Ever since the CIA helped Vang Pao and hundreds of thousands of his fellow Hmong flee Southeast Asia three decades ago, the former Laotian general and Westminster resident has been talking about going home. As the head of Neo Hom, or United Lao Liberation Front, Vang raised money from fellow refugees and lobbied the U.S. Congress for support in bringing democracy to Communist-ruled Laos. He promised his fellow refugees his crusade would only end when the Communist flags were lowered in the Laotian capital, Vientiane.
“If you wish for something enough, someday it should come true,” Vang told the Sacramento Bee in 1995. “The older people have nothing here. They want to go back.”
Apparently, Vang got tired of wishing.
On June 4, federal agents arrested him and eight other Hmong from the Sacramento area, along with Harrison Jack, a former U.S. Army Ranger involved in covert operations in Vietnam, and charged them with plotting terrorist attacks and violating U.S. arms-export laws. If convicted, Vang and the other defendants face life in prison for conspiring to ship hundreds of AK-47s, C-4 plastic explosives and Stinger missiles to Thailand. The weapons were to be smuggled to Hmong insurgents across the border in Laos and used to assassinate government officials and topple administrative buildings in a spectacular assault, the carnage of which would allegedly rival 9/11.
While Vang's exact role in the alleged plot remains murky, from the media's coverage of the arrest, you could be forgiven for assuming he makes an unlikely criminal. In both Orange County and Sacramento, where the defendants were arrested, the local papers simply described Vang as a decorated war hero who helped the CIA fight communism in Southeast Asia before becoming a low-profile community leader in the U.S.
“Vang helped establish a chain of Lao Family Community centers to help Hmong refugees,” the Bee reported on June 5, adding that he has helped resolve “clan disputes over money and marital conflicts.” The following day, The Orange County Register interviewed neighbors of Vang who described him as a “good person” who was “really dedicated to the Hmong people.” The Los Angeles Times chimed in with a June 7 story describing Vang as a “elderly Hmong man who relies on heart medication and a cane.”
Only the AP hinted that not everyone views Vang as a hero. Twenty-three paragraphs into a 26-paragraph story, AP noted that “Vang Pao has been a source of controversy” in Madison, Wisconsin, where Hmong leaders hoped to name a new elementary school after him, but school officials balked over his “violent” history. “In 2002, the city of Madison dropped a plan to name a park in his honor after a University of Wisconsin professor cited numerous published sources alleging that Vang Pao had ordered executions of his own followers, of enemy prisoners of war and of his political enemies,” the AP wrote, adding that Vang had denied those charges.
The AP didn't name the professor in question, but anyone with a cursory understanding of the CIA's role in Southeast Asia's heroin trade knows his identity: Alfred W. McCoy, whose 1972 book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade is considered a landmark study of the Golden Triangle, the heroin-producing region located in the tribal areas of Burma, Thailand and Laos. Vang happens to be a central character in McCoy's book, chiefly because of the volume of evidence McCoy uncovered suggesting that Vang played a central role in the drug business.
In particular, McCoy noted that French and U.S. narcotics agents identified Vang as the mastermind of a 1971 heroin-smuggling operation that went awry when the Laotian ambassador to France lost a suitcase at the Paris airport. In fact, the missing luggage was no accident: French authorities knew the suitcase contained 60 kilograms of heroin and simply confiscated it rather than embarrass the Laotian government with arrests, investigations and bad publicity. “According to reports later received by the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, [the] venture had been financed by Hmong General Vang Pao, commander of the CIA's Secret Army, and the heroin itself had been refined in a laboratory at Long Tieng, the CIA's headquarters for clandestine operations in northern Laos,” McCoy wrote.
McCoy, who spent years in Laos during the Vietnam War researching the heroin trade, also interviewed drug agents who told him that Vang “was operating a heroin factory at the CIA's Long Tieng headquarters” and that he and other CIA assets “had become the leading heroin dealers” in Laos. “Vang Pao relied on air transport to deliver his people for slaughter in the CIA's secret war, and the agency in turn did not object when his officers used Air America to transport the Hmong opium crop.” As a result of the Hmong-CIA alliance, McCoy writes, thousands of American GI's in South Vietnam, the drug's first stop after Laos, became addicted to heroin. Before long, major epidemics of addiction hit Europe and the United States.
Because of his strong ties to the CIA, however, Vang never faced any threat of arrest for his ties to the drug trade, McCoy writes. It's possible that impunity explains why he'd get involved in a hare-brained scheme to overthrow the Communist regime in Laos, an effort that federal agents posing as gun dealers immediately infiltrated and which stood virtually no chance of succeeding if it had gone forward.
But evidence has already begun to emerge that Vang and his cohorts believed their plot had CIA backing. An undercover agent's affidavit attached to the federal criminal complaint against Vang states that the former CIA base at Long Tieng would provide a staging area for Hmong fighters once they received the weapons, and it quotes Vietnam veteran Jack saying that “his Hmong contacts had raised a lot of money through 'Air America' but had not taken any money from the CIA.” Another accused plotter, Lo Cha Thao, told the agent his group had been consulting with a United States congressman and had received advice concerning “under table strategies” [sic] from military personnel like Jack and an unnamed “CIA guy.”
Vang's attorney, John Balazs, refused to comment for this story, but he asserted in a written statement that Vang was innocent of any wrongdoing. “He is an honored and respected military leader who led Hmong forces in attempting to prevent Communists from taking control of Laos during the 1960s and early 1970s,” Balazs stated. “General Vang Pao has worked actively to pursue peaceful solutions to the problems in Laos and has disavowed violence.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).