Excerpt #6 from
The Underground Empire -
Where Crime and Governments Embrace
by James Mills
Doubleday, New York, 1986

Jammed into a narrow seat between backpacking tourists in a 747 over the Atlantic, I reflected on my five-year acquaintance with Centac and the Underground Empire. A few related but disconnected thoughts:

There is no question that the Underground Empire today has more power, wealth, and status than many nations. It flies no flag on the terrace of the United Nations, but it has larger armies, more capable intelligence agencies, more influential diplomatic services than many countries that do. We are so accustomed to thinking of crime in terms of street muggings, burglaries, and Mafia murders that we fail to recognize it as a major international force, a Fourth World of nations united not by military might, economic condition, or political theory, but by an ideology of greed, by the institutionalization of state-supported crime. These countries are our enemies, and more insidiously so than those of two world wars, for they conceal their attacks beneath promises of amity and cooperation.

Without the cooperation of corrupt governments, the international narcotics industry could not exist. But governments, our own particularly, lean over backward to conceal this fact from their constituents (and sometimes from themselves), for to recognize it would cripple foreign relations. How can the American government accuse a foreign leader (General Noriega of Panama, for example) of pervasive criminal activity, and at the same time deal with him effectively as a head of state?

How natural, how necessary, it is that the United States government, principally through its intelligence services, should have secret relations with the Underground Empire, just as it must with other sovereign entities, even when they invade innocent neighbors and torture dissidents. The interests and methods of intelligence agencies are in many cases identical to those of high-level criminals. Both seek power, or the paths to power, through bribery, blackmail, and intimidation. So it is natural that as one progresses upward through layers of crime one finds more and more intelligence agents. They take power where they can get it. The world that international criminal groups have created is precisely the kind of world intelligence people seek out and populate. They are not only within it, but of it. If an intelligence agent finds that his asset, the man with the power, happens to be the world's biggest drug trafficker -- well, so be it. If you've worked hard to get him in your pocket and then see his power threatened, you'll work hard to help him hang on, even if it means a little smuggling -- drugs, guns, sacks of cash.

The interest of the CIA is national security, threats to the country from without. The interest of law enforcement is internal security, the threat of crime. The CIA, in its pursuit of intelligence and influence, often courts the same powerful figures Centac pursued as criminals. But the external threat is always deemed more pressing than the internal threat, and intelligence wins precedence over law enforcement. The highly connected, tuxedo-clad criminal is left in place to provide intelligence to the United States -- and drugs to its citizens.

Where criminal proceeds so vastly exceed those of traditional industries, a nation is tempted to stop fighting crime and nationalize it. And in Some cases, before a nation can nationalize crime, crime criminalizes the nation. This happened in Bolivia in 1980.

International crime eventually ascends through politics, diplomacy, and statesmanship to a level of supracrime, where, having triumphed absolutely, it rules even that which had been created to destroy it, and is eventually not recognized as crime at all.

So long as they do not seriously imperil American foreign interests, the United States government will take no effective action against international groups engaged in crime for profit. To assuage the anger of voters who do not like to be murdered, robbed, swindled, and burglarized, who do not like to see narcotics on sale in schoolrooms, the Pentagon, and Congress, future administrations will continue to re-declare the war on drugs. The war will continue to be a civil war, one aboveground sector of the government attacking the drug traffic on front pages and the seven o'clock news, another underground sector secretly permitting the traffic, at times promoting it.

What can we do? It has, as my agent friend said, "been going on forever." The first coconspirators were two humans and a reptile, the first contraband an apple. Today the Underground Empire, the international narcotics industry, affects each one of us, from the films we watch to the music we listen to, the price we pay for our homes, the safety of our streets, the readiness of our defense forces, the honesty of our government, the behavior and habits of our children.

You do not have to be a ClA-hater to trek around the world viewing one major narcotics group after another and grow amazed at the frequency with which you encounter the still-fresh footprints of American intelligence agents. You might never be absolutely certain the footprints shouldn't be there, but you will always be uncomfortable that so many solemn men in pinstriped vests are lying about them.

The tracks are everywhere. The dapper, aristocratic Mr. Lung -- "02" to his American government contacts -- speaks laughingly of ClA-supported Thais helicoptering up the mountain to collect their "goodies" from CIA client Chang Chi-fu, the world's foremost opium dealer. Chang's heroin-dealing colleague, Chinese General Li Wen-huan, is known to be a CIA dependent. The CIA terminates Operation Durian, a DEA assault against Lu Hsu-shui, whose wife happens to be a cousin of Poonsiri Chanyasak, the Communist Lao government's "minister of heroin," and who himself turns out today to be associated with a representative of Communist Chinese intelligence. Assassin Michael Decker, suspected of CIA connections, describes a CIA weapons brochure found in the personal papers of Alberto Sicilia-Falcon, a major marijuana-heroin-cocaine dealer also suspected of employment by the CIA. Sicilia-Falcon and his influential bullfighter friend Gaston Santos join in a ClA-sanctioned Portuguese arms deal. Sicilia-Falcon's friend and adviser, CIA-trained Jose Egozi, also involved in the Portuguese weapons deal, talks to Centac agents and ends up hanging from a bed sheet in his Mexican prison cell. Sicilia, under torture, is said to confess to CIA drugs and weapons operations intended to destabilize Latin nations. Rearrested after his escape, facing assassination or further torture, Sicilia is rescued by a high Mexican official the CIA later identifies as its "most important source in Mexico and Central America." In Panama the CIA inhibits a DEA intelligence operation, and blocks a Washington meeting between Panama's drug-dealing leader and DEA bosses.

The CIA may argue that it dirties itself in the narcotics industry because that is where it finds the leaders of nations it seeks to comprehend and influence. Over a period of five years I became convinced of the participation in the drug traffic of high officials in at least thirty-three countries: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, the Bahamas, Brazil, Belize, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burma, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, France, Haiti, Honduras, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States. Not to mention a host of Caribbean, Asian, and European money-laundering nations, plus the PLO and various revolutionary and terrorist groups. In many cases the participation of officials was sufficiently high-level and pervasive to suggest the knowledge and approval, and at times the participation, of the chief of state. If the United States finds it necessary to deal secretly with powerful criminals, some of them masquerading as democratic leaders of free nations, it would be nice to know that we are aware of the price we're paying. How much intelligence and influence is worth how many heroin deaths? How many cocaine overdoses? How many marijuana-fogged seventh-graders? It would be nice not to be told that the problem will be solved shortly after the next election by another thousand agents, a few score prosecutors, a dozen new jails...

The seat belt sign went on and the stewardesses began collecting headphones. In the past five years I had learned a little about the Underground Empire, its secret wealth and power, and I had also learned what a bureaucracy does to a renegade organization like Centac.

Dennis had been right -- the FBI did not tolerate what it had not itself created. As part of President Reagan's war on drugs, the FBI took over responsibility for federal drug law enforcement, and in the bargain proclaimed Centac to be nonexistent. The most successful weapon ever fielded against the international narcotics industry, a weapon that had survived attacks by some of the federal law enforcement community's most influential constituents, a weapon whose support and enlargement had been championed by Congress's General Accounting Office, was destroyed by the FBI.

Individual Centac investigations were renamed "Special Enforcement Operations," removed from any central, overall control, and dumped onto DEA's individual drug "desks." An SEO (as they were supposed to be called) dealing with heroin traffickers would go to the DEA heroin desk, cocaine traffickers to the cocaine desk, marijuana to the marijuana desk. If the targeted organization dealt in more than one drug, as many of them did -- well, that would have to be worked out. There was no SEO office, and no SEO boss. Speaking to Dennis on the telephone, I suggested that the FBI would claim they had so streamlined and centralized drug law enforcement operations that Centac was no longer needed.

"That's precisely what you're going to hear," he agreed. "'Whatever Centac did all of DEA is now doing. We are putting all our strength into targeting major organizations.'"

"But it means a lot more than targeting. It means a conspiratorial rather than a seizure line. That's not happening."

"They're still going for powder on the table?"

"Absolutely. And they'll continue to do that, and more of it. They are going hell-bent for arrests, rather than indictments."

The truth of that was evident in the newspapers almost every day. The war on drugs was producing highly publicized arrests of men who later turned out to be relatively small-time dealers.

"Well, that's sad," I said.

"It is sad indeed."

The CIA The "War on Drugs" Serendipity Home Page