Zack Schwartz 11/12/98 U.S. Drug Policy: Book Review
The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade by Alfred McCoy is a volume obviously devoted to opiates, more specifically heroin. This version is a combination of two of McCoy's earlier works (The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and Drug Traffic). Also there is further research incorporated into the book concerning Central America and Southern Asia. The main focus of the book is how the goals and operations of the CIA and its predecessors (e.g. OSS) basically take precedence over most if not all other interests. McCoy also delves into the world of American/ Sicilian organized crime in the context of the global heroin trade. However, the important points McCoy makes concern anti-Communist interests that became intertwined with the illicit opiates trade. McCoy accuses the CIA of aligning itself with local cartel leaders who command the opium crop. Furthermore, the CIA seems to be indifferent to, if not encouraging of, abuse of the transport of funds by operatives. In supplying weapons for its allies, the CIA, claims McCoy, does not especially care if the load that is returned is one of cocaine or opium, so long as they make their money. On occasion, the Agency might need a local to run a little shakedown action in case the locals feel like asserting themselves, or if they show any measure of discontent with how they were being treated. These native bosses could be refinery managers, traffickers, racketeers, etc. Amazingly enough, McCoy does point out, briefly it ought to be remembered, that the Agency's foreign counterparts such as Mi-6 and the French Surete have similar track records in such illicit affairs in the area. McCoy also includes a number of corrupt local officials like police agencies. Toward the end of the book, McCoy makes a rather haphazard attempt at advocating limited legalization of heroin in this country. One flaw in an otherwise compelling and informative analysis is the matter of China. In the days when opium was legal, China produced an ungodly amount of opium for world consumption. In fact, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of five to eight times what the world produces even today. Even in the twenties and thirties, when the opium/heroin market stateside was controlled by organized crime (mostly Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky) China still out-produced the rest of the world by a great deal, as much as fifty percent more than the rest of the world. Of course this all supposedly ended when Mao seized power in 1949. McCoy asserts that poppy cultivation ended in Yunnan province at this time. There was a pilgrimage from China of any individual or organization involved with the illegal drug trade. McCoy does briefly address the rumor that the so-called "GI epidemic" was masterminded by the Chinese, but discounts it on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence to support such a theory. Clearly however, McCoy needs to look much more closely at the Chinese contribution to the opiate trade, and devote at least a full chapter to the discussion, as opposed to brief references scattered haphazardly throughout the text. McCoy does a skillful job of tying the Communists into the picture. On page 433 he states how the Communist government in Laos used opium sales to for revenue. Remembering the staunch drug-free image they projected for the eyes of the world, this is rather curious. For a small country, this is extremely significant, especially when one considers the temporal setting of the Cold War, and the mounds of drug-free propaganda spewed by the Communists of the time. As the various drug lords with whom the CIA became allied are introduced there is a depressing sameness about their portraits. Individuals were frequently presented, initially, in the western press as new, clean, and incorruptible. And indeed, it did appear that initially some of the leaders were clear of the taint of drugs. However, as they shuffled off into the wings most were corrupted in clinging to office. Some of those who arrived and left with them were revealed as corrupt all along. Eventually the Communists in Cambodia and 'the West' in Afghanistan were left with the question, "Can this be described as winning?" It seems defensible to conclude that all the potential leaders on both sides of the equation came from the same paradigm. It is well known that there are some personality types who are attracted to positions of power, and should be kept away from it at all costs. It is not clear what you do if they are the only ones available. In the discussion of events in Afghanistan it is suggested that the CIA was at least negligent in allowing the rulers of Pakistan to select its allies. Some of the subsequent reporting shows that at least some of the alternatives were as corrupt and as corruptible. That might be the CIA stance. There is a much larger group with an even less happy set of alternatives. If your geographical location makes you an asset, and if your strategic attachments can be disputed, you are likely to find yourself living in interesting times. This was the fate of the Hmong people. The underside of a brigand is unlikely to show the colors of the coat he is wearing on the topside - or to change when he turns that coat. In a region in a state of flux it is wise to have visible possession that you can defend, and wise also to be able to disappear with your assets at short notice. To compress a year of agriculture into a few kilos of opium would become highly attractive. From the point of view of the drug enforcement agency it may well be desirable to have a stable ruler who desires to strut a little on a wider stage. From the underside he may still look like the brigand he once was, but he may desire to levy his exorbitant taxes on crops that can be photographed for National Geographic. Those who grow the crops may also like him better that way. The CIA, according to McCoy, also lost out half a world away. Those who had best fitted in with the opium/heroin pirates came to show some of the same coloration. With less excuse they became pirates themselves at home or on their next assignments. Only the drug had been changed (to cocaine) and the innocents protected were those who trusted. The evidence McCoy presents is solid throughout the book. Congressional inquiries can be full of hearsay, but still cannot be ignored. Also the selection of information on Central America is, while less plentiful, just as credible as that having to do with opium. McCoy makes a plausible suggestion that it is time to reassess, or deny, a need for the CIA to accept any covert roles. Failing that, all such services need to be able to remove internal brigands, at least in times of peace. He suggests that there are partial answers to what must be the million-dollar question, being how to remove the bad apples from a visibly corrupt law enforcement system without a complete breakdown of order. Indeed this is an intriguing question, and one that we continue to struggle with all over the world.