The Vietnamese Scarface And His Secret War With The CIA

“You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ f—ed!” —Scarface (1983)

In A Nutshell

During the 1950s, the Binh Xuyen crime syndicate, led by a former homeless teenager named Bay Vien, rose from a gang of river pirates to the most powerful organization in South Vietnam. They officially controlled Saigon’s police force and Bay Vien almost became Prime Minister. In the buildup to the Vietnam War, the gang changed sides several times, eventually allying with the French to fight an increasingly savage battle against the CIA and its South Vietnamese puppet government.

The Whole Bushel

The meteoric rise and sudden fall of Bay Vien and the Binh Xuyen crime syndicate ranks as one of the most incredible untold stories of 20th-century crime. Named after a small village near Cholon, the Binh Xuyen started out as river pirates outside Saigon. Hiding out in the mangrove swamps of the Rung Sat (“Forest of Assassins”) they eked out a living attacking junks, extorting protection money, and kidnapping merchants. Many of the pirates were refugees from brutal conditions on French-run rubber plantations and they developed a Robin Hood–like image among the inhabitants of the Rung Sat.

World War II changed everything. Vietnam’s new Japanese rulers needed allies to control the population and the Binh Xuyen fit the bill. The group’s leader, Ba Duong, became a “labor organizer.” In exchange the Japanese provided money and weapons and looked the other way while he carried out a series of daring robberies. Meanwhile, Duong’s ambitious young driver, a former homeless teen named Bay Vien, started moving up in the organization. When the Japanese began losing control, it was Vien who suggested the Binh Xuyen form an alliance with a nascent political group called the Viet Minh and take control of Saigon.

But then the war ended and the French returned. Unwilling to cooperate with criminals and communists, the French attacked, smashing through the defensive positions in Saigon and forcing the Binh Xuyen to retreat back into the Rung Sat. Ba Duong was ambushed and killed by fighter planes. However, after tasting real power, the gangsters were unwilling to go back to being simple pirates. Deep in the mangrove swamps, they held a mass rally. As hurricane lanterns flickered in the twisted trees, they elected Bay Vien their new leader. The homeless teenager had become lord of the Forest of Assassins.

It wouldn’t last. Showing a shockingly ruthless pragmatism, Vien had immediately begun negotiating with the French. When word of this betrayal reached the Viet Minh, they lured Vien and 200 of his bodyguards to a meeting on the Plain of Reeds, then launched an assault on the Rung Sat. The gangsters defected, fled, or were killed and the swamps were lost to the followers of Ho Chi Minh. Breaking out of the trap, Vien fled to Saigon, rallying the remnants of the Binh Xuyen around him. The situation seemed hopeless, but Vien had one last card to play—as a former ally of the communists he knew all about their operations. Vien made a deal with the French—he would exterminate the Viet Minh in Saigon and in exchange the French would quietly cede control over part of the city to the Binh Xuyen.

Vien’s revenge was as total as it was bloody. His men swept through the city, slaughtering Viet Minh cadres, and pointing sympathizers out for arrest. The French, delighted with their new counterintelligence force, gradually turned more and more of Saigon over to the gangsters. By 1954 they officially controlled the city’s police force and local government. They also ran Asia’s largest brothel and the world’s most profitable casino and controlled the flow of opium out of Vietnam. Bay Vien, now a general in the Vietnamese Army, was the richest man in Southeast Asia. There was serious talk of him becoming Prime Minister.

Article Continued Below

Then his old enemies indirectly doomed Vien’s empire. The Viet Minh had been consolidating their power in the North. In 1954, they defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and French rule in Vietnam was over. In their place came agents of the American government. Among the first “boots on the ground” was the notorious CIA operative Edward Lansdale. The French, who still controlled the army, the Binh Xuyen, and various armed sects, expected that they would be able to retain informal control of South Vietnam while the US fought the communists. Lansdale, a former ad executive noted for his mastery of media manipulation and propaganda, had other ideas. Installing the virulently anti-French Ngo Dinh Diem as president, Lansdale began a campaign of bribery and manipulation to undermine French support. By 1955, only the Binh Xuyen were left.

The French and gangsters fought back. A sniper’s bullet shattered Lansdale’s windshield and a man resembling him was shot dead in front of his house. The American responded with a bombing campaign aimed at French agents. In April, the situation spiraled into outright warfare. In a battle the world has largely forgotten, French agents personally led Binh Xuyen troops against South Vietnamese forces, while Lansdale called in artillery strikes on the city. To anyone familiar with the Vietnam War, the outcome is obvious. The Americans won, the power of the Binh Xuyen was shattered, and Bay Vien fled to France, where he lived out his days in wealth and opulence—certainly a better fate than the original Scarface.

Show Me The Proof

Excerpt from The Politics of Heroin in South-East Asia, by Alfred McCoy
Cauldron of Resistance, by Jessica M. Chapman
Historical Dictionary of Ho Chi Minh City, by Justin Corfield
Duty Honor Sacrifice, by Ralph Christopher
In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia, by Edward Geary Lansdale
Featured image credit: Wikipedia

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!