Current Issue
ARCHIVE
SUBSCRIBE
BUY ISSUES
BOOKS
EXHIBITS
FILMS
MUSIC
LINKS
CONTACT

What War Is
Good For

By Guy Martin
So many wars are actually drug wars: wars fought to control drug trafficking; wars fought to stop drug trafficking; wars fought with drug money — and wars fought by young foot soldiers high on drugs

John Bok, the oft-jailed charter member of the Czech opposition and the man in charge of bustling Vaclav Havel from safe house to safe house during the Velvet Revolution, fell on hard times after the post-revolutionary euphoria wore off. This went fast. Since Bok had done well battling the old state security apparatus, the first Havel government put him in the hot seat at the Interior Ministry, screening state security files to find snitches in Czech politics, business, and the arts. It was toxic work. When the administration decided not to prosecute some hard-ass Stalinists Bok had
unmasked, the Interior Ministry deemed Bok a troublemaker and fired him.
     He took a gig as a toilet attendant in a nightclub off Wenceslas Square. There were students, expats, Gypsies, petty thieves, dope smokers, business folk, prostitutes clumsily hitting on their first tricks. The visitors to Bok’s toilet, some young enough to be his children, were shocked to find the famous, bulldog-like opposition leader in his trademark fedora snappily mopping up their piss. The club was named Radost — which translates as “Happiness.”
     In 1993, there was minimal rule of law in Prague, as there was none in Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow, Bratislava, Sofia, Bucharest, or Belgrade. There was no commercial matrix to which law could apply. Instead, the economic vacuum was filled across the former Soviet bloc by the twin plagues of robber barons and mafia lords who practiced
Cartago, Colombia, 2004
View from a police helicopter of the ranch of
an alleged cocaine trafficker — an ongoing
scene from the war against drugs.
PHOTO BY John Bonilla
a form of eminent domain, backed up with plenty of gunslinging. For nightlife purveyors — whose cash-cow businesses are magnets for the attentions of crime families — the choice was stark. One bought protection (a “roof,” in the parlance of the Moscow mafia), or one didn’t. In Club Happiness, whose owners had managed to beat back several roof offers, Bok, the only man in the club with good-cop gravitas, became the owner’s first line of defense when it came to nightly difficulties. This made sense, since most mafia soldiers — whether Czech, Bulgarian, or Russian — were out-of-work secret policemen. Bok spoke the lingua franca.
     Three am, mid-December 1993: a terrified doorman rushes into Bok’s toilet. Would he please come upstairs. On the curb is a crew of Serbs, crusty and sleepless from having threaded their car for two days out through their war.
These are not simple mafia soldiers breaking a new market, they are actual soldiers, trying to serve the god of war, not Morpheus. They have a lot of heroin. One of them has an automatic machine pistol he’s pleased to let nose out from under his leather coat. They’ve heard that Happiness is a place where they could bring it with the expectation of a gentlemanly reception. They don’t really like drugs, but, they assure Bok, this is export grade from Turkey. There are several uncut kilograms in the trunk of the car, worth a bit more than US$30,000. Unfortunately, they have very little time. They must drive the money back to the war. Could Mr. Bok please inspect the load?
     These are not simple mafia soldiers breaking a new market, they are actual soldiers, trying to serve the god of war, not Morpheus. They want guns and ammo. They could just as well have been selling a load of French soap; the heroin simply offered them more bang for the buck. Bok’s problem: financially motivated mafia soldiers are — within
mafia parameters — predictable; if you request an audience with their bosses, their obligation to maim or kill can be gotten around. With real soldiers — with, for instance, soldiers from the Serbian Army — that threshold is absent.
     The heroin would be much hotter and harder to sell if they hurt anybody in Prague, Bok methodically explains to them, but, besides that, Club Happiness is not the place. His trump card is a Cold War bluff. He hints that he was a secret policeman — not difficult, since he had been one — but he doesn’t bother to say that he’d been one for Havel. The Serbs retreat, thinking that the drugs in Club Happiness are firmly under the “roof” of the Czech mafia. It was a missive from the Cold War to the Balkan wars: Our war rules here.
     The breakup of what was Yugoslavia has many antecedents, as did the opiates in the hands of those soldiers. Contributing to the moment were: Paul’s fanatical
In the Golden Triangle, Burma, circa 1992
Soldiers in the personal army of Khun Sa, the Burmese
drug baron known as the Heroin King.
PHOTO BY Christophe Loviny
expansion of Christianity to Europe; Europe’s equally fanatical wars to “restore” Christianity in the Middle East; centuries of Ottoman resistance to that effort; the bloody medieval birth of the Serbian state on the western fringe of the Ottoman empire; the three centuries of British opium trade that seated the poppy in Turkey; post–World War One dismemberment of Turkish hegemony; the sweep of Hitler, then Stalin, over Central Europe; and the end of the Cold War, which freed the ethnic spores of the Balkan wars to poison and proliferate.
     All that terrible work, and more, lay coiled in a grand helix behind and around the suitcases of heroin in the trunk of the Serbian car.
     Drugs work. They work for any master who picks them up, or many masters at once, and they serve absolutely without question or favor. They can easily be turned into weapons, as in biological or chemical agents. Drugs
can also kill individually and secretly, as in the poison on the tip of the umbrella with which a Bulgarian dissident was stabbed by the KGB in London in 1978. Because various compounds can alter consciousness, their weaponliness, too, has been exploited — from the Cold War use of sodium pentothal to the US Army’s LSD tests during Vietnam.
     Drugs can live off, within, or around a war, as a remora does off the back of a shark. Psychotropics — cocaine, grass, hash, opium, synthetic methamphetamines — can be used to rake the terror off the battlefield experience by making the ugly rush of warfighting beautiful, or at least tolerably positive, as was done by the Hutu in Rwanda and the rebels in Liberia. In the teeth of the Grozny house-to-house fighting from 1994 to 1996, the one building that both Chechens and Russians took great pains to avoid was the cigarette factory. It ran uninterrupted. When the trucks
couldn’t get through, the factory would run out of paper and use newsprint or book frontispieces for packaging, but it ran day and night.
     Drugs are excellent catalysts of war because they are infinitely liquid. The Afghan war refugees in Iran, of which there are now hundreds of thousands, often arrive with nothing but little balls of opium with which to begin bartering for sustenance. Big liquidity from big drug deals can also finance big insurrections, as with the warlords in Afghanistan in the 1980s, who dealt opium to defeat the Soviets. Medium liquidity from medium-sized drug deals can finance impressive forms of terror, as with the members of the Moroccan train-bombing cell in Madrid, who bankrolled much of their preparatory work with the sale of hashish and Ecstasy.
     Drugs work well in war because they are Beelzebubian. It does not matter to any drug whose purposes it serves.
South Kivu,
Democratic Republic of Congo, 2002

Child soldier in the Mai Mai rebel movement smoking marijuana—one form of relief in an ongoing Pan-African conflict that has killed millions and created a power vacuum that groups like the mai mai have exploited to plunder the country’s natural resources.
PHOTO BY Sven Torfinn
     Since the technology was in place by World War One, drugs have been considered a way to economize mass death. Why ask a soldier to put himself at risk to shoot a single opponent when one can simply send a compound — an airborne gas or an artillery shell containing a lethal drug — that will kill or maim many enemies in their trenches? This idea, more or less the ultimate combination of war and chemistry, has been taken in many directions, by Hitler’s minions at IG Farben who developed Zyklon B, and by Saddam Hussein, who famously — and backed by the US — gassed the Iranians during his eight years of trench warfare with them.
     In big, symmetric, conventional warfare between appropriately industrialized combatants, big death can inspire great strides in field medicine; in the Civil War, anesthesia; in the Spanish-American War, treatment for yellow fever;
in World War Two, the crash program to develop penicillin.
     Ninety-one years after Black Jack Pershing departed victoriously from Mindanao, the Muslim-Christian brushfire he thought he extinguished burns on in the Philippines, now laced with the ephedrine-based methamphetamine called shabu. It’s non-coca crack, basically — and, like crack, kids are on it, from the mall rats in Zamboanga to the slum urchins of Manila. There are labs scattered through the jungles of Mindanao and Luzon, as well as in the shantytowns of Manila. Throughout the country, there is an urgent, shabu-fueled Moebius strip of corruption, much like that inspired by cocaine in Colombia and Mexico.
     Down in the heavier, 400-year-old fighting in Mindanao, Muslim guerrillas pump up with shabu to immortalize themselves before ambushing the better-armed government troops. The sitting governor of the guerrilla-ridden
island of Basilan, Wahab Akbar, embodies the endless gyre of this war. Akbar, 52, was for years a Moro National Liberation Front fighter who then founded Mindanao’s readiest dealers of death, the Abu Sayyaf group, with some Philippine mujahideen who had fought alongside Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden patronized the group in the early going. Beloved locally and professing peace after years of fomenting war, Akbar left the Abu Sayyaf, entered politics, and is chauffeured around the island every day in an SUV with half a dozen bodyguards and a couple of German shepherds in the back. It’s thought that he keeps a shabu lab in the jungle. His eyes are black with dilation; he wears thick yellow rubber dishwashing gloves that he rarely takes off. Akbar will even sit at table in the fantastic heat clad in rubber to the elbows, like a good coca processor in the Colombian bush who’s just taking a break from mixing his barrels of toxic precursors.
Khadja-Bakhoutdin, Afghanistan, 2001
Northern Alliance soldiers, before the fall of the Taliban,
display heroin seized near the Tajikistan border.
PHOTO BY RPG
Sometimes his old war loyalties and disloyalties catch up with him, and the Abu Sayyaf try to kill him. It is insane.
     Poor combatants will have different drug tolerances, different needs, and will create a different drug flow than rich ones. The difference lies approximately between the accident of Vietnam — in which a magnificently rich and vulnerable country, the United States, put its fat, unlearned, conventional army into an insurrection in the world’s then-largest opium-producing heartland — and Afghanistan, in which a huge, economically misguided dictatorship, Soviet Russia, put its fat, unlearned, conventional army into a dirt-poor country whose guerrillas began aggressively to grow and market opium to finance their fight. The gyroscopes of these endeavors somehow spoke to each other over and beyond the horizons of either war, as if there were some larger form of synchronization. It was the synchronization of need.
By the end of the American part of the war, heroin from the Golden Triangle accounted
for 80 percent of the product in the US.
     It worked like a Bach fugue, each eddy of druggy business and war picking up where the last left off. The Vietnam War — even in its French iteration — provided the Golden Triangle growers and traffickers with an instant, enormous new market in the States. Air America, the CIA-backed transport airline, ferried guns to Hmong and Laotian anticommunist guerrillas and then, as a return favor for their fighting the Vietminh and the Vietcong, ferried out the guerrillas’ raw opium to middlemen. The CIA reportedly built a processing lab on one of its bases in the Laotian highlands. By the end of the American part of the war, heroin from the Golden Triangle accounted for 80 percent of the product in the US. The flow of that heroin into the US was tied directly to American participation in the war. After the US pulled its last troops out, in April 1975, “Mexican Mud,” meaning brown heroin from Central America, took over as the States’s opiate of choice.
     Conveniently, by 1989, the Soviets were dragging the last of their newly addicted troops out of Afghanistan — exactly as the US did when it pulled out of Vietnam fourteen years earlier. The Afghan warlords, who had been showered with millions in guns and logistical support — again, from the CIA — throughout the 1980s, had become full-fledged growers and traffickers of opium, exactly as the Hmong and Shan tribes in the Southeast Asian highlands had in the 1950s and 1960s. It was darn good business for everybody, and it kept the war burning hot. The Soviet Union did the Afghans the additional favor of collapsing entirely in 1991, whereupon the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan fell into civil war for roughly six years, providing northern Afghan warlords with immediate, unpatrolled dope routes out of the Afghan civil war, through the Tajik civil war, into Russia and Eastern Europe.
Monrovia, Liberia, 2003
Government fighters prepare to launch an attack
against soldiers from the insurgent group
Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy
(LURD). before reaching the front line, they take
cocaine to gain courage and strength.
PHOTO BY Jehad Nga
     The Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was a principal American beneficiary during the mujahideen-building years against the Soviets. As in Southeast Asia, where the CIA flew the raw opium to the middlemen, the CIA funded supply convoys to bring raw opium to the labs along the Afghan-Pakistani border. And, drawing that chapter to its logical close, today Hekmatyar — still a major actor in the world heroin supply — has realigned his militiamen with the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in the tribal areas and is peppering US units in firefights on a weekly basis, financed by the trade.
     When the Taliban forced the warlords out of Kabul and back to the hills in 1995 and 1996, the ultra-pious, half-blind Mullah Omar — and by extension, his main client, Osama bin Laden — began levying “taxes” on opium farmers and traffickers. The Taliban engineered an opium boom of unparalleled proportions and hypocrisy.
Opium officially became Afghanistan’s sole national product. In 1999, Afghanistan produced 4,565 metric tons of opium, dwarfing output from every other region in the world going back for decades. From 1989 to 1999, as Afghanistan descended into absolute chaos, the Northern Alliance warlords in concert with the Taliban supplied 70 percent of the world’s opium, outstripping Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Colombia together. Nobody can beat the Afghan tally because the Afghans so deftly entwined their drug production with an uninterrupted 20 years of war.
     The behavior of the dealers and growers in Afghanistan around September 11, 2001, can be seen as a highly calibrated barometer of war. Before September 11, Afghan opium prices had soared to as much as US$700 per kilo. At the end of September, as Mullah Omar and the Taliban were refusing to hand over their adopted patron
bin Laden, the wholesale price for opium dropped to US$100 a kilo, which meant that, in anticipation of an American invasion, farmers and the traffickers were dumping stockpiles on other traffickers within the country, or on those who would take it to safe haven.
     Although Alexander the Great brought opium to Persia and India on the heels of his many serial wars — and the drug maintains its hold in those two regions 2,350 years later — the largest opium traffickers in the world were the British. From the 1700s to the mid-1800s, the British had a monopoly on the world opium trade, with some assistance from well-known American opium traders such as John Jacob Astor. The commerce was aggressive. Two Opium Wars were fought with China, in 1839 and 1856, over the right of the British to import Indian opium into China. The British won both times, and the Chinese opium
Caparro, Brazil, 2003
Brazilian police inspect an illegal airstrip used by drug traffickers. It was destroyed the next day by the Brazilian air force.
Photo: Patricia Santos
culture flourished. Part of the bounty of the second Opium War included the famous 99-year lease on Hong Kong.
     The Colombian cocaine cartels, which have enjoyed — or bought — a strangely unruffled symbiosis with the Colombian communist insurgents for years, have aggressively diversified from marijuana and coca into poppies. Their opium now accounts for 60 percent of the American market and has broken the back of Mexican and Southeast Asian heroin in the States. The Colombians are masters of the Moebius strip — they can seem to work one side while also working the other. Mexico and Panama were arguably their most obvious lily pads in the great Caribbean Basin game of hopscotching product to the States. The Colombians like to go in under whomever the United States thinks is their man and corrupt him — Panama was in fact invaded in 1989 so that the US could stop its former proxy, General Manuel Noriega,
from funneling coke northward.
     The near-permanent civil war in Haiti is yet another handy Colombian scrim for transshipment. Most recently, as the US-installed Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed by some mysteriously funded narco-guerrillas in a brief but extremely energetic blitzkrieg, it emerged that the former president seems to have been a Colombian-kickback dude all along.
     If the right characters surface, drugs and war can beget a minor judicial reaction. One of Aristide’s major benefactors, drug millionaire Beaudoin Ketant, was extradited from Haiti to Miami in 2003 and put on trial for smuggling last summer. Last February 25, as guerrillas were closing in on Port-au-Prince 707 miles to the south, Ketant was called to his sentencing hearing in Miami. When asked if he had anything to say, Ketant told the judge that Aristide — who in 96 hours would be whisked off the bloody island by the US —
was the true drug lord of the country.
     “But I’m not sentencing President Aristide,” said the judge.
     “Not yet, your honor,” said Ketant. “You will be seeing him pretty soon.”  











Back to Table of Contents