Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Bangkok Connection Review-

When heroin trafficker Leslie 'Ike' Atkinson was released from a North Carolina federal penitentiary in April 2007, he was in remarkably good physical shape for a man of 82. But after more than three decades behind bars, there was not much left of life to enjoy.
While he doesn't like to dwell on the past, the old US Army master sergeant does have one real regret: that he did not take advantage of the GI Bill, which would have allowed him to go to college, where he is confident he would have done well, and pursue an honest living.
Unlike the ruthless traffickers of today, Mr Atkinson is a gentlemanly, charismatic figure whose ring of former black American servicemen, his 'Band of Brothers', smuggled as much as US$400 million worth of Golden Triangle heroin from Thailand to the United States during the Vietnam War.
Touched on in the largely fictionalised film American Gangster, the true story of what the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) labelled one of the world's largest trafficking organisations is told for the first time in Ron Chepesiuk's new book, The Bangkok Connection.
The work is of more than passing interest to me because, in Bangkok in the early 1970s, I knew some of the players on both sides of the law. More specifically, Chepesiuk convincingly debunks the myth, perpetuated in the film, that the ring used the bodies of dead soldiers to spirit the heroin into the US.
Mr Atkinson calls the so-called Cadaver Connection 'a big lie... the biggest hoax ever perpetuated', and says that on the sole occasion Harlem gangster Frank Lucas, the real-life central figure in the movie, visited Thailand, he was so disorientated he had to have his hand held.
When Mr Atkinson took him to a Buddhist temple, Lucas insisted on buying a bag of apples as an offering. Then, to everyone's surprise, he burst into tears and asked: 'Does Thailand border the Holy Land?' No wonder Mr Atkinson called him 'the dumbest man I ever met'.
Lucas was just one customer in the seven years, between 1968 and 1975, during which the man dubbed 'Sergeant Smack' supervised the flow of thousands of kilograms of No. 4 heroin through the American military postal service and aboard US Air Force cargo aircraft crossing the Pacific in support of the war.
In scores of interviews with his fellow conspirators, former US narcotics agents and prosecutors, Chepesiuk details Mr Atkinson's rise from petty crime on West German military bases and how the DEA had to create a special unit, known as Centac 9, to bring him down.
Eventually undone by a handprint carelessly left on a bag of heroin, Mr Atkinson remained so low-key that when he entered the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in mid-1975 to begin serving a 19-year sentence, there was none of the adulation that usually greeted celebrity prisoners.
But it wasn't the end by a long way. Over the next six months, Mr Atkinson remained in control of the ring from behind bars. When the surviving conspirators were finally arrested and turned state's evidence, he received another 25-year term - to be served consecutively.
Then as late as 1987, he would even try to revive the operation again with a different group of accomplices from his cell in New York's Otisville Federal Penitentiary. That ended in failure and he had nine more years added on.
A lot has changed in Thailand since Mr Atkinson's day. Khun Sa, the Shan warlord his Thai intermediaries bought the heroin from, saw his empire dissolve in the early 1990s. Over the next decade, Afghanistan slowly took over from Myanmar as the world's major supplier.
Much of Myanmar's heroin now goes directly across the border into the voracious China market, which did not exist 30 years ago. The dwindling amount still smuggled through Thailand ends up in Australia, Japan and Taiwan.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was almost no heroin flowing into Taiwan because the border trade was controlled by elements connected with the Kuomintang armies who fled China in 1949 and settled along the Thai-Myanmar border.
The collapse of the Communist Party of Myanmar (CPM) in 1989 changed all the dynamics and ushered in a new group of drug warlords, many of them former CPM leaders who felt no such loyalty to Taiwan.
For Mr Atkinson, crime may have paid for a while - but not any more. 'There is no money left,' says Chepesiuk. 'The little known aspect of the War on Drugs that the public doesn't know is that the authorities not only get their man, they also get his money.'
Mr Atkinson's lawyer was also his bag man, who stashed the bulk of the proceeds in the Cayman Islands and later turned over the laundered accounts when the ring was busted. The authorities also confiscated Mr Atkinson's property, including a large farm he co-owned with Lucas.
Today, Mr Atkinson lives simply on his military pension and social security benefits. It is a far cry from what he calls the 'one long adrenaline rush crammed with risks' which marked his career as an international drug trafficker who for a long time literally flew beneath the radar.

This review first appeared in the paid-subscriber section of the on-line edition and also the print edition of the Straits Times Newspaper, Singapore, July 2011.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Raymond Alikpala: The transition from 'God loves Bakla' to 'Of God and Men'

The following is an excerpt from Raymond Alikpala's blog. It details his reasons for leaving Cambodia and why he decided to re-release 'God loves Bakla' as 'Of God and Men: A Life in the Closet' with Maverick House Publishing.

"I had been living in Cambodia for almost a decade and had built for myself a very comfortable life. I had a fabulous apartment, a landlord who treated me like family, and true friends who made Phnom Penh a real home away from home. Life in “the Penh” was, compared to Manila, very cheap, stress-free, devoid of traffic jams, flash floods and the constant security issues. It was rather odd to decide to say goodbye to all of that and return to chaotic, overcrowded Manila. Most of all, it was difficult to leave the place where I had found my true love, who for reasons too complicated to go into at this time could not follow me to Manila.

As if I needed confirmation that I was doing the right thing leaving Cambodia, my book deal with Maverick House Publishers of Ireland came halfway through my transition period. In March this year, Maverick House decided to re-publish God Loves Bakla internationally as Of God and Men, scheduling it for an October 2011 release. It was, to me, a sign from God that He was indeed calling me back home!

An interesting anecdote relates to my book’s new title. It was obvious that God Loves Bakla sounded too ethnic and would make the book a tough sell internationally, so I was asked to think of something more accessible. I suggested “My Secret Life in the Closet.” But my publisher nixed it, saying the book was “more spiritual than most books of its genre.” Thus the decision to retain the word “God” in the title. I was most impressed: my publisher “gets” GLB. I knew then that I have found the right publisher who truly understands my work and can push it to a global audience. "

You can read the rest of the blog by going to or by clicking here

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Myths of Organized Crime

After penning nine gangster books, including the latest that Maverick House has published as The Bangkok Connection: Trafficing Heroin from Asia to the USA, I can say with confidence that, despite all the songs and the movies supposedly based on the true stories of the kingpins and the dope boys, the truth is far harder to discern. Documenting the history of organized crime can be a tedious and often frustrating experience. Reliable information is scarce. Most lazy journalists (and law enforcement) pass off myth and folklore as fact, and supposedly reliable media sources allow themselves to become breeding grounds for misinformation. Criminal sources lie or spin their recollections. Moreover, they don’t generate many records. Ever heard of a gangbanger keeping a diary or writing instructions to his lieutenants? That is both the challenge and fun in writing about gangsters, but I love it. What can be more interesting than writing about the underworld and the characters who populate it?

Along the way, though, I’ve learned a few things on the subject. So let me help dispel some of the myths regarding the history of organized crime. Here are three of the biggest myths:

1) The amount of money gangsters are supposed to make.

The media routinely report wildly inflated figures as how much money gangsters make. The truth is nobody really knows because we dealing with the underworld. But there is an invested interest on both sides of the law to inflate the figures. Law enforcement does it to justify their budgets and to get promotions. Gangsters exaggerate because of their egos.

Frank Lucas, the subject of the blockbuster movie, American Gangster, bragged that he was making a million dollars a day in Harlem in the early 1970s peddling smack. First of all, can you imagine trying to haul away in a car $1 million a day in street money? Also, Lucas was on welfare when they published that New Yorker magazine article that caught the attention of Hollywood. So what happened to the million bucks a day? I know for a fact from sources whom I interviewed for The Bangkok Connection that Lucas was in constant trouble with La Cosa Nostra because he owed them money.

2) African American organized crime does not exist, or at the least, African-Americans are not smart enough to organize crime.

Racism has affected all aspects of American society, including how it perceives Black gangsters. Four decades ago, many criminologists did not believe African-Americans were smart enough to organize crime. And it was not just the academics. Blacks were able to control lottery or policy racket in their communities because La Cosa Nostra thought it was just a petty ante criminal enterprise. The Mob was shocked to learn about the money being made and subsequently moved in to take it over. Frank Matthews, who jumped bail in 1974 with 15 million and has never been found, was able to operate under the radar of law enforcement for several years because at first they didn’t investigate him seriously. But by the late 1970s, with names like Matthews, Robert Stepheney, Zack Robinson, Nicky Barnes, and Goldfinger Terrell operating as big-time drug lords, law enforcement knew that African-American organized crime existed.

The truth is, to be a successful drug dealer at the higher level, you need to exhibit entrepreneurial skills and have brains. Some of the big names in Black organized crime have been really complex multidimensional characters.

Take Bumpy Johnson, for example. Remember him in the opening scene of American Gangster. Bumpy was sophisticated, cerebral and self-educated. Black gangster Nicky Barnes was well read and had a brilliant business mind. The Bangkok Connection is about the life story of Ike Atkinson, the Black gangster from whom Frank Lucas stole much of his story. The word law enforcement officials use to describe Ike is intelligent. One former prosecutor said he could have been a CEO of a major corporation.

3) Errors, omissions and distortions are okay in a gangster movie about a real life gangster because the movie is just based on a true story.

That’s essentially a cop-out rationale for Hollywood to make a lot of money without having to worry about its credibility. The key word is “based”. Given that qualifier, Hollywood can take all kind of liberties with the story. It has led to a lot of myths and distortions about gangland history. The recent movie, American Gangster, is a prime example. Unfortunately, moviegoers don’t take the time to check out the movie’s accuracy and the myths prevail.

Well, that’s it. There are other myths about organized crime, but take these three for a start.

– Ron Chepesiuk

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

In 2008 Raymond Alikpala self-published a novel entitled 'God Loves Batla'. The novel documented Alikpala's journey of self discovery that took him from the predominantly Catholic Philippines to Singapore, Thailand and eventually to Cambodia. It was a journey in which he joined and left the priesthood after deciding that his God wanted him to live a full and honest life, which meant coming out.

In an interview with Craig Gerard of (Read the full interview here) Alikpala remarks that "life experiences, pain, sacrifice, are what bring us closer to God" something he struggled with when he decided to come out as a gay Catholic in the Philippines.

In October 2011 Maverick House will re-publish Alikpala's book which has been described as "amazing and inspirational" under the new title ‘Of God and Men: A Life in the Closet’ to make it available to a worldwide audience.

‘Of God and Men: A Life in the Closet’ by Raymond Alikpala will be available for purchase for a worldwide audience on October 1, 20011. It is also available to pre-order from Book Depository. Click here to pre-order and save over 20%