Friday, September 14, 2007

Thailand's famous drug smugglers

Captains outrageous

Published on September 16, 2007

If you'd wandered into the Superstar Bar on Patpong Road a quarter century ago, you might have noticed a table full of young, laid-back, deeply tanned young men - yacht captains all.

They were also a smuggling brotherhood, sailing boatloads of Thai sticks down to the northern coast of Australia. The business would prove so lucrative that, in 1988, a 180-foot oil-rig tender would strike out for California with a highly trained, uniformed crew and laden with 8,250 bales of primo cannabis - 72 tons of the stuff.

The evolution of the dope trade from happy-go-lucky amateurs to highly sophisticated professionals is the tale behind "Reefer Men", subtitled "The Rise and Fall of a Billionaire Drugs Ring". Author Tony Thompson has already written two books on Britain's criminal gangs and he approaches this one with relish.

"By the early eighties, the Superstar was virtually synonymous with the entire Thai marijuana trade. The bar's owners were hardly in a position to object," Thompson writes. "American Robert Lietzman and British-born Michael Forwall were both accomplished smugglers in their own right, and it was as a direct result of their legendary antics that the Superstar became so attractive to their fellow traffickers ...

"The smugglers who met up at the Superstar were as unlikely a band of brothers as there has ever been, ranging from helicopter pilots and former members of the army's special forces, to college dropouts and spoilt brats living off their trust funds. But chief among them was an ageing hippie by the name of Brian Daniels."

Daniels' life changed when he married a high-powered Thai woman with police and military connections throughout this country, Laos and Vietnam. He moved to the Northeast, immersed himself in the study of the language and culture, and drifted away from his farang friends at the Superstar.

In short order, he turned into a perverse sort of Peace Corps volunteer, advising local farmers on how to improve their new cash crop: marijuana.

"Not only did Daniels guarantee the farmers a market, he also helped introduce new seed stock, advanced fertilisers, and better methods of irrigation," Thompson writes.

He also tackled a perennial problem in marijuana smuggling: the great bulk of the product and susceptibility to mould on long sea voyages. "He adapted a trash compactor to squash the drugs down to a more manageable size, which meant that more marijuana could fit into a much smaller space. He also introduced vacuum-packaging machines that squeezed out even more air, reducing the space ever further and significantly delaying the onset of moulding."

Finally, to ensure officials and police who encountered his shipments would be assured of the proper bribes, he designed his own logo: a blue eagle above a line of bold red type that read: "PASSED INSPECTION".

Daniels' most successful partners were the Shaffer brothers, Chris a yacht captain and Bill a former Green Beret. Their most audacious haul came in 1987 with a load of 42 tons of marijuana. Their mother ship Manuia met two Vietnamese fishing boats dispatched by Daniels a couple of hundred miles off the coast. The Manuia proceeded to Alaska where it was to link up with an American fishing boat named Stormbird for the final run down to Washington state. But a disaffected member of the gang was feeding information to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.

The Shaffer brothers knew they were being tailed; their scanners picked up the conversations of the drug agents.

Bill Shaffer actually walked up to one and said, "I just wanted to say, good luck to your team".

The brothers hired another fishing boat, Blue Fin, transferred the cargo by conveyor belt and landed it in broad daylight at a Washington port disguised as fish crates. The original Stormbird was loaded with fish when DEA agents swarmed aboard. The crew was calmly drinking coffee, without as much as a single joint in evidence.

"A few hours after the crew of Stormbird had returned to port, they were handed bundles of airline tickets along with wads of spending money," Thompson writes. "The following day everyone who had been involved in the operation flew down to Mexico for a party to end all parties."

During the next year, the DEA managed to infiltrate the ring and everyone was eventually busted for the failed 1988 shipment of 72 tons. Daniels is still in prison and not scheduled for release until 2010. Having gone through millions in mansions, yachts and racing cars, the Shaffer brothers copped a plea and were released in 1998. They launched their own entertainment company in Santa Monica.

"In 1999 they allegedly sold the film rights to their story for US$1 million (Bt34.4 million). Brat Pitt was lined up to play Bill Shaffer and the project, provisionally titled Smugglers Moon, was due to begin filming after Ocean's Eleven. The film has, however, stalled at the development stage and no progress has been made since the original announcement."

For now you'll have to settle for the book.

James Eckardt's eighth book, "Singapore Girl", published by Monsoon Books, is on sale at Kinokuniya, Bookazine and Asia Books.

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