Story Sample: The Playing Field, a Beijing Flashback

Posted: October 24, 2008 in Journal
In the wake of criticisms and chaos surrounding the Beijing Olympics, at least one story remains to China’s credit — the historical joint US-Chinese operation in 2003 that took down the world’s biggest heroin ring

Beijing 2008

Olympics aside, Beijing’s pollution is special. While competing as the noisiest city in the world, direct sunlight and distinct cloud outlines are indeed rare. This – along with the shortsighted, over-anxious nature of government censorship — fosters the sense of living in a bubble, a manufactured environment, a kind of limbo with an undefined sky.

The ratio of women to men adds to the air of desperation, 119 men for every 100 women, most of whom fall prey to a naïve and gargantuan sense of entitlement due to being doted on by one-child policy parents. Yet with so much physical and cultural change occurring before their very eyes, it’s understandable, the feeling that nobody wants to be left behind. Rock music only arrived in China twenty years ago. In 1985, rock bands were not allowed by the government to play outside private parties. Now, China has its own brand of hip-hop.

A taxi driver once remarked to me, “We working people don’t like what’s going on in Beijing,” a reference to the record-scale remodeling efforts ahead of the Olympics and subsequent earnings from corruption, cited by leading Olympic “Bird’s Nest” architect Ai WeiWei in a Der Spiegel article earlier this year.

Aside from the Sichuan earthquake, and allegations of Indian exiles with UK passports stirring pro-Dalai Lama dissent around Aba (for an uprising which was supposed to happen in July), China has suffered heavy criticism for a deteriorating human rights record leading up to the Olympics. Persecution of petitioners are only one example, explored in a 2007 UK documentary called “China’s Olympic Lie,” now making rounds over the internet. All of this tends to sway public opinion towards a negative view of a leadership called a “group of goons and thugs” by CNN commentator Jack Cafferty. Even after the apology, the negativity stuck, all the way into a lawsuit against CNN in China.

But there’s an independent layer to all this, something called “cop culture.” It’s all over the world, the job produces the same symptoms in law enforcement personnel wherever you might find them. It’s the choice of language, the way they handle themselves. The way two cops from different countries seem to understand each other is different from how two civilians find ways to understand each other, let alone the politicians. A byproduct of this culture is a tiny population of people who put aside their personal aspirations and agendas for something greater than themselves, and in the best cases, leave politics a lot of room to catch up.

There is one instance which not only defines this culture, but in a blind justice kind of way, does not play into current events the way politicians might want it to – in this case, politicians from Beijing and Washington. This instance was the 125 case, otherwise known as “Operation City Lights,” the historic US/China collaboration which ended in the takedown of the world’s biggest Asian heroin ring in 2003. It wasn’t just the takedown, nor the meticulous navigation through one of the worst political climates between two superpowers in history, a prerequisite to accomplishing the takedown. It was what emerged, of which we were allowed a glimpse, that stirred and surfaced in a glorious precious moment, something we as people might bear witness to in defense of our existence if we ever had to. One might call it Edge, the guts to go beyond, finally hitting the mark – which the Greeks called Virtue.

When I first met him in person (after six months of emails and phone calls), walking into his hotel room in Kunming in September 2006, I could sense the caution. This was the first encounter with someone who had done a career-load of DEA undercover work, since 1978, and by the end of his career he was the DEA country attaché, reporting directly to the Ambassador, his position directly appointed by the President of the United States.

Los Angeles, 1992

A delegation of some thirty Chinese cops were in town, visiting from Yunnan Province. Although there were no official arrangements, no trips to Universal Studios, and the Chinese had arranged their own transportation, Jimmy, as his responsibility usually dictated, was still set to play the host. In reality, as always, he was hoping to score some off-the-record sense of the state of affairs in the country of his guests.

With no DEA office yet in mainland China, the closest assessment of what was going on there routinely came from the occasional whisper or rumor picked up by DEA Hong Kong. Jimmy wondered if this time, he might be able to piece together a more complete picture to the equation which, at present without factoring in Chinese seizure reports, left the regional (Asian) average at no more than half a ton per year.

As there was no official lunch, the Chinese invited Jimmy to Chinatown to share a meal. In his best pidgin Mandarin, Jimmy managed to get into some issues concerning the Burmese border with China. The DEA believed, he said, that Khun Sa and a handful of his lieutenants were the biggest, most formidable group in that area.

“Ha! Khun Sa is peanuts!” was the response. “We’ve got other people, Wei brothers, Lin Ming-xien, Peng Chia-sheng, the Ko Kang… Jimmy, you want big guys? These are the guys that cause China problems. And we take four tons of dope out of them a year.” The Chinese were working on a group a little north of Khun Sa’s people who had been responsible for the killings of Chinese counternarcotics agents along
the Yunnan/Burma border.

It was a shock, Jimmy couldn’t believe it, the DEA never knew. He grabbed a napkin and asked for the names. Arriving back in his office, Jimmy approached John Whalen, an ex-Marine Captain, an intelligence-type. He handed the napkin to Whalen, who returned with a list of names thirty minutes later.

“Yeah, we know about these guys. They’re big.”

They were so big, in fact, that one of the names on that list turned out to be in the 125 group, the world’s biggest heroin smugglers, nicknamed 125 for the weight in kilos of the ringleader.

“So who’s working them?” Jimmy asked.

“Nobody,” Whalen uncomfortably replied.

“Oh. Okay…” Jimmy drifted, his perception of China just beginning to change, at that moment. It was the new playing field, a target-rich environment with real, tangible groups, identified, operating at the highest level in volumes that dwarfed anything known before. The names on the paper napkin, the four-ton seizures, were strategic intelligence, which then would go into a threat assessment, which would then be incorporated into a proposal, which was instrumental in the decision to open an office in China. Finally, in 1997, Jiang Zhemin and Bill Clinton signed the Mutual Law Enforcement Cooperation Agreement, and the post which Jimmy would eventually fill was created.

New York, 2001

The FBI were making undercover heroin purchases off two Hong Kong nationals in New York, Cheung and Lau. As it turned out while reviewing the surveillance, Cheung was driving a car that was registered in Boston by another Chinese man. Why was Cheung driving another guy’s car? And who was this guy? FBI agents wrote a subpoena which was signed and sent to the telephone company to get a record of all incoming and outgoing calls made by the car’s owner in Boston over the prior six months. A woman at the phone company received the subpoena and walked away from her desk into a special area behind glass doors. Usually what is asked for is a three-month or six-month phone toll. In this case, the FBI learned that their target had made some phone calls – there were three numbers — to a city in China called Fuzhou.

For the FBI, the case was at a dead end. The UC investigation wasn’t working for them and they weren’t getting what they needed. All they had were the two buyers, the car registered to the other accomplice in Boston, and the three Fuzhou phone numbers. Meanwhile DEA New York had a separate case going, which  eventually merged into the FBI case, both looking at the same group. As part of the standard procedure, when intel involves another country, this then becomes the business of the DEA’s Country Attaché. It was September 2002 when DEA New York then called Jimmy, now in Beijing, to get the subscriber information – owner and address. When the numbers were plugged into Jimmy’s case on 125, it was a fresh morsel of intel, and the case lurched forward.

 

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