Interview w/ Donald Ferrarone – DEA agent in Burma in 80’s – Chief of Bangkok office 1993-1995
FRONTLINE / February, 1996
Ferrarone: Those statistics, they’re a little elusive because there’s nobody out there really besides us collecting them. But it appears that at least 70% of the world’s heroin comes from the Golden Triangle. Some of that’s changing right now because the Colombians are trying to move into that part of the business.
Ferrarone: It’s a complicated situation. When you describe the Golden Triangle you’re talking abut a piece of real-estate, 80% of which lies in Burma. Burma is a country that is not accessible in a lot of ways by the outside world. By design, the Burmese want it that way. Within this area known as the Golden Triangle you have the Shan State. Again, 80% within Burma. Then going there you have ethnic groups that are basically in a state of rebellion against the government of Burma. Some of these groups evolved over the past forty years, thirty years, from activity that actually took place in China. One of those groups is the Shan United Army. It’s also known as the Army. That group is controlled by a half-Chinese, half-Shan known as Khun Sa. His Chinese name is Chung Chi Fu. His organization alone accounts for sixty to seventy percent of the heroin that’s in the United States. They control growing areas where opium is grown. They control trade routes within Burma. And in the past they controled refineries where the heroin, where the opium was converted to heroin. These refineries in the past have been at the Thai-Burma border inside Burma.
Ferrarone: ….Khun Sa was doubling his capacity, his ability to produce heroin, every ten years. The amounts that were coming out were staggering. The heroin purity on the streets in inner cities in the United States had more than quadrupled. Some places were going from six and ten and a half purity that an addict received in a dosage unit on the street… Now we were looking at sixty to eighty to ninety percent pure heroin on the street. And so the problem certainly over the last twenty years did not lessen. It went in the exact opposite direction. It was a disaster. And you could, by looking at Khun Sa’s capacity, understand that he was not having a cash flow problem.
Ferrarone: Well his heroin was always pure. His heroin was always the best in the business. I think you have to understand the structure of this guy’s organization to get a sense of the power. He had, by the time I arrived back from my second time in South-East Asia in ’93-’94, he had twenty to twenty-five thousand men under arms. if you look at the old film you’ll see a picture… he religiously photographed the graduating classes because he used the photographs in the film to go around the Shan State to show his power. And you’ll see fifteen years ago kids with wooden rifles, in bare feet, practicing in shabby uniforms. If you looked in ’94, you saw brand new weapons, much more advanced weapons and many more troops under arms. And this is something hard for the American public to understand that the heroin, a lot of the heroin that you see on the street in New York right now comes from this man’s army in the Shan State of Burma.
Ferrarone: Well, that’s one of his key propaganda elements that he employs a lot, and it’s just a lie. The man is first and foremost a drug trafficker. He had a lot, of skirmishes with other insurgent ethnic and trafficking organizations in the Shan State. These battles were folks with M16’s and AK47’s and grenade launchers and artillery and mortars and the whole nine yards and then they might take a break and do a drug transaction. And then all bets are off.
Ferrarone: Both sides. And they’ll buy and sell from each other and … after they get the money… to trying to take over the other guy’s territory. So this guy is nothing more nor less than probably the world’s most heavily armed gang leader.
Ferrarone: Well, it’s not your normal police target that’s for sure. And the DEA’s role is to get out there wherever the target is and to try to take it on. But it’s hard to put what he eventually evolved to be into something that you could believe or even conceptualize at our end in the United States. This is a man who trained an army of twenty-five thousand along strict military lines. Many of his officers were trained by Taiwanese military. He used intelligence practices that are military intelligence gathering techniques. Discipline was as if you were in as tough an army as you could find. And yet they paid for all this, for the most part, by selling heroin. Primarily by getting it into the U.S. market.
Ferrarone: Well, you see the drug trade is a business that has grown to such proportions that attacking it in our cities isn’t going to make it happen. We know that we have a lot of responsibility in the United States to cut back on our demand and that needs to be worked on very, very hard coincidentally with what we in the law enforcement community are trying to do…. Well if you try to fight the international organized crime and the drug business that is such an epidemic now in the United States, if you try to fight it domestically you will be a witness to an ever expanding prolem. You’ve got to get out there really where rubber meets the road, you’ve got to get out and start setting up a gauntlet from the production areas all the way in to the United States. This is an extremely complex problem.
Ferrarone: Well, [the] first thing you’re up against [is] an organization that has enriched itself beyond anything we’d ever seen. An organization that relied on violence and murders and assassinations and bribery to keep its whole infrastructure in place. And as they did what they did within Burma, which is grow the opium and produce the heroin, they then had to market it internationally and the front door was Thailand. [A]nd inside Thailand they built up a network of Thai-Chinese…or actual Yunanese and Burmese who had done a number of things. [O]ne, they had built up a great international clientele until they had penetrated some of the Thai organisations that were supposed to be out there combating this problem. And so they had a very cozy, tight relationship. In fact, over twenty years we know of nobody of any significance that went to jail. A few would get arrested but they were right back out again.
Ferrarone: It’s a very complicated issue. There were a lack of laws. There was a very efficient penetration by Khun Sa’s people of certain politicians in critical locations that were simply getting their palms greased and he had clear sailing and it was a complicated issue…
Ferrarone: For the most part, a wide open front door. That’s not to say that the Thais were not concerned about it. I want to make that point. You’ll see later on that they put their money where their mouth was. So all that aside when you look at something like that you realize that, especially when you see the rise in violence in the inner cities in the United States and know that heroin is one of the engines that’s driving the resurgence of violence and this kind of collapse of the inner city family and you know something had to be done. And that was really the challenge.
Ferrarone: Well, the first thing we did, and I don’t want to use the word “we” because you can’t do these things without a team…But the first thing we did was to draw up the wiring diagrams… of what it looked like. And that meant, whatever the cards were, whoever was involved, we had to know. So we went on basically a six month process using out intelligence people and a lot of other folks from the Thai government as the US intelligence community. And we drew out the schematic. And when we got a look at it I guess the first thing that struck us was just the enormity of the problem. The second part that we would do, that we did once we’d got the wiring diagram was figure out what parts you could clip in that deal to make it not run. We did that. But then it became apparent that out long-term effect, should we just rely on law enforcement alone, wouldn’t do to. And at that point it was decided that we were going to try a very comprehensive type of operation.
Ferrarone: Just a lot more. The power of his organisation, where I thought we could give them a real body shot, wasn’t going to be enough to take him out of the picture. And we needed to open up a lot of avenues and we needed to get a lot more help. And that included…we needed to shut down the resupply of the Shan United Army that was going on at the border bewteen Thailand and Burma. We alluded to the door that was open. Well, it was swinging both ways. There was a flood of essential chemicals, war material, ammunition, weapons, cement, steel, trucks, medicines…you name it, that was continualy crossing that border day and night, unimpeded and driven by cash from sales of heroin into the European and the American market. So we knew we had to somehow close that down. And so a plan was devised and with the help of the Thais and eventually with the Burmese getting involved in it, it came to fruition.
Ferrarone: That’s right. That was the code name for Operation TIGER TRAP.
Ferrarone: The goals of the operation were to shut down and permanently immobilise the Shan United Army. We worked out a series of phased approaches to this and we relied on every available tool in the American arsenals as well as our hosts, the Thai government. And I think that’s important here because we linked up with the Eastern District of New York. Specifically, our offfice in New York City, the Asian Organised Crime Group, Group 41, as well as Cathy Palmer who was at the time an Assistant US Attorney. And that became an incredibly important law enforcement phase of the operation. In a nutshell, what we did was we used and obtained evidence and witnesses sufficient enough to re-indict Khun Sa and his entire critical infrastructure. For the first time we had witnesses in our hands that were able to actually document and testify to the involvement of Khun Sa, his chief of refinery operations, his various station chiefs that he had and his brokers and his transportation people, all the way into New York City. So we have the law enforcement phase which was…we were going to handle it differently than we did in the past. The indictments and the subsequent request to the Thai government to make the arrests were going to be considered the beginning of the case and not kind of the final part of it. And we had worked with the Royal Thai Police and Thai military and with a lot of help from embassy elements from the ambassador right down. We worked out …an additional part of the plan which was at the time of the arrest that every piece of Khun Sa’s international distribution network would be raided in an attempt to pick up documentary evidence and to basically run a bowling ball down the middle of his operation…that we raided their wholesale distribution and their local distribution people and…well, we’ll go back to that. The third part was an agreement that was worked out with the Thai government whereby they would blockade the…that back door, that front door, whaever you want to call it, they would blockade Khun Sa’s supply lines and way out into Thaialnd. And we asked the Thais to restrict the flow of presursor chemicals, weapons, cement, steel, gasoline, trucks…The Thais took it a step further. They actually cut off food supply that was coming out of Thailand. So when you added all three of those together and you did it as a shock, did it almost overnight, what you had was an organisation that had better organise quickly or disintegrate.
Ferrarone: We were picking up intelligence and again we can’t go into all of this, but we had a lot of help from other elements within the embassy and as well as Thai sources that told us that the organisation came immediately under stress. The significance of taking off his brokers and his distribution networks, and this again were the key players, should not be overlooked here. As in a lot of drug trafficking organisations there is a tremendous amount of violence. Violence is used as a tool. And that means you make a mistake you could get killed. You show too much of how you do business and somebody might come and kill you and just take that business away. And Khun Sa is no exception to the rule. He relies heavily on murder and assassination to further his organisation. Aand what he did was he didn’t limit that to outsiders. He would do that even within his own organisation. And so his brokers never let him know who their customers were. And so when we…actually when the Thais at our request…made the raids that they did and arrested the people that they eventually got we ended up with his books and we ended up with the people that had in their heads the customer list, Khun Sa did not end up with that. And two things happened. One. He was without any books. Any ledgers. To tell him who owed him money. He then was immediately without his international cutomers. He had to rely at that point on his cash reserves. We’re quite certain that the money was very aburptly cut off. And with a 20-25,000 man army heavily under arms, having lots of clashes with other insurgent groups on either side of him and now with the introduction of the Burma Army on the other side as well this organisation was in deep trouble very quickly. …. Khun Sa needed a couple of things here. He had a 20,000 man army that needed daily replenishing. From ammunition right through to medicines and food. He also had to have an international infrastructure, to market his heroin. We took away those two things. The infrastructure was completely dismantled on the Thai side and his ability to resupply himself was shut down. Completely and for a long time. Almost completely.
Ferrarone: Well basically he ran out of his reserves. And he was unable…to feed his troops. To give them ammunition. And they started to abandon him.
Ferrarone: Well I mean there’s a couple of flaws in that argument. One, is that our policy towards the Burmese government? Are we that actively opposed to them?….Well first thing, it’s a definitive intrusion into the sovereignty of the government of Burma. We’re in effect saying that we are going to buy the drugs from an insurgent group within someones else’s country and give them millions of dollars so they can buy weapons. I think… part of that is that…you know, as cops we’re very much opposed to…why should we buy something…that is poison that somebody is basically holding us hostage for? And what happens next year? They double the acreage and then the group next door decides we’re going to do the same thing and all of a sudden we’re into buying illegal crops all over the world. Quite frankly, it’s been tried as well. And that’s a sad story. The way I remember it being told to me was that the organisation that they did buy drugs… the opium from some years ago delivering balls of opium that contained rocks and nuts and dirt and stone and grass and whatever else they could roll into it and it was a total fraud from beginning to end.
Ferrarone: I don’t think that solves the problem. That avoids the central issue which is that this guy’s a criminal. He’s killing people. There is a trail all the way back to the United States from the very farmer who’s starting to grow it to the junkie…trying to pick up a hit at twelve midnight and getting shot. He deserves no consideration whatsoever.
Ferrarone: Well this represents the very core of his infrastructure. These people are from a very disciplined well-structured organisation. They [are]…financial officers, brokers…one individual has been described as a consul-general of his organisation…another individual was completely responsible for the re-supply of important material back to his organisation as well as lining up other brokers and other customers underneath him. Some…at least a couple of them are people who handled his money. In effect, what we took away was his ability to operate. They are his most trusted individuals. We don’t have them all. There’s still a number of them within Burma…who had better not cross into Thailand.
Ferrarone: Well….when you take the head of an organization with this much…which has this mucb power and has done this much damage…and you put him in jail for the rest of his life along with his key cronies you go a long way to deterring future acts. This is the kind of thing that has an incredibly positive effect on what we’re trying to do. And so I can’t say enough…there aren’t enough reasons out there why we should get him. He needs to go to justice. Now again, if the Burmese want to lock him up…if the Thais, you know, if they want to do it, fine…
Ferrarone: Well, I’ve been doing this for 26 years now and…it can be discouraging if you look at it from that way. I think that sometimes we do not look at these victories that we have properly and we don’t look towards replicating them and using the techniques and doing it right again. We don’t have a choice. One of the worst things that we do in the war on international crime, in the war on drug trafficking, is to condition the public to believe that this is a war that has a beginning and has a middle and has an end. It’s not…it does not have that. There are criminal organisations all over the world that view the United States as the big cash cow. And they are aiming their illegal activites towards us. We’ve got an investment. We’ve got to stay in this game. We can’t become cynical on this. We’ve just got to get better.
Ferrarone: It’s my opinion that…if there is a strong follow-up on this and if we open up some diplomatic channels with the government of Burma, if we really take this thing to the next step, and some of that is outside the hands of the law enforcement community, that if we take it to the next step we could…we could do a number of them. …. I think we need to open up…more effective dialogue with the Burmese. We need to…and I’m sure this is already underway… but continue to work against the groups that are trying to fill the void. What happened when we took Khun Sa out of the picture was that we removed the world’s biggest heroin producer…. He had the international connections. Most of the organisations up there do not have the connections of quality that he had. Now’s the time to get in there and disrupt those organisations. Don’t allow them to establish themselves.
Ferrarone: When you look out on the universe of the major trafficking organisations throughout the world he fits in there right up in the top five. We had a lot of success over the last year, year and a half, against the Cali and Medellin people before that. Our current major threat right now is the Mexican Federation, which is a family of traffickers that are throughout Mexico bringing in tonnage daily across our borders. All that being said, Khun Sa has for 30 years basically sent poison into the United States. He fits right in with the top major criminals that are our targets out there today.
Ferrarone: Well as it turns out, with the great progress the Thai government has made and with the country-team approach that we had inside the embassy…which means that everybody in all the different organisations within the embassy that could contribute did contribute under the direction of the ambassador… the Thai government rose to the occasion…It kind of underscores what I was saying earlier… these things can be done. It was not an expensive operation. 25,000 men army… armed to the teeth… now wandering around… most of the laboratories are shut down…the cost of heroin has spiked much higher now that it was before.
Ferrarone: It cost us, without going into the exact details on the amounts, but it cost us in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In effect, it cost us… the value of 4 or 5 kilos on the street… in Manhattan.
Ferrarone: For this particular operation, that’s it.
Ferrarone: Well, this is a complicated issue. We in many ways set up more obstacles for ourselves…than the bad guys set up.
Ferrarone: The first one would be the intelligence was right. The second one would be…the intelligence was right. And the third one was…the plan was right. …. we were very much afraid of leaks of which we had not one single leak. We are also afraid that just in the normal movement of things that maybe the Thais would not tighten up the border the way they did, but as it turned out they were far more effcient at closing down that border than we would have been.
Ferrarone: It worked because we formed up into teams and everybody did their job. The DEA couldn’t have done this by themselves. It just can’t happen. We had the embassy squarely behind us. We had the intelligence commuity, the US intelligence community, squarely behind the operation. And the host government, the most important factor, pulled it off.
Ferrarone: Why negotiate with somebody like that?
Ferrarone: : No.
Ferrarone: No. That’s part of the propaganda he pushed on the innocent Shan people up there. They don’t believe it. Why should we believe it? And they don’t believe it. Take my word for it.
Ferrarone: Well I don’t want to get into the State Department area but I was stationed in Burma and the Shan people have been for years pawns in a game that takes place up there that’s a pretty nasty political game that ends up physically and mentally scarring a whole bunch of really nice people. I think they’re caught in the middle. The best thing that could happen up there right now would be for some economic infrastructure to be built and some alternative crops… things like that.
Ferrarone: Well, it’s not really anything new. What has been going on in China over the last 5 years has been a rapid increase in the export of heroin into China and in some ways it goes beyond and gets out into the international market. But certainly it’s working its way into the international market. But certainly it’s working its way into the Chinese fabric. And this is nothing new that took place. The Chinese have been… if you look at their seizures then you can beleive them…you’ll see that their seizures are way up over the last 5 years. It was already under way. The fact that Khun Sa may have attempted to go in that route in order to avoid us on the Thai side…that’s the basic nature of this kind of international crime. They’re going to take the route of least resistance.
Ferrarone: …I have no idea right now. I think it will be extremely difficult for him to re-establish himself in that area in that the Burma army for the first time has occupied all his strongpoints. And they’ve gotten a lot of weapons turned over to them. I would think him coming back at the level he was at before this could be almost impossible.
Ferrarone: Frequently, the order…there is in that part of the world a lot of negotiate…There have been deals cut for the last 50 or 60 years between warring factions and the central government in Rangoon. They get…made and they get broken and they are more or less marriages of convenience. I wouldn’t look on this as anything more than the Burmese not wishing to sacrifice any more people and material than they’ve already expended. After all the US government has very little diplomatic leverage with the Burmese and I beleive they’ve gone about as far as they’re willing to go at this stage of the game.
Ferrarone: Well, the next group that will probably pose the biggest threat, or at least one of the biggest threats, will be the Wah. Which are the group that is next to Khun Sa on that border. They have the ability to actually produce more heroin that Khun Sa did even at his peak. In fact, their organisation is the heroin division, for lack of a better way to describe it, is run by people that had defected from the Shan United Army. That being said, they do not have the international contacts that Khun Sa has, or had. That’s why it’s extremely important to target these organisations and go after them right now.
Ferrarone: Not certain. If we’re not talking with the Burmese we’ll be doing everything at least one country over.
Ferrarone: It’s a classic South-east Asian solution to a near insoluable problem. The Burma army…does not have good equipment, is not mechanised…They frequently walk into the areas that they go into. They do not have the equipment. They do not have the medicines. It goes on and on. When they go into these areas…they forcibly conscript the locals to act as human mine-detectors out in front of the troops. It becomes a real mess. There’s an enormous loss of life on both sides. When they can negotiate their way out of it without the loss of life and have a peace of sorts they will do it. They do not wish to have more than one front, more than one battle going on at a time. So, these deals, that thye are cut are in their mind ones of necessity. They don’t mean a whole hell of a lot. They can go away…in a matter of a week.
Ferrarone: This is one of the shows that goes on in the international war on alleged war on drugs. When we particiapted in that type of action, we try to take samples to see that the drugs are in fact what they are and this came from, comes from very bad experiences where they burn 10% heroin instead of 90% heroin, so we are aware of that. I wouldn’t put much stock in it. It’s really a propaganda ploy.
Ferrarone: During my time in Burma I found that the Burmese when they made a committment to do something they were honourable.
Ferrarone: I’m not going to give you an on the record answer to that one. I was there when a lot of that happened… We pulled the plug when they had their uprising in Rangoon and they killed a lot of the kids out there and we simply withdrew. And left. And basically we abandoned the project. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have withdrawn by the way because we should have. I mean it was barbaric what they did to people. The fact is we abandoned the project.
Khun Sa, ex-drug lord, guerrilla, dies
by Denis D. Gray / October 30, 2007
Death of a drug lord
by Bertil Lintner / Nov 1, 2007
Khun Sa was born in 1934 in a small village in northern Shan state of an ethnic Shan mother and a Chinese father. But he grew up as an orphan as his father died when he was only three. His mother remarried the local tax collector of the small town of Mong Tawm, but two years later she died as well. While his three stepbrothers went to missionary schools and were given the Christian names Oscar, Billy and Morgan, the young Khun Sa was raised by his Chinese grandfather amid the poppy fields of Loi Maw mountain in northern Shan state. His only formal education consisted of a few years as a temple boy in a Buddhist monastery. During one of our interviews, I noticed that all his correspondence had to be read to him and that his replies were dictated. Khun Sa gained his first military experience in skirmishes with the Kuomintang, or nationalist Chinese forces who had set up bases in Loi Maw in the early 1950s. Following Mao Zedong’s victory in China in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang soldiers came streaming south, and, supported by the surviving Republic of China government in Taiwan – and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – they tried in vain to “liberate” the mainland from their new sanctuaries in Myanmar, then known as Burma. The Kuomintang invasion resulted in a reign of terror for the ordinary people who lived in the areas, as the nationalist Chinese collected taxes, forcibly enlisted recruits and encouraged poppy cultivation in the area to finance their “secret” army. At the age of 16, Khun Sa formed his own armed band to fight the intruders. In the early 1960s, his small private army was even recognized officially as the “Loi Maw Ka Kwe Ye”, a home guard unit under the Myanmar army. “Ka Kwe Ye” (KKY), which literally means “defense” in the Myanmar language, was Yangon’s idea of a local militia to fight the Kuomintang as well as local, separatist Shan rebels. The plan was to rally as many local warlords as possible, mostly non-political brigands and private army commanders, behind the Myanmar army in exchange for the right to use all government-controlled roads and towns in Shan state for opium trafficking. By trading in opium, the Myanmar government hoped that the KKY militias would be self-supporting. The warlords, who were supposed to fight the insurgents, strengthened their private armies and purchased with opium money military equipment available on the black market in Thailand and Laos. Some of them, Khun Sa included, were soon better equipped than the Myanmar military itself.
Khun Sa later slipped away to northern Thailand, where he established a new headquarters at Ban Hin Taek in Chiang Rai province. His so-called “Shan United Army”, SUA, was supposed to be fighting for Shan independence from Myanmar, but was, in reality, little more than a narco-army escorting opium convoys and protecting heroin refineries. In 1982, the Thai army decided to turn against him, and Khun Sa and the SUA were driven out of Ban Hin Taek. But they soon established a new base, this time inside Myanmar, at Homong, where new refineries were set up to process raw opium into heroin. By then he was officially the most wanted man in the world, indicted by the United States and referred to by then-US ambassador to Thailand William Brown as “the worst enemy the world has”. But, even so, the stream of high-powered visitors to his not-so-secret headquarters never ceased to amaze observers. Among them was Lady Brockett, an American model turned British socialite, and her husband, Lord Brockett, who used to party with Britain’s Prince Charles. Khun Sa even presented the lady with a pair of ruby-studded shoes, which he had designed himself.