Inside Asia’s Toughest Drug Cartel — And the CIA Plot to Disrupt It

Can a drug cartel do good? It’s an especially subversive question in North America, where the word “cartel” evokes boundless cruelty. But the Americas hold no monopoly on narco-trafficking supergroups. In fact, the world’s mightiest cartel is entrenched in Southeast Asia’s highlands.

This secretive organization, known as the United Wa State Army, has long dominated Asia’s roaring meth trade. Unlike El Chapo, its leaders aren’t solely focused on profit. Their prime goal is defending the homeland of an indigenous people: the Wa.

In Patrick Winn’s book, Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel that Survived the CIA, he examines how this persecuted minority secured liberation through narcotics — in defiance of the U.S. government.


The Wa are among the most vilified people in Asia, if not the world. This has been true for ages. To the Imperial British, they were “filthy” and “undoubtedly savage.” Before that, China’s Qing dynasty deemed them the “most obstinate among the barbarians.”

Even Vasco da Gama slandered the Wa, though the sixteenth-century explorer never reached their homeland: a jagged stretch of mountains dividing Burma and China. He’d only heard rumors about the tribe, which he immortalized in a poem:

On human flesh, with brutal hunger they feed

And with hot irons stamp their own — rude deed!

He was wrong. The Wa weren’t cannibals. They were headhunters, ritually planting enemies’ heads on spikes. Like Scottish clans and French revolutionaries, they had their reasons.

From the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century, the Wa have been steadily denigrated. They quit head-hunting a few generations ago — the last skulls were lopped off sometime between Beatlemania and disco — but the stigma endures. They’re now branded as a narco-tribe. Practically everything written about the Wa portrays them as vicious hill people who churn out illegal drugs.

Few cultures are so strongly linked to a commodity. The Amish build furniture. The Swiss make watches. The Wa cook meth — and before meth was in vogue, the Wa churned out heroin. Their soil is cold and bitter, terrible for vegetables but ideal for heroin’s raw ingredient: Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

Like mountain peoples from Chechnya to the Ozarks, the Wa like to do things their own way. A tribal authority called the United Wa State Army (UWSA) controls their native terrain, even though every inch technically sits inside Myanmar, also known as Burma. The UWSA makes laws, defends its motherland, builds roads, and collects taxes. It even issues driver’s licenses. In every sense, it is a government.

Yet to the United States of America, the latest empire to target the Wa, the UWSA is just a cabal of “kingpins” and “drug lords” presiding over a “dangerous criminal syndicate.” Dangerous to whom? Americans, we are told. That may surprise the Americans who’ve never heard of the Wa people, which is practically all of them. Still the Drug Enforcement Administration insists that the Wa foster “crime, violence and terrible social damage here in the U.S.”

Illegal drugs are indeed one of the UWSA’s top revenue sources. Over the years, tons of narcotics produced on Wa soil have hit the black market, and traffickers have smuggled them onto American shores. The DEA therefore sees the UWSA as a Mastodon-sized trophy kill. America’s stated goal is to “disrupt and dismantle” the entire system of Wa governance.

Herein lies the problem. The UWSA isn’t some jungle-dwelling mafia. It’s running an honest-to-God nation called Wa State, home to more than half a million people. It has its own schools, electricity grid, anthems, and flags. Because it is not sanctified by the United Nations, its territory isn’t marked on official maps, but it comprises more than twelve thousand square miles. Wa State controls nearly as much soil as the Netherlands.

Wa State’s army commands 30,000 troops and 20,000 reservists, more than the militaries of Sweden or Kenya. The Wa possess high-tech weaponry: artillery, drones, and missiles that can knock jets out of the sky. When it comes to firepower, the UWSA makes Mexican cartels look like street gangs.

The Wa stockpile guns for a reason. America isn’t the only country they’ve had to worry about. Wa people are indigenous to China’s frontier, just like Tibetans and Uyghurs, minorities who’ve suffered deeply under a Chinese government that micromanages their every move. The Wa have faced the same threat.

So why is there a “Free Tibet” movement but none to free the Wa? Because they freed themselves. Yet, through Western eyes, they did it the wrong way: by producing illegal drugs, spending the profits on weapons, and daring outsiders to come take their land.

There’s no getting around it. Just as Haiti was built on sugar and Saudi Arabia on oil, Wa State was built on heroin and methamphetamine. The UWSA sits at the core of a Southeast Asian drug trade generating $60 billion each year in meth alone. The national economies of most “real” countries are smaller than that.

A soldier of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) shows a rare human skull kept from the headhunting times of the Wa, northern Wa State, 1993.

Thierry Falise/LightRocket/Getty Images

Wa leaders are indeed sovereigns of a narco-state. But to capture them and toss them into American prisons would wipe out the executive branch of a foreign government. In other words, it would constitute regime change. This book is based on a modest conviction: when a superpower tries to undermine an entire civilization and doom its people as untouchables on the world stage, it is essential to seek out the underdog’s side of the story. That is what I’ve spent years trying to do.

I’m an American journalist who has lived and worked in Bangkok for more than 15 years. In my day job with The World, a foreign affairs show airing on National Public Radio stations, I might cover anything from pop groups to riots. But I’m also a part-time narcoperiodista: a reporter specializing in drugs and organized crime. The premise of my first book (Hello, Shadowlands) is that lawbreakers tend to be rational actors, not just black-hearted ghouls. It’s a collection of real-life stories about smugglers and rebels in Southeast Asia. You might suppose it would offer the UWSA more than a cameo, but that was all I could muster. Like Vasco da Gama, I’d only encountered the Wa through secondhand tales.

I’ve been fascinated with Wa State — a forbidden republic hiding in plain sight — since the moment I learned of its existence. Growing up in a factory town in the Appalachian foothills, I have a soft spot for mountain peoples and always assumed the Wa couldn’t be as sinister as their reputation. But it is hard — no, really damn hard — to get to Wa State, vastly more difficult than traveling to North Korea or Antarctica. Americans face the highest bar to entry because the UWSA regards all U.S. citizens as potential spies. Harder still is sitting down with UWSA leaders, many of whom are wanted by the DEA. Still I set out to meet the supposed supervillains of Asia’s drug trade and understand their worldview.

This book is the result. It is the saga of an indigenous people who’ve tapped the power of narcotics to create a nation where there was none before. But much more is at stake here than the struggle of a little-known tribal group. Hollywood and cable news would have us think the War on Drugs is a conflict solely waged in the Americas. They’ve wrung dry every last detail about Latin kingpins. Meanwhile, Asia’s underworld goes ignored. It is treated as a fringe curiosity that has little to do with the United States.

That is a dangerous lie.

When I began peering into the UWSA’s inner workings, I didn’t expect to find puppies and marshmallows, but what I uncovered was far stranger than I ever imagined. As it turns out, the origin story of this narco-army is smudged with American fingerprints. Not only did the Central Intelligence Agency create the conditions for its inception, but one of its foremost leaders was also a DEA asset.

The American government tells us the UWSA is a monster “poisoning our society for profit.” But this is a beast that US agents, through malice and incompetence, have secretly nurtured.

Every empire needs its barbarians.


When researching Narcotopia, I spoke with former CIA officers, DEA agents, Southeast Asian traffickers and many others. But one source in particular — the aforementioned ex-leader, a Wa State founding father — did more than anyone else to reveal the strange entanglements between the US government and this indigenous group.

During the grunge-era nineties, when the Wa were synthesizing tons of pristine heroin for export to America, this source was a high-level UWSA commander. As I explain in the short chapter Superstar, he also lived a double life as a DEA asset.


They called him Superstar.

His former DEA handlers still speak of him with reverence, which is unusual, because confidential informants are seldom praised by anyone. CIs rat out fellow criminals to spare themselves from prison. Some CIs snitch for envelopes of cash, others to help police arrest their underworld rivals. As DEA agents see it, most are liars and squirmers who believe in nothing bigger than themselves.

But Superstar was different. Unlike other CIs, he brought a grad student’s intensity to the informant role. His DEA handlers would go to a rendezvous in some Burmese safe house and find him already waiting inside, a sheaf of papers on his lap. His handwritten reports contained coordinates of heroin refineries and upcountry poppy farms, even rosters of corrupt police. They read like almanacs of crime.

United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldiers in a poppy field in southern Wa State near the Thai border, 1992.

Thierry Falise/LightRocket/Getty Images

“My God,” said one DEA analyst, “the intel he gave us and the things he did to get it.” Said a DEA agent, “I don’t want to give away any sensitive secrets. But he certainly earned it — the name Superstar.” And yet another agent said, “I’d never met a CI who was also an idealist.”

As DEA agents extracted information from Superstar, he sought to extract something in return: a promise that America would honor its Christian soul and uplift the world’s downtrodden, including his own people: the Wa. Superstar had a dream that, one day, Wa children would tote schoolbooks instead of Kalashnikovs. That Wa elders, once prone to decapitating outsiders on sight, would welcome foreigners into their homes. He imagined a doctor on every mountain to spare the sick from pointless death. A Wa nation of which he could feel proud.

Superstar told the DEA that the Wa wanted to go clean. They would torch their poppy fields, demolish their heroin labs, and stop making the white poison that so entranced addicts in New York and Los Angeles, a people clueless about the Wa yet spellbound by the silky powder they produced. In exchange, Superstar wanted American aid: schools, hospitals, expertise in building a modern nation, and the glory that comes from friendship with the United States.

Superstar believed divine forces sought to bind together the world’s most powerful country and its most despised tribe — and that he was God’s intermediary. He was a CI who talked like a messiah. “Like the heroin addicts that result from opium we grow, we too are in bondage,” he wrote in one of his classified reports. “We are searching for help to break that bondage.”

He dreamed of an alliance between the DEA and the United Wa State Army — known to the United States as a drug cartel. The agents had every reason to laugh. Yet, one by one, Superstar seduced them with this radical idea: that the DEA might bring about the largest narcotics eradication in history without firing a single bullet. For a brief time, there emerged on the horizon the glimmers of a bloodless alternative to the War on Drugs.

The DEA called him Superstar. But by the time I met him, no one had used his code name in a very long time. He was an old man with scars and a conviction somehow undiminished by a tragic life.

He made me call him by his Wa name: Saw Lu.


Superstar’s dream did not come to pass. The CIA had its own agenda in Southeast Asia — and it didn’t include the DEA forging a grand pact with a drug syndicate. CIA spies sabotaged both Superstar and his DEA handlers in a covert operation that, until the publication of my book, has been largely erased from history.

This episode’s consequences still reverberate, for they kept Wa State mired in the underworld, and positioned to grow into the narcotics-producing Goliath that it is today.


Excerpted from Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel That Survived the CIA by Patrick Winn. Copyright © 2024. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.