BOOK REVIEW Smugglers' blues Reefer Men by Tony Thompson
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
The story line could hardly be juicier. A couple of accomplished British
smugglers, an aging American hippie-turned Bangkok bar owner, two former US
Special Forces servicemen, a Vietnam War veteran, a former helicopter pilot, a
corrupt Thai politician, and assorted drifters all came together as members of
a Bangkok-based, international drug smuggling ring.
They smuggled marijuana from Thailand to North America, Australia and Europe,
some of it through Laos and out over the
Vietnamese coast. They ran dope for more than a decade until in 1988 they put
together their biggest ever consignment, most of them planning to retire off
the anticipated profits.
But then it all went wrong. The ship was seized and the hunt for the members of
the ring began. It was a hunt that spanned over 15 years, and, in the end, the
ringleaders received long prison sentences in the United States.
Among them was Brian Daniels, the ex-hippie who ran the Superstar Bar in
Bangkok's most famous - or rather infamous - red light district, Patpong. His
projected release date is May 5, 2010 - a bitter end for someone who once ran a
successful business and was married to a high-society Thai woman with
connections to the military and the police.
brothers, former Green Beret William and Christopher Schaffer, a yacht captain,
were released from prison in 1998 and later launched their own entertainment
company in Santa Monica, California.
According to Reefer Men author, Tony Thompson, "In 1999 they allegedly
sold the film rights to their story for US$1 million. Brad Pitt was lined up to
play Bill Schaffer and the project, provisionally titled Smugglers Moon,
was due to begin filming immediately after Ocean's Eleven." The project
has, however, stalled at the "development stage and no progress has been made
since the original announcement", Thompson writes.
But now at least there is a book about the "reefer men" who supplied pot
smokers all over the world with so-called "Thai sticks" throughout the late
1970s and 1980s. The book describes in great detail how the US Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) managed to infiltrate the organization and eventually
busted the last, and most massive, shipment of 72 tons of marijuana.
One by one, the members of the ring were nabbed in various parts of the world.
Daniels was arrested in Switzerland, trapped in a sting operation where special
DEA agents had posed as Mafia bosses. Daniels was later extradited to the US.
Others were arrested in the US, Canada and Thailand.
Thompson knows his field very well, but there are some unfortunate factual
errors. A Thai politician who is said to control vast marijuana fields near the
town of Nakhon Phanom, which, Thompson writes, "saw some of the most serious
fighting between North Vietnamese insurgents and the US Army during the Vietnam
War". But Nakhon Phanom is a Thai town on the west bank of the Mekong river.
There was a US air base there during the Vietnam War, but no battles with
"North Vietnamese insurgents" were ever fought even near it. The North
Vietnamese were in Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam, and they were a regular
army, not insurgents, supporting the Vietcong and other rebel movements in
former French Indochina.
And to anyone familiar with the "Superstar affair" in the late 1980s, some
important actors in the drama are curiously missing in the book's narrative.
They include another bar owner and a former US intelligence official, both of
whom, it has been alleged, became crucial witnesses for the DEA investigation
when details first began to emerge about the drug-smuggling ring. It is
uncertain whether this is an oversight, or if Thompson perhaps wants to protect
some of his sources, which is understandable and defensible.
Needless to say, The Superstar, has since then changed hands and is now doing
brisk business under a new management, which is not in any way connected with
the old drug smuggling ring. Besides, its present go-go-dancers are probably
too young to even remember Patpong in the days of Brian Daniels and his motley
crew of adventurers, ex-spooks and con men.
This is Thompson's third book about organized crime; his previous two, Gangs: A
Journey into the Heart of the British Underworld, and Gangland Britain,
deal with crime in the United Kingdom and were well-acclaimed by critics. His
style in those books as well as in Reefer Men is engaging and based on
thorough investigations into subjects that are extremely difficult to
A "Where They Are Now" as an appendix to Reefer Men gives an idea of
what happened to a bunch of people with diverse backgrounds who morphed from
being luck-seeking amateurs to professional smugglers - and are now involuntary
guests of the US correctional system. Don't expect a deep analysis of the
politics of the drug trade in Asia, but a good and entertaining book that is
well worth reading.
Reefer Men: The Rise and Fall of a Billionaire Drugs Ring by Tony
Thompson. Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2007. ISBN-10: 0340899336. Price
US$36, 406 pages.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.