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.
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.
``Triads aren't some all-conquering, hydra-headed, great tentacled creature,'' a senior Hong Kong police official says. ``There are people leaving Hong Kong. And Chinese organized crime is on the rise around the world. But all the major triad targets who could cause major `aggro' [aggravation] overseas are absolutely showing no signs of leaving - at all.''
Hong Kong and other police agencies agree that drug syndicates often contain triad members. Several of those arrested in Australia's big seizure in October are allegedly members of one of Hong Kong's largest triads, the ``14K.''
But Superintendent Christopher Cantley of the Hong Kong police says specific triads do not control the heroin industry. ``Narcotics trafficking syndicates are often composed of people from several different triads. But triad organizations as a whole are not significant players in narcotics,'' he says.
``We've never had any evidence that triads as organizations are involved in junk sold here,'' concurs Mr. Tobin at the DEA. As for an exodus of drug kingpins from Hong Kong: ``I sure don't see them brokering from the States. They have to be in the Orient to do this business.''
Posner insists some Hong Kong and DEA officials privately admit triads do control the heroin trade.
``To publicly admit triads are powerful is to admit British police efforts are a dismal failure over the last 40 years,'' he says.
Posner adds that law-enforcement officials used to claim they ``lacked evidence'' to prove the Sicilian Mafia was coordinating illegal drug trafficking in the US. But Mafia control was proven. Similarly, Posner believes triad control of the heroin trade will ultimately be proven.
Still, if Hong Kong triads are not masterminding the surge, what is the explanation for the jump in quantity and purity of the heroin available?
Some drug enforcement officials say it is the laws of economics and population growth. It is a combination of a bigger (therefore cheaper) supply of heroin plus a larger Asian distribution network abroad.
With the easing of immigration laws in recent decades, the Chinese migrant population has swollen in the United States, Canada, and elsewere. In the US, the Asian population has nearly doubled in the 1980s (from 3.5 million to an estimated 6 million today).
And the Asian organized crime rise has coincided with an increase in the numbers of Hong Kong Chinese and Vietnamese refugees settling overseas. This population surge provides local crime groups with a supply of new recruits.
But police and Chinese communities are concerned that a false impression be created that ``all Asian migrants are crooks.'' Organized crime involves ``a very small minority of the Chinese population, less than one percent, which is fewer than 2,000 people in Australia,'' points out Chow. But he notes, ``The damage by a few is horrendous.''
Stemming the heroin flow remains an uphill battle. Even with record levels of seizures and some major narcotics traffickers captured this year, police worldwide believe they are stopping only 10 to 20 percent of about 100 tons of herion shipped out of the Golden Triangle annually.
Posner is optimistic that, unlike the American war on the much larger cocaine problem, a war on heroin trafficking could be successful.
``We may be able to win in the US because it's still a relatively small problem. If triads were targeted with the same priority as the Sicilian Mafia - which has suffered major setbacks recently - law enforcement agencies could have a devastating impact,'' he says.