The shift to Afghanistan has led to a near doubling of global opium production in less than two decades
Soldier cuts through an opium poppy field in Afghanistan
By Thomas Fuller
BANNA SALA, Laos: Fields of brightly colored opium poppies, Corsican gangsters and the CIA’s secret war: The mystique of the Golden Triangle clings to the jungle-covered mountains here like the morning mist.
But the prosaic reality is that after years of producing the lion’s share of the world’s opium, the Golden Triangle is now only a bit player in the business. Three decades ago, the northernmost reaches of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar produced more than 70 percent of all opium sold worldwide, most of it refined into heroin. Today the area averages about 5 percent of the world total, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“The mystique may remain, and the geography will be celebrated in the future by novelists,” said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN anti-drug agency, in an interview. “But from our vantage point, we see a region that is rapidly moving towards an opium-free status.”
The Golden Triangle has been eclipsed by the Golden Crescent – the poppy-growing area in and around Afghanistan that is now the source of an estimated 92 percent of the world’s opium, according to the United Nations, which bases its statistics on satellite imagery of poppy fields.
The shift to Afghanistan has led to a near doubling of global opium production in less than two decades because Afghanistan is a much more efficient opium producer. Poppies are grown in fertile valleys of southern Afghanistan where they yield on average of four times more opium than in the less hospitable soil of upland Southeast Asia, UN data shows.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the decline of the Golden Triangle is the role played by China in pressuring opium growing regions to eradicate the crop. Three decades ago, the heroin produced here landed on the streets of American cities, and U.S. authorities took the most active role in curtailing the drug trade. Today China is one of the biggest markets for Golden Triangle heroin, a trend that has increased the number of HIV infections spread by sharing dirty needles.
Thanks in part to Chinese pressure, the area of Myanmar along the Chinese border that once produced about 30 percent of the country’s opium was last year declared opium-free by the United Nations. Local authorities, who are from the Wa tribe and are autonomous from Myanmar’s central government, banned poppy cultivation and welcomed Chinese investment in rubber, sugar cane and tea plantations, casinos and other businesses.
“China has had an underestimated role,” said Martin Jelsma, a Dutch researcher who has written extensively on the illicit drug trade in Asia. “Their main leverage is economic: These border areas of Burma are by now economically much more connected to China than the rest of Burma,” he said, using the former name for Myanmar. “For local authorities it’s quite clear that, for any investments they want to attract, cooperation with China is a necessity.”
Data scheduled for release later this year will show an uptick in Myanmar’s 2007 opium cultivation by several percentage points, but not enough to offset the dramatic 80 percent decline of the past decade, said Costa of the United Nations.
Opium has long been used by insurgent groups to help finance civil war in the Golden Triangle, whether by Myanmar hill tribes fighting the central government or Hmong rebels allied with the Central Intelligence Agency during the “secret war” in Laos against communist forces in the 1960s and 1970s.
But one surprising development in recent years has been that some insurgent groups that once tolerated or encouraged opium production in the region are now campaigning to destroy the crop. At least one faction of the Shan State Army, a group with longstanding ties to the heroin business, is now leading eradication efforts.
Kon Jern, a military commander for the rebel group based along Myanmar’s border with northern Thailand, says he is cracking down on opium because it profits government militias and corrupt officials. “They sell the drugs, they buy weapons, and they use those weapons to attack us,” he said in an interview near his headquarters at Doi Kor Wan, a village along the border.
The United Nations offers a different assessment, crediting Myanmar’s central government with leading eradication in Shan areas, where the vast majority of the country’s opium is cultivated.
Some analysts dispute the magnitude of the overall declines in Myanmar, saying that by growing in the off-season farmers have avoided eradication. But Terry Daru, director of the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, said he had “no reason to second-guess” the UN statistics.
Opium poppies have been used in traditional medicine for centuries in the Golden Triangle, but commercial production did not really take off until the 1950s and 1960s, after China’s new Communist government banned the crop and the business migrated south.
In Laos, opium production expanded with the help of Corsican gangs, a legacy of French colonial rule in Indochina. U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam became important consumers of heroin supplied by Hmong fighters or ethnic Chinese gangs who brought chemists from Hong Kong to process the opium. As opium production waned in Turkey, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Golden Triangle became the most important source of heroin on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and Sydney.
Now, with opium on the decline, erstwhile heroin traffickers have branched out into other businesses, notably synthetic drugs that are easier to conceal from authorities.
“Methamphetamine tablets are the threat, and continue to be produced in Burma along the border with Thailand,” said Daru, the U.S. anti-narcotics official.