CIA Involvement in Drug Smuggling Part 1

This is a four part series on the history of the CIA's involvement in drug smuggling since it's inception, from Heroin to Cocaine, the CIA has been involved right at the center of the drug smuggling business.


The origin of opium can be traced back to the Middle East region of Mesopotamia circa 3100 B.C. Centuries later Alexander the Great exported the narcotic eastward to India in 330 B.C. By 400 A.D. it became a large market in China where it was introduced by Arab traders.

Southeast Asia got its first dose of opium in 1500 when Portuguese, while trading along the East China Sea, initiated the smoking of opium. Within two centuries the Dutch were exporting shipments of Indian opium to China and the islands of Southeast Asia. In 1729, Chinese emperor Yung Cheng issued an edict which prohibited the smoking of opium and its domestic sale, except under license for use as medicine. Nevertheless, the use of opium increased, and by 1750 the British East India Company assumed control of Bengal and Bihar, the opium-growing districts of India. British shipping dominated the opium trade out of Calcutta to China. By 1767, opium exports by the British East India Company to China reached a staggering two thousand chests of opium per year. In 1793, the British East India Company established a monopoly on the opium trade. All poppy growers in India were forbidden to sell opium to competitor trading companies.

In 1799, Chinese emperor Kia King banned opium completely, making trade and poppy cultivation illegal. Foreign merchants then turned to smuggling. Charles Cabot, a smuggler from Boston, Massachusetts, attempted to purchase opium from the British and then smuggle it into China under the auspices of British smugglers. Another American, John Cushing, acquired his wealth from smuggling Turkish opium to Canton. For example, John Jacob Astor of New York City and owner of the American Fur Company purchased ten tons of Turkish opium which he shipped on to Canton.

In 1839, the first Opium War broke out, and the Chinese ordered all foreign traders to surrender their opium. The British responded by sending warships to China. Two years later, the Chinese were defeated by the British which demanded heavy reparations, including the cession of Hong Kong to Great Britain The Second Opium War erupted in 1856, and the British again demanded indemnities from China, forcing the emperor to legalize opium. By the turn of the century and after 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese finally convinced the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade.

In the 1850s, British merchants began importing Indian opium to Burma and selling it through a government-controlled monopoly. In 1886, the British acquired Burma's northeast region, Shan state. Production and smuggling of opium along the lower region of Burma thrived despite British efforts to maintain a strict monopoly on the opium trade.

By the turn of the century, the French joined the British in monopolizing opium in Southeast Asia. In the 1940s, the 'Golden Triangle' -- Burma, Laos, and Thailand -- became a major player in the profitable opium trade. During the early years of World War II, opium trade routes were blocked and the flow of opium from India and Persia was cut off. Fearful of losing their opium monopoly, the French encouraged Hmong farmers to expand their opium production. After Burma gained its independence from Britain in the 1940s, opium cultivation and trade flourished in the Shan states.


THE OSSFORERUNNER TO THE CIA. The "multinational" business of drug trafficking can be traced back to the 1940s, even before the CIA was created following World War II. Before the creation of the CIA in 1947, Allen Dulles assembled the Flying Tigers, an inner clique within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Dulles had close ties with Eastern billionaire families, and he was able to run clandestine operations out of the White House.

The OSS-mafia alliance emerged soon after the agency was formed. The OSS was first headed by Earl Brennan who helped plan the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy in World War II. During the war, He had close ties with the head of the Vatican's Vessel Operation, Monsignor Giovanni Batista Montini who was also an aid to Pope Pius XII. Montini suggested that Brennan recruit Italian exiles such as Masons business leaders, and mafia members to corroborate with the Allies in their invasion. In 1963, Montini become Pope Paul VI.

Colonel Paul Hellwell of the OSS began to smuggle heroin from Burma and sold it in ghettos in the United States. Grown in Burma and processed in Shanghai, OSS agents ran across this bonanza while attempting to bolster the right wing regime of Chiang Kai-shek and to prevent Mao Tse Tung from ascending to power. Flying Tigers were OSS mercenaries who were financed with secret funds. Hellwell observed how Chiang sold opium to Chinese addicts and used the revenue to purchase weapons for his troops. Hellwell created Sea Supply, an OSS proprietary company, out of Miami and used it to carry guns across the ocean to China. The opium was grown in Burma, so Hellwell moved on to Southeast Asia in order to consolidate his operation.

In the late 1940s, Hellwell was named the Burmese consulate in Miami and was able to secure a monopoly on opium in Burma. From there, opium was processed in Shanghai, and then it was exported to the United States on Sea Supply boats. In return, Hellwell shipped guns back to China.

The OSS used the mob to distribute heroin in big cities throughout the United States.

Another OSS connection was the German Gestapo. Dozens of leading Gestapo figures and SS spies were used. Their spy networks and personal war records could be used to survey and control the Soviet Union. After these Nazis arrived in Georgetown, they were used by the newly created CIA in a drug running role. They were educated at Fort Benning and then used extensively in Latin America by local militaries. They were partially funded by the revenue generated from Burmese heroin exported to China for refining, and then exported to ghettos in the United States. After Mao solidified his power in 1949 revolution, drug trafficking in China began to diminish, partially because the death penalty was carried out against convicted dealers.

The OSS did not confine itself only to the Far East. While the bulk of American heroin originated in Asia, smaller amounts were produced in Marseille by the Corsican syndicates in the 1940s. Drug trafficking was certainly not at a premium during World War II. Transoceanic shipping was disrupted during the war years as a result of submarine warfare. Consequently, the power of Marseilles' Corsican syndicates was weakened. In addition, Sicily's mafia was smashed by two decades of Mussolini's repressive regime.


After World War II, the OSS created a situation which helped revive the Sicilian-American mafia and the Corsican underworld. The alliance with the mafia was maintained by the CIA in order to check the growing strength of the Italian Communist Party. For example, the Corsicans in Marseilles smuggled raw opium from Turkey and refined it into high grade heroin for export to the United States. Marseilles relied on a handful of expert chemists who were able to produce high grade number four heroin. After the transformation of the OSS into the CIA, Marseille's Corsicans fell under the protection of the French intelligence service which allowed heroin trafficking to operate for another 20 years. By 1965, Marseilles syndicates were able to double their production and operated between 20 and 25 laboratories which produced 50 to 150 kilograms of heroin each month. It was estimated that 4.8 tons of pure heroin was exported to the United States in 1965 alone.

The American government was concerned that both the French and Italian communist parties would rise to power in free elections in their respective countries. On the homefront, the government was concerned of the rising strength of the New York longshoremen's union and a series of strikes which threatening to erupt a year after World War II ended. To counter the communist parties' influence in France and Italy as well as to stamp out the longshoremen's power in New York, the newly formed CIA turned to the mafia's drug traffickers. The mafia connection assured the CIA the resources which they critically needed: hit-men to help carry out their illicit operations and additional funds to help finance their activities.

After spending 10 years of a 30-to-50 year sentence in prison for drug trafficking, New York's mafia leader Lucky Luciano given clemency and released from Albany's Great Meadows Prison in 1946. In exchange, he promised to cooperate with American authorities. He returned to Italy and was able to build a black market which had been abandoned by the Genovese family. He then expanded his operations by forging close ties with the Marseilles syndicate. He imported raw opium from the Middle East and processed it in laboratories in Italy. Luciano's top deputy was Meyer Lansky who had first contacted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Luciano initially purchased 200 kilos of heroin and shipped it on to Cuba. Lansky was given a monopoly on Cuba's gambling operations plus assurances that Sicilian heroin could be shipped from Marseilles to Havana and on to the United States. In return Batista and his assistants received half the profits from the casinos. Lansky and Luciano chose Sicilian-born Santos Trafficante of Florida to run the Cuban gambling and drug business. Luciano made sure that Havana's prostitutes were addicted to heroin and paid them with diluted forms of the drugs as well.

The CIA armed and funded the Corsican syndicates to break up longshoremen's strikes in 1947 and 1950. Harry Bridges had been known for his leadership in general strikes in San Francisco in 1934, and he moved on to New York City where he worked to unionize dock workers. The CIA paid the mafia to assault and harass union leaders and workers. Some were even murdered. The CIA also used psychological warfare against the unions. Anti-union pamphlets, radio broadcasts, and posters discouraged workers from continuing the strike.

Meanwhile in Europe, the CIA continued to work with drug traffickers in its war to thwart the election of communists in democratic elections. By the late 1940s, Marseilles had become the postwar heroin capital of the Western world. And Italy's mafia still maintained its strength as the most powerful component in Europe.

The CIA's protection of the Corsican syndicate continued into the 1970s. Frank Matthews, one of the East Coast's prime heroin dealers, brought in $130 million annually. In 1973, he was finally arrested for drug trafficking in Las Vegas. Matthews was released on $325,000 bail and returned to New York with $20 million in cash. According to the Justice Department charges against nine of his suppliers were dropped at the insistence of the CIA which contended that prosecutions would jeopardize national security interests.


The Italian mafia continued to maintain a stronghold in the United States. In the 1950s, the CIA once again turned to the mafia to foil communism -- this time in Cuba. The very year that the right wing Batista government was overthrown, Operation 40 was organized as an assassination unit to kill Fidel Castro. Organized crime leaders Santo Trafficante and John Roselli, with the knowledge of Vice President Nixon, were heavily involved in importing drugs from Laos. After the failure at the Bay of Pigs two years later, Operation 40 was replaced by Operation Mongoose, a larger scale paramilitary organization. Its purpose was also to overthrow the Castro regime. The CIA officials who directed Operation Mongoose were Theodore Shackley and Thomas Clines. Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban refugee, was hired to be a member of a special assassination team. Rodriguez worked under Shackley in Miami, Florida. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, dozens of anti-Castro sympathizers were indicted for drug trafficking.

After the defeat of the French at Dienbienphu in 1954, the United States quickly moved to fill the void. In that decade, over a thousand tons of opium was being cultivated in the Golden Triangle -- Laos, Burma, and Thailand. This amounted to 70 percent of the entire world's illicit opium supply. In addition, this marked the first time that number three heroin (three to six percent pure) was being refined. As a result, the Thai government launched an opium suppression campaign which compelled most of the planters to switch to heroin. In the 1960s large quantities of number three heroin were being refined in Bangkok and northern Thailand. It was during this decade that both Shackley and Clines were transferred from Florida to run CIA operations in the heart of Southeast Asia as well as in the heart of the world's largest heroin region.

During the Vietnam War, the White House drug team was headed by Lucien Conein who once had ties to Corsican drug dealers in Southeast Asia and Marseilles. The CIA urged Conein and the White House to accept a plan to carry out a series of assassinations against drug kingpins. According to a White House memo, "With 150 key assassinations the entire heroin-refining industry can be thrown into chaos."

However, the CIA's list included a hand-full of names of drug dealers in Southeast Asia, and none of them were the principal players. Additionally, the White House decided to concentrate in Turkey where less than 5 percent of the world's opium supply was grown.

Continue to part 2 of the history of CIA involvement in Drug Smuggling


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