CRACKING down on worldwide narcotics trafficking is like emptying the ocean with a teacup. So say enforcement officials who estimate that no more than 10 percent of the heroin leaving the Golden Triangle through Thailand last year — in airliner restrooms, sewn inside baseballs or taped to smugglers' bodies — was intercepted. Concealed in air freight cargoes, multimillion dollar shipments of drugs are smuggled into the United States of America each year, thanks to farmers who continue to cultivate the opium poppy plant.
The Golden Triangle
Governments plead for tribal farmers to grow coffee, fruit trees and vegetables instead of opium on the hillsides of the Golden Triangle, a rugged region formed by parts of Thailand, Burma and Laos. Crop substitution, however, looks bleak, especially in parts of Burma's Shan states, which produce most of the Golden Triangle's opium. Even the recent punishment of Khum Sa, the Burmese warlord who dominates the narcotics trade, will not choke off the trade. Were governments to enforce crop replacement even in Thailand's inaccessible areas, following in the footsteps of King Bhumibol Adulyadej who began such a program in 1969, traffickers would simply raise the price they are paying opium-growing farmers. A nomadic hill tribe farmer can get $500 an acre for opium, while a lowland Thai rice farmer receives only about $100 for an acre of rice. Drug officials ask, why should farmers replace gold mine-size profits with a pineapple-size income from fruit and vegetable farming in the hills? Thai authorities also face drug dealers' threats of violence to farmers and their families should the farmers turn to growing lawful crops not to mention a festering communist insurgency that nomadic farmers might join to retaliate against Thai authorities.
The Golden Crescent
Though some of the purest heroin ever confiscated in the United States comes from Pakistan, the cheapest heroin is processed in Iran and Afghanistan. These three countries plus Turkey form the Golden Crescent, an area that has now surpassed the Golden Triangle as the world's leading supplier of drugs. Despite Islamic penalties for drug trading of two years' imprisonment and 30 lashes at a public whipping post, drug smugglers traffic relatively freely while regimes in Iran and Afghanistan are busy struggling to maintain power. Cunning Pakistanis use the same networks they established years ago to ship hashish.
Drugs Flow Unhindered
Tales of the losing battle are also told in Europe, Central America and South America. Deep in remote jungles in Latin America, prosperous towns brandish color-television antennas, $100,000 Mercedes sedans and so much money that the U.S. dollar is worth less on the black market than it is at the official exchange rate. Guatemalan revolutionaries grow marijuana in a grass-for-guns trade. As drug money climbs higher, people in South America nurture marijuana plants and coca (from which cocaine is derived) instead of growing rice, yucca and corn as they should. Consequently, food production has become a problem. "I'd be happy if we were getting 15 percent of the drugs that go through here," said one U.S. agent in Bogota, Colombia. "But the truth is that the consumer in the United States is getting just as much as he needs." What stems from a drug dealer paying $500 to an opium poppy farmer for a kilogram of sticky brown sap soon blossoms into a few ounces of fine white heroin worth $300,000 in an American or European city. Slow-moving vessels laden with cocaine creep along the Amazon River toward the city of Manaus. The payments go right back into what has become the economic mainstay of South America. A police superintendent in Manaus complains: "We have 186 men in a federal police force to control everything that happens in an area the size of Great Britain, France, Spain and West Germany combined." Cocaine from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Quaaludes from South Africa and marijuana from Colombia are transported to the United States by way of the Bahamas in smuggling planes ranging from Cessnas to decrepit DC-6s. On the other side, when the United States provided Mexico with drug-spotting aircraft, heroin production in Mexico dropped sharply. The Mexican government is enforcing tough laws, providing seed and building roads into remote areas so farmers will have access to markets for legitimate crops. Duster planes spray paraquat to kill marijuana plants. Soon Mexico will have a full-scale NASA satellite-scanning system, donated by the United States, that can spot a tiny marijuana plot from an orbit in space. But the big fish — financiers, chemists and even police and top officials are rarely caught. "We will never get at the heart of the problem," declares Bruton Levin, U.S. embassy official, "until governments move with determination against the kingpins of the trade." The worldwide drug smuggling network has uncoiled sophisticated syndicates that run with far more efficiency than those involved in the French Connection. Nevertheless, drug agents say that limited supplies, higher prices and greater risks for top-level traffickers disrupt narcotics operations. Smugglers reply: "Okay, we know you know. Now catch us."