Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Bangkok Hilton": A Cautionary Tale

This was first posted in Eagle Rising.

Image result for bhang khwang prison bangkok

A few days ago, I watched the Australian 3-part TV mini-series, "Bangkok Hilton" (1989) starring Nicole Kidman in the role of a young Australian girl who was unwittingly duped by a drug smuggler into carrying a suitcase containing heroin concealed in false sides out of Bangkok airport. The heroin was discovered and the girl arrested as her "companion" blissfully left her and boarded the plane unhindered. The story then describes the efforts to clear her and depicts the primitive life inside Bangkok's notorious Bhang Khwang Prison (Bangkok Hilton) which was given a false name. It is a great movie with a haunting musical score and should be viewed by anybody who ever contemplated going to Thailand to smuggle drugs. Bhang Khwang is located just outside Bangkok and is a place where those convicted serve their sentences. The downtown Klong Prem Prison holds those who are awaiting or undergoing trial. I have had occasion to visit both.

Having been a DEA agent stationed in Bangkok during the wild 1970s, the movie brought back many memories although I would take issue with some of the parts of the story. For example, though I don't keep up to date on trafficking trends, it seems incongruous that a shipment of heroin would originate in Goa, India and pass through Thailand as a trans-shipment point. In real life, the actual smuggler, who accompanied Kidman's character to the airport and through the airport checks would have also been quickly scooped up as well.

Many of the cases I worked in Bangkok involved Western couriers who were sent to Thailand to carry heroin back to Europe, the US or Australia. They were, of course, at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak. Often times, we would get information as to their presence in Bangkok and when they were departing via air. Since Thailand had Customs departure search powers, many a courier was caught at Bangkok's airport trying to leave the country. Of course, every effort was made to identify the people behind the couriers, but prosecution in Thailand was difficult as they didn't have a real conspiracy law, and it was not easy to make a case if they were not arrested with the heroin in their possession. Occasionally, a controlled delivery could be made whereby the drugs were allowed to leave Thailand under joint international surveillance to the delivery point, but they were rare as technically, drugs were not allowed to leave the country. The penalties for the couriers were truly draconian averaging about 50 years in prison. While there is much corruption in Thailand, the country has long sought to make an example of Westerners who go there to smuggle heroin. A Thai prison is not where you want to be.

As the movie shows, Thailand does have a death penalty for drug trafficking. There is a riveting scene of the execution of a young Australian woman and her retarded brother for being convicted of trying to smuggle 7 kilos of heroin out of the country. At that time, execution at Bhang Khwang Prison was by machine gun with the prisoner tied to a pole, his back facing the executioner, who stood behind a white sheet with a target marked on it that would lead to the prisoner's heart. The prisoner was actually shot in the back unlike the movie where the prisoners were facing toward the executioner. Thailand now uses lethal injection. I am unaware of any Western prisoners being executed for drug trafficking in Thailand though it may have happened.

In late 1976, Thailand had a new hard line prime minister, Tanin Kraivixian, who was determined to show the West that Thailand could crack down on heroin trafficking.  Just a couple of weeks  before, a Chinese Laotian had been arrested trying to sell a large quantity of heroin to an undercover agent. He was subjected to a newly-passed law called Article 21 (later changed to Article 27) by which a thorough investigative package could be submitted to the prime minister with a request for summary execution-no trial. This was the first such approval. It also just happened that an American Congressional delegation was visiting Thailand to discuss drug matters during this period. This was under the new Carter administration. I recall attending a reception for them at the Dusit Thani hotel. The delegates consisted of Congressman Lester Wolf of New York, Mathea Falco, who was in charge of international narcotics issues, and Dr. Peter Bourne, Carter's drug adviser (Bourne later resigned after one of his staffers, who was a drug abuser, was arrested trying to buy certain drugs with a prescription signed by Bourne.)  If I am not mistaken, I believe Patricia Derian, Carter's human rights adviser, was there as well. After a couple of speeches from the Americans, including one on the need to observe human rights while fighting drugs, the prime minister took to the podium and assured the audience of his commitment to fight drug trafficking. As evidence, he announced the new Article 21 and informed the audience that just that morning he had authorized the execution of the aforementioned trafficker and that the execution had just been carried out. The shocked American representatives on the dais all groaned with a sick expression on their faces. The Thai drug cops we worked with, who had taken the prisoner from the local jail to Bhang Khwang for execution, showed us the pictures of the entire process. It was when he was met by a Buddhist monk at Bhang Khwang who began to pray for him that he realized his fate. After praying, he was tied to a pole and machined gunned to death.

As for those foreigners sentenced to long prison terms, many of their countries have concluded exchange programs where these prisoners can be repatriated to their home countries to continue their imprisonment after a few years in Thailand. I often wonder what happened to many of these people after I left the country in 1978 and how long they remained in Thailand. The one time I actually visited Bhang Khwang was to interview an American prisoner who was serving 33 years for trying to smuggle out 75 kilos of heroin in 1975. He had been hired by a major American smuggling organization. I later found out he had returned to the US some years later having served a portion of the sentence.

I also recall a couple who had been caught at the airport with heroin. They were a Portuguese man and a Spanish woman. I actually witnessed the man in the police hospital as he was actually dying. He was an emaciated addict, and I saw him handcuffed to a bed, unconscious, and badly in need of nourishment. It looked like a scene from a Nazi concentration camp at the end of WW 2. I contacted the Portuguese Consul, a man from Goa, and told him that this young man was in urgent need of medical assistance and food. All I got was to be upbraided because I was not Portuguese and had no business being involved. Of course, the young man died. I don't know what eventually happened to the Spanish girl. My wife, who occasionally visited Western prisoners as part of her charity work, met the girl once or twice.

Suffice to say, trafficking in heroin in Thailand carries an enormous risk. Those who do the hiring of these couriers are the lowest of the low. As to the question of how many of these couriers are truly unaware they are being given heroin to carry out of the country, I don't know. I can only say that in my experience in the 1970s, everyone I encountered knew what they were doing. I am unaware of any who did not know.

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