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On the Ropes
In 1967, Khun Sa was riding high. At age 33, the charismatic Burmese warlord had trafficked in opium on his own for a mere three years, but he had been busy consolidating power, grabbing territory, commanding an army of about 2,000 men, and garnering the loyalty and respect of the hill tribes of his native Shan State in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle region.
Khun Sa’s rapid rise, however, put him in conflict with the powerful Kuomintang of China (KMT), the remnants of the military forces defeated by the Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-Tung. The KMT was forced to flee to Burma (present day Myanmar) in 1949. The KMT was also heavily into drug trafficking, and it viewed the upstart Khun Sa as a dangerous rival.
Unfortunately for Khun Sa, he got sucked into a local opium war with the KMT in 1967. Fighting broke out after a Khun Sa caravan of 500 men and 300 mules laden with raw opium set out from the Shan State for Ban Houei Sai in northern Laos. The caravan was to travel across 200 miles of mountain trail and deliver the opium to Laotian general Ouane Rattikone, one of the region’s most powerful individuals. The KMT had developed an alliance with the Royal Laotian Army under Rattikone, and he, like Khun Sa, was heavily involved in opium trafficking. The general had also developed a relationship with the CIA during the Vietnam War, which, at this time, was heating up, and he, on the CIA’s behest, provided military support against the North Vietnamese Army and the Pathet Lao in Laos’ northern region.
What became known as the Opium War heated up when the KMT ambushed Khun Sa’s caravan about 50 miles outside Ban Khwan on the Mekong River. Six bombers from the Laotian air force dumped 500-pound bombs on both the Khun Sa forces and the KMT. Then General Rattikone arrived on the scene with his government force, but to the surprise of both Khun Sa and the KMT, the general’s forces attacked both sides and took the opium.
The KMT had demanded $250,000 from Rattikone’s army to retreat, but it was in no position to negotiate. Under heavy assault, which continued for two days, the KMT fled north for the safety of Laos. Meanwhile, Khun Sa’s forces beat a hasty retreat across the Mekong River.
This so-called “Opium War” was an event of global significance. Most importantly, it ultimately boosted the manufacture and export of heroin from the Golden Triangle, making the area of international importance in the illicit drug trade. Also, General Rattikone’s victory and his continued involvement in heroin trafficking allowed him to retire a very rich man in 1971.
It looked as if the opium War had delivered a knockout blow to Khun Sa from which he would never recover. But it would not be the last time that his adversaries would count him down for the proverbial ten count. It took time—ten years to be exact—but the Burmese warlord showed remarkable resilience and made a big comeback. Over the coming decades, despite being one of the world’s biggest heroin traffickers and the target of local governments, rival ethnic groups, and the CIA, he skillfully projected himself on the world stage as a folk hero, a liberation fighter who stood up for his people, the Shan ethnic minority.
Khun Sa argued that only economic development in the poverty-stricken Shan State could stop opium growing and heroin trafficking. “My people grow opium,” the warlord said. “And they are not doing it for fun. They do it because they need to buy rice to eat and clothes to wear.”
The U.S Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other worldwide anti-narcotics organizations did not buy Khun Sa’s line. Rather, to the good guys, Khun Sa became known as the Prince of Death because of the heroin plague he unleashed on the world community. The DEA estimates that, at one point in the 1980s and 1990s, the height of Khun Sa’s power and influence, 60 percent of the heroin being sold on the streets of the U.S. came from opium refined and processed in areas of the Golden Triangle that Khun Sa controlled.
Yet, despite his criminal activities, Khun Sa had the grudging respect of many of his adversaries. In an unguarded moment, for instance, Peter Bourne, an advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, admitted that “Khun Sa was one of the most impressive national figures I have met.”
During his long career as an international drug kingpin, Khun Sa would show time and again that it was better to grudgingly respect him than it was to underestimate him.
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By all accounts, the man known as the Lord of the Skies should have been dead. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the biggest drug dealer in México, maybe the world, along with his wife and six children, were dining at the Ochoa Bali Hai Restaurant, a chic seafood eatery in México City, when nearly a dozen stone-cold killers marched through the front door looking for him. They carried cases, which they opened to unload their machine guns and blast away.
It happened so quickly that Carrillo Fuentes’ bodyguards could not react. As Carrillo Fuentes, his family, and shocked diners dove for cover, three of the drug lord’s eight bodyguards were cut down in the hail of bullets.
An architect was also dining at the restaurant, and mistaking him for Carrillo Fuentes, their target, the killers riddled him with bullets. The Carrillo Fuentes family cowered under a table amidst the carnage. Finally, the shooting stopped. Satisfied that they had gotten their target, the hit squad turned around, marched out of the restaurant and drove off.
Later when the police arrived, none of the people in the restaurant could say for certain what exactly happened. And Carrillo Fuentes was not available to talk because, in the ensuing confusion, he, his family, and the surviving bodyguards casually walked out of the restaurant.
Five people were killed in the shootout and two others wounded. An innocent bystander waiting outside the restaurant for the valet to deliver his automobile was gunned down and killed. Martin Martínez Pantaleon, a 30-year old police officer, was also murdered trying to stop Carrillo Fuentes and his entourage from fleeing. The drug lord’s driver ran over Martínez with their car, and then sprayed him with machine gun fire.
In a twist of fate, the low profile kept by Carrillo Fuentes saved his life. The Mexican authorities and Carrillo Fuentes’ enemies knew who he was—the country’s most notorious drug kingpin, a ruthless gangster whom Forbes magazine had recognized as one of the world’s richest men, with a fortune estimated at nearly $25 billion. Carrillo Fuentes’ nickname was Lord of the Skies, recognition of his pioneering use of old passenger jets to move multi-ton loads of cocaine from Colombia to México.
But only four photos of the drug lord were known to exist, and the fact that Carrillo Fuentes changed his appearance like some prima donnas change their apparel made the photos essentially worthless as a means of identification.
Moreover, Amado Carrillo Fuentes had corrupted a significant part of the establishment, from the country’s presidency to the Mexican man and woman cop in the street, and this sad state of affairs made the drug lord virtually untouchable. Mexican drug traffickers also knew the Lord of the Skies because they had joined him in what became known as the Mexican Federation, a loosely knit smuggling cooperative in which Carrillo Fuentes and the members shared equipment, intelligence and smuggling routes instead of trying to kill each other. Colombia’s drug kingpins from the country’s powerful Medellín and Cali cartels knew Carrillo Fuentes because they had forged strategic alliances with him to move their illicit product to the drug-demand market in the U.S.
The U.S. authorities knew him, too, for his use of jumbo Boeing 727 airplanes to move tons of cocaine to the U.S. market and millions of dollars out of the U.S. to safe money laundering banking havens worldwide.
Soon after the attempted hit, speculation abounded as to who was behind it. One theory fingered Colombia’s powerful Cali Cartel. It was true that the cartel had a close working relationship with Carrillo Fuentes, but their relationship suddenly soured in August 1993 when the Mexican navy seized more than nine tons of cocaine off the coast of Mazatlán, a Mexican resort town in the Sinaloa state. The Cali Cartel lost $20 million on the botched drug run, and it blamed an informant in Carrillo Fuentes’ organization. But then the speculation went, Carrillo Fuentes was too valuable a partner, so the Cali Cartel swallowed its loss and quickly patched things up.
The authorities soon had a better suspect. Word leaked that the hitmen were actually badge-carrying cops on the payroll of Juan García Abrego, the powerful leader in México’s Gulf Cartel and a bitter rival of Carrillo Fuentes. At the time, Garcia Abrego was México’s most wanted drug lord and on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, with a U.S. reward offer of $2 million for his capture. Yet, despite being hunted, García Abrego wanted Carrillo Fuentes out of the way, snitches told authorities, and so he had arranged the hit.
But although Carrillo Fuentes had a reputation for being a gangster who favored negotiating over assassination, the authorities knew Carrillo Fuentes’ penchant for violence. The assassins had broken an unwritten rule of the Mexican drug smuggling world: Never mess with a rival’s family. Carrillo Fuentes’ wife had been injured in the attack, and, no doubt, Amado Carrillo Fuentes would seek revenge.
To many in San Francisco’s close-knit Chinese community, Allen Leung was an influential local leader and a successful business man, well known and respected. But in early 2006, the people of Chinatown were not aware that Leung was a man in fear for his life.
An examination of Leung’s resume reveals much to admire about the man, and one might have wondered what the community leader had to fear. By all accounts, Leung was an American success story. In 1971, at age 20, he left Hong Kong for the San Francisco Bay Area with little money and in pursuit of the American Dream. Once he arrived, he never looked back.
The ambitious immigrant learned English and attended San Francisco State University where he graduated with a business degree and earned a real estate license. At the time, he was also working as a bilingual counselor at John O’Connell High School. Despite his many business interests and civic responsibilities, Leung still found the time to start a travel agency and then turn it into a thriving import-export business.
The more successful Leung became, the more his wealth grew, and he was able to buy houses not only in San Francisco but also in Las Vegas and Florida. Leung got involved with the community and immersed himself in civic affairs. He became a volunteer Taiwan commissioner for the U.S., the highest honorary position for overseas pro-Taiwan leaders, even though he had never lived in Taiwan.
According to friends and supporters, Leung was the “perfect” leader who was respectful to everyone, even if he disagreed with them. “Some people don’t like him, but he treats them nicely,” Bill Wong, another prominent Chinatown citizen, explained to the SFGate website. “He sometimes has a different opinion, but he always tries to compromise. You never hear him trying to do something in his own interests. He always thinks about the association (that Leung and Wong belonged to) and the Chinese community.”
Leung projected a benevolent image, but he was no push-over. One night in April 1977, a burglar broke into his family home. Leung shot the intruder in the chest, killing him. Police ruled the shooting a justifiable homicide.
Yet, Leung had a mysterious side. Few people knew that he was a leader in a secretive Chinese Tong organization called Hip Sing Tong, where he was known as Dragon Head. The word Tong means meeting hall or gathering place. The Tongs were founded in 17th century Imperial China, and in America they can trace their beginnings to the California Gold Rush and the mid-19th century before they spread to other parts of the country.
In the U.S., the Tongs started off as a benevolent organization to help Chinese immigrants deal with discrimination, but according to U.S. authorities, the organization was already heavily under criminal influence by the time Leung became a member. Authorities suspected that the Tongs, including Hip Sing Tong, were into criminal activities like gambling, drugs, prostitution, and so-called “protection services,” which amounted to extortion. The Tongs are like secretive societies or sworn brotherhoods and will affiliate with Chinese gangs, which they often control for their own protection.
In San Francisco, the Tongs became a powerful institution. “If you go and look at the history of Chinatown, the Tongs were always important,” Peter Huston, the author of Tongs, Gangs and Triads: Chinese Crime Groups in North America, told the Walnut Creek, California-based Contra Costa Times. “As more and more people came from Hong Kong, they brought their organizations with them. In about the 1970s, the modern day type of street gang started to become prominent.”
Yet, despite his influence and power, Leung lived in fear of certain younger members of his own Hip Sing Tong organization. Normally, the Chinese community does not deal with the local police because it has never really trusted the authorities. Leung, however, was in such fear that in March 2005 he approached the San Francisco Police Department for help.
Leung told the authorities that Raymond Chow, an ex-convict and gang associate, had demanded about $120,000 to start a so-called youth group. The FBI interviewed Chow about Leung’s claim, but Chow denied there was any extortion attempt.
The authorities, however, viewed Chow as one of the most prominent gangsters in San Francisco’s Chinatown. An early 1990s report of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had identified Chow as “a well-known source of muscle” in Asian organized crime in the San Francisco Bay Area and charged that “he had been allegedly involved in kidnapping and home invasion robberies and had been identified by law enforcement agencies as a critical player in Wo Hop To’s recent surge.” Wo Hop To is a Triad group based in Wanchai, Hong Kong.
In 2003, Chow was released from prison when his sentence was cut in half after he agreed to testify against an associate named Peter Chong. Chow was lucky. He should have been deported to Hong Kong.
After release, Chow tried to portray himself as a reformed man no longer involved in organized crime. He gave interviews in which he freely talked about his past. He worked with kids to keep them out of trouble. He even wrote an autobiography about his years in the Chinese underworld, which he claimed were behind him.
Chow liked to tell anyone who would listen that he was no longer in organized crime and that he was working hard to get his life back on track. Maureen Kallins, Chow’s attorney at the time, pointed out that Chow had developed a reputation in San Francisco’s Chinatown community as a good person willing to help people in trouble. She said he was a different person when he got out of prison, a man who had improved himself through motivation and hours of Kung Fu practice.
Still, the authorities kept investigating Chow, which led to serious problems for him. For instance, he was constantly fighting Uncle Sam’s efforts to deport him to Hong Kong.
Hip Sing Tong board members refused to pay the $120,000, and the next day, bullets were fired at the Hip Sing Tong headquarters. Then an ominous letter was sent to the headquarters. It was addressed to Leung and two other leaders in the Tong.
It read: “Someone open (sic) fire at your front door, but you’re just chicken shit, no response to it, just keeping your mouth quiet. Having this kind of leader makes all the Tongs lose face. I have a poem to dedicate to you. It says you should be embarrassed for a thousand years and your reputation stink (sic) for ten thousand years.”
Leung told authorities that Chow would not be satisfied until he killed him. Federal agents believed Leung, but they wanted him to wear a wire to further an investigation of Chow. Leung refused.
So the case died, and Leung went back to his normal life; that is, until February 2006 when a masked man entered his import-export business and demanded cash. Leung ostensibly agreed to the demand, but the robber killed him anyway with multiple shots. Leung died in front of his wife.
San Francisco’s Chinese community was shocked, but nobody was willing to talk about the crime. As one prominent local Chinese leader explained, “Nobody wanted to be next.”
The authorities were convinced that Raymond Chow was involved in the killing of Leung. Later, when Chow awaited charges for running the Hip Sing Tong as a criminal enterprise, William Frenzen, Assistant U.S. Attorney, would say the government had evidence Chow arranged Leung’s killing. The evidence eventually presented at Chow’s trial would help to expose the sordid criminal career of Raymond Chow, the infamous gangster known as “Shrimp Boy.”