Herb Trader: A Tale of Treachery and Espionage in the Global Marijuana Trade
A Book Review, Sort of…..
Excerpts from Sympathy for the Devil:A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
(To support the publication of Sympathy for the Devil, and to read other excerpts, see the right hand column of this website)
(Copyright Nate Thayer. No republication in whole or in part without express written permission from the author)
By Nate Thayer
Arthur Tonzone was, in his arguably misguided youth, the biggest international drug trafficker on earth. He also is, I feel I have confidently confirmed, a great fucking guy.
Arthur contacted me a couple weeks ago and said we had, sorta, crossed paths a few years back. “I know who you are,” he wrote me out of the blue. “We know many of the same people.” At the time, while I was trekking the Cambodian jungles in search of Pol Pot, Arthur was smuggling 5 tons of marijuana from Cambodia to the U.S., a career path which had allowed him to intimately get to know a good portion of the planet, ranging from Jamaica to Thailand to Cambodia.
It didn’t, as these things tend to not, follow a happy script from there forward. Like many of our youthful choices, his story includes a less than happy interval, but not ending.
Arthur was arrested and thrown in one of the worst hell holes on earth—T-3 political prison in Phnom Penh. He was only released into the custody of U.S. federal agents, who then took him back to the U.S. to an American federal penitentiary, where he had an unfortunate, or perhaps enlightening, experience, and where he then spent a far from pleasant further chunk of time.
He obviously recovered from his legal unpleasantness, because he wrote a book about all of this: Herb Trader: A Tale of Treachery and Espionage in the Global Marijuana Trade
Arthur is pissed off, for what seem to be perfectly good reasons. So he did what free people do when they are free—he objected.
His book, Herb Trader, which Arthur sent me by mail last week, is a riveting tale of his life. It is brutally honest, it is tragic, it is inspiring, and, as far as I can tell, spot on correct.
Arthur was a dope trafficker. Arthur, also, is a very good man. I am glad to count him among my newer friends, despite the fact he claims we have known each other for some time, having crossed paths while he was smuggling dope and I was tracking Pol Pot in the jungles of Cambodia:
Here is a portion of our correspondence:
From Arthur Tonzone:
I completed up to “to be continued” of “Sympathy for the Devil”. Before, I wondered why the KR never kidnapped you or worse, now I know. Riveting stuff, I look forward to reading the complete story. Brings back disturbing memories… Ninety percent of my story was edited out of my book, I don’t know if that was an improvement.
Thanks for the very kind and thoughtful and generous words. They mean very much to me.
Actually, I have been riveted by YOUR book since I got it in the mail a few days ago, including staying up one whole night because i couldn’t put it down as every sentence begged me to read the next one, despite being seriously brain dead from absence of sleep.
I have thought of you often these last few days, but have waited to contact you until I at least did the respectful thing (in this case with great pleasure) and finished the book. I haven’t finished it yet. I am now reading where you are in Koh Kong having met the Governor and gone to the herb warlord’s stretch of real estate in Koh Kong, saw his product, lit up a spliff and liked what you smoked. The bad stuff (or really bad stuff i.e T-3 etc) hasn’t happened yet.
Every fucking word you wrote so far either I sympathize with, relate to, or personally experienced. It is a brilliant read. Full stop.
When I finish it I will send you a proper note, but wanted to send this off in the meantime just to say the above. It deserves a far better response and at least the respect of reading every word that I know took you a lifetime actually to research, as it were, document, and put into writing.
I know how that works.
A couple points: I lived in Thailand for many, many years. I first visited in 1981 when I was 21 years old and a college student (I remember because I spent my 21st birthday in a bar in Singapore and asked a women to come home with me and she got insulted told me to fuck off and walked out of the bar). At that time I went to the Cambodian border to a refugee camp and was so intrigued by the whole then evolving Cambodian war I essentially spent the the next couple decades immersed in trying to wrap my head around what had and was happening in Cambodia.
But first, I returned to Massachusetts and went to college, sorta, and worked and smoked pot every single day as I had since I was 14 because, well who knows exactly because why, but suffice it to say I was a pothead.
Around that time, in my early 20’s, I probably had my first drink, and it was around the early 80’s when cocaine took off and I got seriously into that. I stopped smoking weed, and actually, except for the occasional spliff I share with many of my friends who are daily smokers, haven’t smoked it since, not because I have any issue with it, except pot, for me, accentuates my already wacky personality in a way I don’t like.
I already have a tendency to be quiet and introspective and pot makes me more so, and I think too much to begin with, and accentuates that whole business for me.
Then I started doing far to much coke, and you know how where that road always leads. I returned to Thailand/the Cambodian border in 1984 with the excuse of a small research grant from Columbia University to document the persecution of the Cham Muslim ethnic minority under Pol Pot and his people who had just recently did what they fucking did and now were holed up in jungle border camps reorganizing.
Of course that was the cold war and Reagan etc. and China, the U.S., and the USSR still controlled the planet and they all had their hands in Cambodia and basically, to be very and unacceptably short, used Cambodia as a hot theatre to carry out the Cold War.
If one was interested in how the world actually worked on the ground, Cambodia was a perfect petrie dish to study it. Washington, Moscow, and Beijing fought it out, setting up, arming, and funding proxy armies, using Cambodia as their playground to hash out their various web of beefs, none of which had anything to do with Cambodia except it was a fucked up enough country where they could do it and nobody would much care, regardless of the minor fact that it left a few million people dead. It wasn’t their people so it was OK.
I spent the years ’84 and ’85 going into the war zones and guerrilla bases and meeting all the leaders and the people who suffered under their jackboot. And, actually, into major, serious battles between the Vietnamese and the Cambodian guerrillas.
I was young, very stupid, and very excited and very, very happy.
The deputy bureau chief of Agence France Presse (AFP) wire service ran into this lunatic–that would be me–living on the Thai Cambodian border riding my 250cc Yamaha dirt bike into war zones every day to see what was up, and, I am guessing decided, well better you than me, and offered me 400 bucks a month salary to keep doing what I was doing and just call him in Bangkok when I saw or talked to someone who was interesting.
Thus began my career as a journalist. I never looked back.
I returned to Massachusetts in 1985 and continued at UMass and worked as a bellhop at a hotel in the “combat zone” and then got a job with the State of Massachusetts and was a bureaucrat for a couple years before I got fired because I was a really, really bad bureaucrat and didn’t (and don’t still) do well with bosses in the same room.
I have since tried to stick with a personal rule: “Never have a boss in the same country” which works pretty well for me.
In March 1989, when I was fired in Massachusetts, I told my then fiance–which was another, really goofy idea and story–we were history and bought a one way ticket to Thailand to cover the Cambodian war.
The rest I think you know the outline of. I lived in Bangkok and Cambodia for the next 11 years.
It worked pretty well.
I got hired, within a few months of arriving in Thailand, first by Soldier of Fortune magazine whose publisher, Bob Brown, had come to Thailand to retrieve the body of their South East Asian correspondent who got in the way of a mortar round in some irrelevant battle between irrelevant armies on the Thai-Burmese border. Brown had heard about this young, half mad guy–that would be me–who was wandering around war zones and he needed a replacement for his dead correspondent.
He called me, we met in some Bangkok bar, and, after a few other meetings, gave me 800 bucks in cash and said “you want to be the Southeast Asian correspondent for Soldier of Fortune?” Of course I did and I was hired.
Then the Associated Press hired me as their Cambodian war correspondent, and it all evolved quickly from there to the Far Eastern Economic Review hiring me and you kinda know the outline of the next decade.
A few points: I know exactly what you wrote is true. The Crown Royal was essentially my office. I went there every day for a decade. That is where I would do my job–which is meeting people and talking. Izzy–the owner was my friend. I am sure I knew your GF. it was there I walked in each afternoon–if i was halfway behaving. Otherwise, it was plenty of times mornings–and spent not unusually, most of the time, the next ten hours.
I know exactly the Superstar and knew the owners who everyone knew opened their bar with money they had made with a pot deal–from Laos is my recollection–got busted, and turned informants for the DEA in exchange for not being locked up. Every CIA and DEA and other looped in friends knew this exactly to be true. I also hung out across the street from the Superstar at Goldfingers. That was also run by an American guy who was a close friend who made his money running weed. That was a also a major hangout for CIA and DEA guys, many who were my friends.
It is all of course surreal.
I went to Koh Kong–I think I was the first white guy to go there–after hooking up with a Thai member of Parliament from Trat province who was himself a major dope dealer. I went to Koh Kong with him in his cigarette speed boat and we arrived in Cambodia–no passports or visas and went directly to lunch with the provincial governor at his house, which literally had bales of hundred kilo’s of pot stacked up in his living room. I spent the night at the Thai MP’s major connection , a big wig general in the Cambodian army whose real job was running dope. There were hundreds of kilos of weed in his house, which was on the river, where he had a dock with a cargo ship and speedboats that did what they did.
Koh Kong was serious cowboy country. No government controlled it. it was run by dope smugglers.
In 1995, I wrote a cover story for the Far Eastern Economic Review called “Cambodia: Asia’s New Narco-State? Medellin on the Mekong.
I named the richest man in Asia, the head of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, who was Cambodia’s biggest landowner, owned its biggest newspaper, owned the biggest cigarette company, an airline, its biggest bank, a logging company, a shipping company , and was the biggest taxpayer in the country, and who funded directly hundreds of millions of dollars to Prime Minister’s Hun Sen and Ranarridh and the Cambodian army, personally.
He was a major heroin trafficker. That was his business. As well as weed. I named him, the Prime Ministers and told the whole story. It was a big deal. He and Hun Sen ordered me killed, which I knew they would because that is what they do in Cambodia. He also sued me in court which went on for a couple of years but of course he lost because every fucking word I wrote was true and he knew it. It was just no one was stupid enough, until then, to say it publicly. They shot my girlfriend in the head and they ordered me killed and they expelled me from the country.
Fast forward to 1997 and 1998–I spent virtually those entire years in the jungles where I ran into Pol Pot and asked him what I had been trying to do for 15 years: “Did you kill 2 million people? Why did you do it? And are you sorry?”, basically.
So, you are right, I was there in Cambodia when you were there.
I will never forget a day in late 1991 or early 1992 when I went to T-3 prison as they released a couple hundred people who had been locked in that hellhole, with no charges, trial, lawyers etc, some for more than a decade.
They came out to the prison courtyard where King Sihanouk gave each one a basket of scarfs and shoes and whatever other bullshit tidbits, which most threw on the ground in disgust and then walked out of the gates.
Not a single of the three anti-government guerrilla armies gave a shit they had just spent most of their lives in prison because they were some sort of agent or spy or soldier for the guerrillas, and they then wandered back to whatever village they came from, some more than a decade before they got locked up in that Hell hole, T-3, where you lived for more than a bit.
So, I am sorry to ramble on, but I know what you wrote is true.
And I thank you. And I am sorry.
When I give you the respect you deserve of finishing your book, I will respond properly.
With respect and warmest wishes,
Arthur Torsone responded:
It is amazing how your words move me. I feel the fear you had, hear the sounds, know the manicness of it all. So sorry to hear about your girl. I forget the guys name now who funded Hun Sen, I remember he owned the Intercontinental Hotel in Phnom Penh, He shot out the tire of a Royal Cambodian air-liner on the tarmac when his flight got delayed. No Problem…
In a country where “Buny” (sp) Hun Sen’s wife, had his actress/mistress whacked in the market place and was never busted for it shows just how lucky you are to have survived.
I know living on the edge is addictive and hopefully we can now live in peace. I hunger to read your book and look forward to hearing from you after you turn the final page on mine.
And I replied:
Thanks, my friend.
The guys name was Theng Bun Ma. And you are right, he owned the Intercontinental Hotel, among a whole lot of other stuff.
He also owned the Holiday casino in PP. I know because I went there every night while spending two years researching the story I wrote, because it was true that he was a major smack dealer, and, one of my few talents is playing blackjack (which is the only gambling game where the odds are technically in the favor of the player) and I won a couple hundred thousand bucks, literally taking home a fistful of cash every night. I took great pleasure knowing it came out of this fuckers pocket while I was researching a story on who he was and what he did for a life function.
Ironically, in Cambodia pot is legal, as it should be in every country on the planet. My house in Phnom Penh never had less many kilos sitting on tables in every room, because it cost exactly 1 dollar a kilo in the central market where you bought it next to the mushrooms and every friend I had, or journalist who would pass through, wanted to buy a kilo and have their picture taken with it But then they had to leave the country and obviously didn’t smoke that kilo in their 3 day trip, so they left it at my house. We smoked weed in the bars.
Actually when I first arrived in Phnom Penh, 2 days after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in October 1991, (because for three years prior the then Hun Sen government wouldn’t let me into the country because I reported from their enemies battle fields), I arrived along with 50 new ambassadors and a few hundred journalists.
I was just named the Cambodia bureau chief for the Associated Press then, for whom I reported the war from the cambo border before that. There was one hotel in town and one bar–at the Cambodiana hotel.
It was a journo’s dream and a diplomats nightmare. All these people who wouldn’t return my phone calls had to gather at the same restaurant and bar each night. Me and a good friend, the legendary photographer Tim Page–(who himself is a character you can’t make up and has written several books, been shot five times, had a third of his brain removed from shrapnel, and to this day is the most serious pothead I know, smoking literally every waking hour of the day. He is basically a pot artist)–came up with a plan.
Page would light the joint and he had the camera. My role was to walk up to every Ambassador and UN mucky muck, hand them the joint, put my arm around them, and Page would snap the picture of the very confused mucky muck holding a joint with my arms wrapped around them for a happy snap. We created a wall of a few dozen official representatives of governments and the heads of every UN outfit then running the country holding a joint.
It was quite entertaining.
More later….keep up the good fight and the good life.
I get the sense you are a serious guy. And a good guy. Plus, I read between the lines you have a relationship with clinical depression. I know a bit about that shit. It makes you a better person, a better Dad, a better writer. Plus it sucks big time.
Keep doing what you do.