Murder on the Mekong

Freshwater intrigue in the Chinese-dominated Golden Triangle – Sebastian Strangio

An excerpt from In the Dragon's Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century 

Just before midday on October 5 2011, a group of Thai soldiers boarded two Chinese barges that were seen floating listlessly in the Mekong River, a few miles upstream of the drowsy river town of Chiang Saen. The vessels were loaded with Chinese goods bound for the Thai market: the Hua Ping carried fuel oil; the Yu Xing 8, crates of apples and garlic. The soldiers found the former vessel deserted. The bridge of the latter was covered in blood, where, slumped over an AK-47 assault rifle, was a dead man later identified as Yang Deyi, the boat’s Chinese captain. Stashed aboard the two vessels were clear plastic bags containing 920,000 methamphetamine pills, a haul with an estimated Thai street value of $6 million. In the following days, the corpses of the remaining 12 crewmembers were scooped from the milky-brown waters of the Mekong. The victims had been gagged with duct tape and blindfolded, with their hands bound or handcuffed behind their backs. Some had been stabbed. Others had gaping head wounds, suggesting that they had been shot at close range.

These grisly murders had occurred just a few miles downstream from the center of the Golden Triangle, the rugged and impoverished region where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma converge. For most of its history, this had been a zone of pristine lawlessness, a cauldron of bandits, drug smugglers, tribal chieftains, ethnic militias, and corrupt government functionaries where the writ of lowland states ran thin. Opium poppies were first cultivated in the region’s hills on a large scale in the nineteenth century; by the 1960s, the area had become synonymous with narcotics production. Until the early 2000s, the Golden Triangle was the world’s leading source of heroin. It still produces most of the methamphetamine consumed today in China and Southeast Asia.