In the golden triangle with a handful of dollars


(a) Frontier Police
(b) Special enforcement units
(c) Other regular units of the Thai Police
A substitute for the illicit crops


Author: J. NEPOTE
Pages: 1 to 8
Creation Date: 1976/01/01

In the golden triangle with a handful of dollars

Secretary-General of ICPO/Interpol

In April 1975, I paid a short visit to Thailand. Thanks to the facilities extended to me by the authorities, I was able to visit part of the "Golden Triangle" in the north of the country, where a multidisciplinary plan to combat illicit opium is being carried out.

* * *


The only way of reaching this part of the world, which is on the borders of northern Thailand, Burma and Laos, is by helicopter. It is a mountainous region, mostly covered by forest and inhabited by a tribal population estimated at 300,000 to 500,000 persons who live in some 3,000 villages. The people, who are semi-nomadic move about with their personal property and weapons, without any form of control. They have been cultivating the opium poppy since the beginning of the century and this single crop provides all that is needed for the livelihood of the families. In an area where all transport is by back-pack, opium provides a good return for a low weight. The opium is used to supply the international market and is also the source of regional drug addiction, which can perhaps, be better described as the local therapy for the pains of illness and old age.

To consider banning poppy cultivation or destruction of the plantations is a pipe-dream in this inaccessible, uncontrollable area, which has no administrative infrastructure. Consequently, repressive action is directed only against traffickers. Because of the geographical position of the "Golden Triangle", there is substantial cross-frontier traffic. The boundary lines are tortuous, mountainous and frost-covered, and surveillance is therefore quite impossible. Police tactics are therefore to let traffickers proceed sufficiently far into the country so that they can be attacked without their being able to escape across the frontier. The over-all enforcement activity throughout Thailand has yielded results and statistics are available to prove it. What is now needed is to find a substitute for opium poppy cultivation and a start on this has been made with the help of the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC). This very ambitious plan consists in completely transforming the economic life of the tribes. The people will be induced to abandon their nomadic life and become sedentary and to switch over from a single-crop system to mixed farming. The first stage of the plan is scheduled to operate until 1977. An agronomy station has been set up to carry out trials and tests of crop varieties that might be adapted to the region. At the same time, five "pilot" villages have been chosen to carry out the experiment. By force of example, the experience of these five villages will be applied by 30 other so-called "satellites". Later, there is no reason why there should not be 300 and then 1,000.But this small group of experts must be given support, because there is still a great deal to be done.


For over an hour, the helicopter had been flying over the mountains--mountains sharply contoured with slopes and often cliffs and covered everywhere with endless forest, sometimes dense, sometimes with clearings. No road. When the helicopter flew close to the trees clinging to the highest peaks, it was sometimes possible to make out a path through the bush. The Thai pilot, Police Captain Siasket, navigated, over this terrain, guided by some mysterious sense of direction. The landscape slipped past and then in this sea of green, a clearing suddenly came into sight: the trees had been felled a few years before and the vegetation was beginning to take hold once again; areas that had been cleared more recently could also be seen; traces of charred vegetation indicated the presence of man. And then suddenly, on the mountainside, a few thatched wooden houses appeared.

We were now in the heart of the "Golden Triangle".

It is only by helicopter that the European traveller always pressed for time can hope to reach this region on the borders of northern Thailand, Burma and Laos. About 600 km long and sometimes 200 to 300 km wide, it straddles all three countries. It is populated by self-sufficient tribes who live a traditional way of life.

The part of the "Golden Triangle" lying within Thailand has a tribal population living in some 3,000 villages at heights ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 m. Of these 3,000 villages, about 1,000 which are at elevations above 1,000 metres gain their livelihood from poppy cultivation and opium production. Every 2 to 10 years, when the mountain where they have settled has been cleared, and when the soil has been exhausted, the whole village moves elsewhere with its goods and chattels and its weapons and begins anew its work of clearing and tilling the soil in a virgin area. As a result, there is uncontrolled deforestation and erosion causes irreparable damage to the soil.

The tribes which derive their livelihood from opium poppy cultivation are following an old tradition. Thc poppy has been cultivated in the area since the beginning of the century. It is a true single-crop system, which provides all the resources needed for the life of a family group: the present price is $200 per kilogramme and the average production is two kilogrammes per family. The average total production from these 1,000 Thai villages is estimated at approximately 75 tons, which represents from 50 to 100 kilogrammes of opium per village. The opium is sold to traffickers, who are regarded simply as traders by the Meo or Mong villagers. They see no reason for not growing the poppy and selling opium, since it is, after all, the crop which provides the highest income. Moreover, when one's harvest has to be delivered on one's own back to a point one or two days' march away, it is what is most valuable in terms of weight that is most appreciated.

The local opium market does, of course, supply the international market, but it also provides the source for regional drug addiction: there are about 300,000 drug addicts in Thailand, 80 per cent of whom are now heroin addicts. In the tribal groups themselves, there is no reluctance to smoke opium among people over a certain age; but what else is there to do, when at the age of 40 or 50, after a very rough life tramping through the bush, illness and old-age begin to take their toll . . . and when there are no doctors or dentists available?

* * *

Several years ago, the Thai authorities, fully realizing the potential harm to people when such a large supply of opium is introduced into the illicit market, decided that "something had to be done".

There were three possibilities open to the Government:

Prohibit the illicit production and adopt coercive measures to destroy the crops;

Stop the illicit traffic and imprison the traffickers;

Arrange to stop the growing of the opium poppy and replace it by the cultivation of other crops.


The person seated in a soft and confortable chair in an office or conference room, may tend to believe that "the easiest way of stopping the illicit drug traffic is to declare cultivation of the opium poppy illegal and, because it is illegal, to destroy the plantations". Such reasoning, applied to the "Golden Triangle" is quite utopian. It is impossible to control a territory larger than some European countries, mountainous, inaccessible, without roads or any means of communication. In order to destroy the plantations declared illegal, whole battalions of troops would have to be committed, who would certainly be met with bullets from people who would totally fail to understand why their livelihood should be taken from them when hardly out of the ground. What, after all, would be the reaction of the vine-growers of France, Italy or California, if troops arrived, and, without more ado began to cut down their vines where they stood, on the ground that the products obtained from them were injurious to human health. Or, in more practical terms, how is it possible to apply the law in a region lacking,an administrative infrastructure? In the case of the "Golden Triangle", the entire political and social context clearly precludes any policy of destruction of plantations, even if they are declared illegal.


Another solution would be to turn a blind eye and to let the tribes grow their poppies and sell their opium. The repressive action will then be directed against the traffickers, once they are in possession of the opium.

The traffickers cannot plead in mitigation that they need to live and must have a livelihood. They know that they are performing an illegal act.

Efforts have been made in this direction and I shall endeavour to describe them.

(a) Frontier Police

Opium is certainly produced in Thailand, but a large part of the production comes from those parts of the "Golden Triangle" that are within the territory of Burma or Laos. There is therefore a considerable cross-border traffic.

In Thailand, the Frontier police is organized by "regions".

The region we visited-Chiang Mai-covers 16 provinces and the frontier to be kept under surveillance is approximately 1,500 km in length. The Colonel of the Frontier Police responsible for this sector has about 5,000 men under his command (which represents 3 men per km, assuming that they are on duty 24 hours a day).

But the problem cannot be assessed from the standpoint of surveillance of the 1,500 km of actual frontier, which is really no more than a tortuous line on the map. It traverses mountains and forests that make surveillance absolutely impossible. Frontier control, as understood in the highly developed countries, is out of the question here.

What then is the solution adopted?

The 5,000 men are posted to fixed duty stations at certain trading points about 100 to 150 km distant from each other, in villages some distance from the frontier or in river valleys where there is a small amount of water-borne goods transport.

Between these fixed posts, 10 or 12-man patrols operate. Both the fixed posts and the mobile patrols can be reinforced from special units whose main function is the execution of major operations and reinforcement of the fixed posts and patrols. The 5,000 men of the Chiang Mai region Frontier Police are, of course, equipped with motor vehicles and also have an air support unit consisting of three helicopters and one aeroplane. In such terrain, it requires little imagination to see the value of a helicopter, even though the noise of its approach gives those who wish to escape surveillance time to hide beneath the foliage.

Since the frontier proper cannot be controlled, the tactics of the Frontier Police are to let traffickers make their way sufficiently far into the interior of the territory for it to be possible to attack them without any risk of their escaping across the frontier. By obtaining information from informers, carrying out regular surveillance and checking movements of caravans through the jungle, the Frontier Police are sometimes able to surprise the traffickers and have seized drugs after real guerilla operations in which exchange of fire is common. In June 1973, for instance, a 60-horse caravan was intercepted, and a load of 92 kg of opium was seized. In September 1973, on another caravan, 120 bags each containing 3.5 kg of opium were seized. In April 1974, the Chiang Mai Frontier Police carried out a successful operation in which they took 391 kg of opium. But these successes have made the traffickers more careful. They recently changed their tactics and now entrust the transport of opium to porters who cross the jungle on foot carrying 2 or 3 kg of opium or with slabs of morphine 999. In this way, the risk is spread.

The achievements of the Frontier Police have been not inconsiderable: between January 1974 and March 1975, 1,671 kg of opium, 25 kg of heroin and 5 kg of morphine were seized in the Chiang Mai region alone, and two clandestine laboratories were also discovered. From the helicopter I saw the site of these two laboratories: they were at the top of a 2,000 metre mountain, in a hut camouflaged by immense tropical trees and defended by 15 armed men. All the equipment needed for transforming opium into heroin was found, including acetic anhydride, retorts etc.

Unbelievable but true!

(b) Special enforcement units

The Frontier Police is one of the main branches of the Thai police force.

In addition, Special Narcotic Units have been created within the force to deal with illicit traffic. Their role is to deal with large-scale illicit traffic and not with drug addiction or minor local traffickers.

I visited the special unit in Cheng-Rai province. It consists of 64 detectives assigned to seven posts, which are linked by radio. Investigations are based on very extensive use of informers, and the unit has been particularly successful: between April 1973 and April 1975, it seized 15 tons of opium and uncovered five processing laboratories.

(c) Other regular units of the Thai Police

They naturally also participate in the narcotics control effort as part of their normal duties. Thus, units of the "provincial police" are involved in drug control in addition to performing the traditional police functions throughout the territory in towns and rural areas. In Cheng-Rai province, there are 1,100 men in the provincial police.

United States assistance has been generous and substantial, providing equipment (helicopters, motor vehicles, telecommunications), experts from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and personnel training in Thailand and in the United States.

Over-all enforcement activities throughout Thailand have yielded results, which, although indicative of the efforts made, are still modest in view of the 75 tons of opium illicitly produced in the country and the 500 (or 700) tons which are produced throughout the "Golden Triangle" region, much of which enters the international market through Thai territory in the form of morphine or heroin.

If it is not possible to destroy the plantations or to throttle the traffic, what other action can be taken?

A substitute for the illicit crops

The alternative solution then considered was the substitution of other crops for the opium poppy.

The Thai authorities had considered such a policy in 1963-1965 and the King of Thailand himself had shown interest in its implementation. However, because of a lack of funds and resources, the project progressed only slowly.

It was thanks to the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control that it really got under way.

The plan is an ambitious one.

It consists in saying to the people of the mountain tribes "Instead of planting the opium poppy, plant vegetables which will ensure you a more balanced diet; make rational use of the forest instead of destroying it; raise cattle which will provide meat; grow cereals which will provide feed for livestock; plant fruit trees and coffee trees and sell the crop. You will have a better life, you will no longer have to live a nomadic existence, you will no longer be dependant on a single crop providing an uncertain income and you will no longer be under pressure from the traffickers".

Cheng-Rai province is 200 km in length and 100 km wide. It has 1,250 inhabitants and 20 per cent of its area consists of agricultural land. The remainder is covered by jungle.

The province has a tribal population of 42,000.

In other words, the plan consists in completely transforming the social and economic life of the tribal population. From being nomads, the people will change over to a settled way of life. From monoculture they will switch to mixed farming. They must advance from the village barter economy to a market economy. All this can be achieved only if there is some degree of willingness, since nothing can be "imposed" on the population of areas where the logistic basis for application of the law does not exist.

In 1972, a small number of Thai and foreign experts set to work. They undertook the first stage of the plan which is due to continue until 1977.

At an altitude of 1,000 metres, in the jungle near Chiang Mai, the largest urban centre in the region, an agronomy centre has been set up in which species capable of being acclimatized to the region are tried and tested. Two hundred species of vegetables, medicinal plants, oil-yielding plants, coffee trees and fruit trees are at present being studied.

Five "pilot" villages have also been chosen whose chiefs agreed to the participation of their village in the experiment.

Poppy cultivation was, of course, allowed to continue provisionally on a reduced scale, since the people have to live and opium remains the primary medicament used in case of illness.

Abandoned fields, where the poppy was grown in previous years, were cleared and placed under new crops.

The local people furnish the manpower and work under the advice of the agronomy expert, who lives in their midst.

Coffee, fruit and haricot beans have been tried in the village of Mae-Tho. In Ban-Phui, cereals have been tried; in Khun-Wang, coffee and tobacco; in Doi-Sammuen, coffee, vegetables and animal husbandry. Reafforestation has also been carried out. At Ang-Kang, animal husbandry and the growing of fruit and flowers have been started.

However, the expert will not always be there to provide guidance and advice. Consequently, adjacent to the Chaing Mai agronomy centre, a training centre has been set up where volunteers from the five pilot villages come to learn to plant, irrigate and harvest.

The United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control was established in 1971.It is financed by special voluntary contribution. As of June 1975, it had recieved funds totalling $ 18 million, the major proporation of which came from the Government of the United State of America. The budget, administered by the representative of the of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, is used to finance projects aimed at suppression of illicittrafic, the treament of drug addicts, the substitution of illicit crops, scientific research into drugs and drug addiction, ect.

One of the remarkable features of the plan is the rural simplicity of its implementation. There are no complicated machines, sophisticated methods, ultramodern techniques or gadgets. Everything or almost everything is done with local resources and is adapted to the capabilities of the populations concerned. For example, the construction of the training centre cost only $30,000, because everything was done "by hand", using local resources.

The plan as a whole was developed at an annual cost of $300,000, in other words for the price of 15 or 20 kg of heroin delivered in New York.

For a project such as this, money is needed, of course. But faith and enthusiasm are the primary requirements and these are not lacking in the small group of experts working in the area. One cannot fail to be impressed when one watches the burly figure of the United States expert bend over to examine the shoots of coffee shrubs which are the subject of concern to the village chief, when one sees the plain room - the only luxury is a water tap at the end of a pipe - shared by two Thai experts who have willingly forsaken their air-conditioned life in Bangkok, when one sees the tiny figure of Mr. Sayasalle, the agronomist, proudly showing his first rye field. Yes, these people are truly living a great human experience and they are fully aware of the fact.

Something very worthwhile is taking place in the Thai jungle.

There have, of course, been difficulties and immense obstacles remain to be overcome. After the harvest, the produce must be transported and sold. At current rates, one ton of haricot beans is equal to 1 kg of opium.

There is no question of using fertilizer. It is not easy to teach mixed farming to the people of the area. For example, experience has shown that a 6-month course is too long to be "absorbed" by the students; consequently, the duration of the course has been reduced and the frequency of classes increased. There are also the problems caused by drought, insects, late delivery of seed, etc. And even when things have changed in Thailand, there will be the poppy plantations of Burma and Laos on the other side of the mountain.

The task is therefore immense, but it is precisely because it is immense that it had to be undertaken and that it must be continued.

Those who have worked on the plan believe that the five pilot villages should, as a result of the example they have given, see their experiments adopted by 30 other "satellite" villages. Thus, it is hoped that by 1977 the project will have affected 35 villages and demonstrated that the approach adopted is the right one. Given a little money and much determination, why should this not be possible? Why should not the number of villages increase from 35 to 300 later and then to 3,000?

The first requirement for success is that those few people who are responsible for the scheme's implementation and who are out there, under the jungle sun and face to face with the practical problems involved should have the assurance that they will not be abandoned half-way. They must feel that they are supported and know that Governments will place in the purse of the United Nations Fund the handful of dollars that will enable them to continue their work without fear for the morrow.

I, for my part, do not, cannot believe that the beneficial and wise action that has been undertaken can be jeopardized because of the denial to the United Nations of an annual amount which is equivalent to one-tenth of the cost of asingl combat aircraft

After we had looked over the plantation at the pilot village of Mac Theo and were making our way through the village itself , we saw a small group of people standing quite and worried outside a hut: a man was lying inside ,about to dei .Hewas full of opium ;the people of the tribe was calling upon the spirits. Fifty metres away stood the helicopter, throbbing and gleming, ready to take off.

So close together, yet poles apart, the two represented the road to be travelled, at cost of only a handful of dollars