contents onto the ground. Saw Lu saw treasures from the industrial world: Gold ingots, moldable into ornaments. Flintlock rifles and gunpowder, useful for hunting deer or bear. Blocks of salt, invaluable for preserving meat through cruel winters. Fat sacks bursting with rice grains. The traders only accepted one form of payment for these goods: opium, the currency of the highlands. Saw Lu realised why no one smoked it. That would’ve been like lighting cash on fire.

Greed is, of course, a factor in the drug trade, but what Narcotopia amply illustrates is that large-scale illegal operations aren’t driven by personal greed alone. There’s also the ever present jostling of the world’s biggest power players for influence. When Mao Zedong and his Communist party triumphed across the border, the US grew interested in the anti-communist Chinese exiles who had escaped into Wa State. Together with the Kuomintang government that had fled to Taiwan, the Americans—via the CIA—hoped to cultivate these exiles into a force that could be sent back into China to unseat Mao. They sent food and firearms, and continued to do so even after forays into China ended disastrously. While the Americans clung on to their fantasies, the exiles turned their attention to pursuits more rewarding than getting shot by the People’s Liberation Army: opium trafficking. And still the CIA continued to back them:

Drugs were clearly the Exiles’ new raison d’être, not vanquishing communists. Yet the CIA still wouldn’t abandon them. In fact, when the Exiles needed help moving their opium to buyers in the cities, the CIA lent its airplanes to the task. [...] Then they’d fly to Bangkok, where purchasers, mostly CIA-supported Thai police officials, picked up bulk drug shipments right at the airport. The proceeds of these sales supercharged the Exiles’ growth. It was the first instance of CIA-contracted planes running drugs for an armed group—but hardly the last.

By the time the US launched its War on Drugs in the 1970s, they’d already been complicit in the growth of the illicit drug trade in the Golden Triangle. Prioritising their fight against communism, the Americans had been willing to overlook anything, even if that meant letting a drug syndicate dig into part of the Thai-Burma border or allowing CIA-linked organisations to facilitate the logistics of drug transport. Winn is clear about the US’s key role: “America hadn’t planned to help construct a 650-mile-long opium pipeline, but that’s what it was.”

There were (relatively) smaller players too, like the Burmese junta, who lacked the resources to exercise control over Wa State. Instead, they made deals recognising warlord-run militias as “self-defence forces” who would be allowed to engage in whatever shady activity they wanted as long as they nominally recognised the Burmese government and guarded the territory from any possibility of rebellion or Chinese communist invasion. There was little money to fund these self-defence forces, so they had to make their own plans. The answer? Selling drugs.

This went on over years and decades. With little thought for the well-being of the user at the end of the chain, narcotics were used to make money, gain influence, amass territory and play politics. Decisions that had massive impacts on the drug trade were born from motivations that had very little to do with drugs and everything to do with politics and power. Complicity and corruption was everywhere: among politicians and government officials, law enforcement, the military. Devoted employees of the US’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), believing themselves faithful soldiers in the War on Drugs, were stymied not just by corrupt officials in Thailand and Burma, but also by compatriots with very different priorities: “But from the start, more astute narcs realised this war would be fought with a caveat: no targeting traffickers deemed valuable by the CIA.”

By 1990, the UWSA had become a “heroin-producing leviathan”. Drugs were once again used as a bargaining chip: this time, promises of retreat from drug production in return for US aid, or at least a softening of a diplomatic position adopted to ostracise the Burmese junta. Yet things are never that simple: with so many players—all with different desires and plans—involved, a single move could lead to all sorts of unforeseen consequences. For example, in the early 2000s, trying to cultivate a better relationship with the US via the DEA, Wa State’s Chairman Bao Youxiang began to make good on promises to eliminate opium from his nation. Poppy fields were destroyed, heroin refineries shut. But while this was going on, Wa State’s financier Wei Xuegang—a canny businessman mainly interested in growing his business empire—pivoted from heroin to methamphetamines. His speed pills took mainland Southeast Asia by storm:

It was the perfect drug for Asia’s modern workforce. [...] Laborers wanted vanilla-scented speed, priced at just $2 or $3 per pill. They could smoke one, pull a double shift, collect extra pay, and go buy more.

Yaba—the name given to these pills—is now one of the dominant illicit drugs used in the region, and the crisis in Myanmar following the February 2021 coup has only led to a surge in production.

Narcotopia isn’t a book about drugs so much as it is a book about realpolitik. But it does prompt questions about the War on Drugs, namely the professed commitments of various government or state agencies to fighting drugs and the effectiveness of the measures they’ve adopted. Wherever there’s a War on Drugs, we see small-time drug smugglers, peddlers and users feeling the full force of the law, forced into mandatory drug detention or prison or even put to death. What Narcotopia makes clear is that none of this criminalisation touches the true source of the massive transnational drug trade. The entire network was birthed from a global game of thrones, and the relationships between drug cartels and various nodes of power across the world are both long-standing and complex. A country like the US can talk a big game about fighting drugs while parts of its own state machinery collude with traffickers in pursuit of different political goals. 

I’ve written before about how drugs can never be eliminated, because as long there's demand there'll be supply. A book like Narcotopia made me realise that the demand doesn’t just come from users (who have their own reasons and motivations for consuming drugs—but more on that in future newsletters), but also from a wide range of stakeholders for whom drugs are highly useful and profitable commodities. The more we criminalise drugs, driving them underground, the more we create opportunities for these cynical stakeholders to leverage the drug trade—an unregulated space in which there is impunity without transparency or accountability—for their own purposes.

After all, heroin and methamphetamine aren’t the only addictive substances in the world. Power can be a hell of a drug too.

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