Sgt Smack and the heroin trade revealed


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
NOT Motorbike related, but probably a worthwhile read & relevant history for all those touring the "Golden Triangle."


Sergeant Smack is the fitting title of a book that centres on Ike Atkinson, a successful US Army Master Sergeant who parlayed street smarts into a brief career as one of the world's leading heroin peddlers, followed by a lifetime behind bars.

Atkinson was the brains and operator of the Thailand end of a heroin epidemic that swept across North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even infecting and crippling US troops in the Vietnam war.

More importantly, this book - breathlessly subtitled The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers - is the gold standard describing this important niche of history of both the US and Thailand.

Seasoned crime reporter and author Ron Chepesiuk has done what no predecessor bothered.

He has put the solid facts of an important era down in black and white. He has wiped out a dozen myths, uncovered important information and made it impossible for future historians to gild the lily, and let a good story overwrite the facts.

Most spectacularly, Sergeant Smack lays to rest once and for all the insidious Rumour That Would Not Die about heroin trafficking at the time of the Vietnam conflict - the cadaver connection.

Chepesiuk eviscerates the ridiculous rumour of smuggling heroin inside the bodies of US servicemen killed in the Vietnam War. Over the years, but particularly in the very early 1970s, dozens of officials and newsmen spent thousands of hours trying to track down this sensational allegation. Sergeant Smack even details its origin, in a careless remark by a panicked assistant district attorney in Maryland.

The myth of the cadaver connection has survived, and is still seen. The 2007 movie American Gangster about the fictional life of the real criminal Frank Lucas revived it.

In the movie, Denzel Washington plays Lucas, who very fictionally flies to Thailand for a few days, travels to the heart of the Golden Triangle to arrange some heroin shipments in the bodies of dead GIs, and flies back home.

In real life, Lucas is now a legend in his own mind. His real part in the heroin epidemic was as a dealer in the US, supplied by the Ike Atkinson gang.

When Lucas dies, his epitaph should read: "He fooled the world into believing the cadaver connection."

To a reader at this end of the heroin connection, Sergeant Smack's most interesting sections deal with the opaque Thai involvement in the trade.

Much work remains, but Chepesiuk is the first important writer to reveal the main supplier to the US smuggling gang, Luchai "Chai" Ruviwat.

A Thai-Chinese businessman who invested with Atkinson in the GI hangout Jack's American Star Bar, Luchai remains a shadowy figure. Lured to the US where he was arrested and imprisoned for years, Luchai is still something of a ghost, who no doubt could shed much light on the men in green and in high places who made the heroin trade possible between the Golden Triangle and Bangkok.

Corruption "was just a part of doing business", reports this book, and foreign embassies routinely reported involvement in the heroin trade by senior military, police, government and "the most respected Thai families".

Example: A prominent hotel in central Sukhumvit Road was built on piles of peddled heroin.

But the US military had no moral high ground. Atkinson's team bought, sold and transported heroin from the green cocoon provided by the US military uniforms they wore. Ostensibly employed by the US government and taxpayers, Atkinson's organised group included chiefs, workers, spotters and drug mules.

In fact, the best you could say is that the US military tried to police itself.

In June 1975, after years as a kingpin, Atkinson received his first sentence for drug smuggling - but continued to run his gang from inside prison.

Chepesiuk details the long, tortured task of law enforcement to bust the Atkinson ring. A key event came in mid-1975 when a hapless military customs agent in Bangkok accidentally discovered a huge heroin stash in a teak-furniture shipment by US Army Sgt Jasper Myrick - a front-page story in the Bangkok Post, but a milestone in busting the kingpin and his band of brothers.

Atkinson's operation ended in a combination of arrests and the 1976 US troop withdrawal from Thailand, but the Thai connection merely evolved. The US busted and jailed the chief supplier to the military ring, Luchai. He was only a cog in the supply chain controlled by senior Thai officials - although described apocryphally by US anti-drug agents as Mr Big.

With this book, author Chepesiuk has turned the corner from crime writer to historian. Sergeant Smack is not a "good read" or "worth having in your reference library". It is a vital and necessary source for anyone seeking to understand the intertwining of cross-border crime, recent Thai history, and the mixed emotions of the US military involvement in Thailand during the Vietnam War.