Surging Sales for Golden Triangle. Many drug-enforcement officials believe Hong Kong crime syndicates are responsible. SOUTHEAST ASIAN HEROIN
THE war on Latin American ``cocaine cowboys'' may grab headlines, especially in the United States. But the aggressive growth of heroin traffic out of the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia is startling law enforcement agencies worldwide. Item: Australian and Hong Kong police last October cracked a major Chinese drug smuggling ring. A yacht carrying $37 million worth of heroin was seized - the largest drug bust (43 kilograms) in Australian history.Skip to next paragraph
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Item: In February 1988, Thai customs police confiscated a shipment of 1,282 kilos of heroin bound for New York and valued at more than $2 billion. It was the biggest seizure ever recorded in the world.
Item: Heroin seizures in the United States are also at record levels. And the purity of heroin sold on US streets has soared from an average of 4 percent to nearly 60 percent in the last two years.
``Heroin today is cheaper and purer than it has ever been in history. There's a glut of heroin,'' states Michael Tobin, chief of heroin investigations for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Washington.
In 1983, only 3 percent of the heroin supplied to some 500,000 US addicts came from opium grown in the mountains of Thailand, Burma, and Laos - the Golden Triangle. Most heroin came from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, or Mexico.
But by 1985, ``China White'' - Asian-grown heroin - had captured 14 percent of the market. Today, conservative estimates by DEA officials put the figure at 44 percent. And the addict population may now be as high as 750,000.
Bumper opium crops in the Golden Triangle are only part of the explanation for this surge in China White sales. Other explanations for the increase vary from one law enforcement agency or officer to another.
A widespread theory is that Hong Kong is exporting its Chinese triads - large, centuries-old, secret criminal societies, originally formed 300 years ago as secret patriotic groups to overthrow foreign invaders.
To raise funds in the 1800s, Chinese triads turned to gambling, prostitution, extortion, and drug trafficking. Triads are today considered more ruthless and violent than the Sicilian Mafia. Some law enforcement officials believe they control all heroin shipped out of Southeast Asia.
With the British-run international banking and shipping port returning to communist China in 1997, concerned Chinese businessmen - of all backgrounds - are moving abroad.
Hong Kong is ``a time bomb set to detonate in 1997,'' concludes investigative journalist Gerald Posner after two years of research into the Chinese heroin trade.
``The Chinese have quietly taken over half of the heroin market and the DEA is barely prepared for the rest of the triad assault,'' Mr. Posner says inhis book published in November, ``Warlords of Crime: Chinese Secret Societies - the New Mafia.''
The National Crime Authority (NCA), an Australian law enforcement agency dealing only with organized crime, is gearing up for ``the Hong Kong Invasion,'' as one magazine headline recently declared.
``About 90 percent of the heroin coming into the country is already organized by Chinese triads,'' says Carmel Chow, an NCA Chinese liason officer. Mr. Chow is one of six investigators recently recruited by the NCA from the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption.
And a report by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police cites the growing Chinese triads as one of the most dangerous organized crime groups in the country. Interpol and London police have expressed similar concerns about a rise in triad-related crimes.
But DEA officials and senior members of the Royal Hong Kong Police force disagree with the theory that Hong Kong triads control the international heroin trade and are branching out overseas.