Security officials from Laos arrested the trafficker, Naw Kham, but the international manhunt that led to his capture was organized in Beijing, by top Chinese government officials intent on making him pay for the killings of 13 Chinese seamen on the river, which has become a major trade route into China.
The bodies of the Chinese, the crew of two cargo boats, were found badly mutilated on the Thai side of the river in early October 2011. The killings, the worst slaughter of Chinese citizens abroad in recent memory, angered the Chinese public. Chinese investigators insist that Naw Kham was the mastermind of the murders.
China's search for Naw Kham, overseen by its powerful Ministry of Public Security, was a hard-nosed display of the government's political and economic clout across Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, the three countries of Southeast Asia that form the Golden Triangle. The capture shows how China's law enforcement tentacles reach far beyond its borders into a region now drawn by investment and trade into China's orbit, and where U.S. influence is being challenged.
It took six months for China to catch Naw Kham, a citizen of Myanmar in his 40s, a man of many aliases who was at the center of the booming synthetic drug business in the Golden Triangle, once known for its opium.
What came next was quick: Authorities flew the drug lord from Laos to China, tried him in a provincial court and executed him last month in a highly publicized live television broadcast that captured the proceedings until just moments before he received a lethal injection.
The Chinese hunt for Naw Kham was methodical and unyielding.
Immediately after the killings of the sailors, the Chinese government invited senior officials from the three countries that form the Golden Triangle to Beijing.
There, it pressured the countries to participate in Chinese-led river patrols, intended to ensure security for the river trade. Meng Jianzhu, who was China's minister for public security, flew to Myanmar to meet with President Thein Sein, and Wen Jiabao, then China's prime minister, spoke by telephone to his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, to urge her cooperation.
It fell to Liu Yuejin, leader of the anti-narcotics bureau of the Ministry of Public Security, to coordinate the three-country search. Like the FBI, the ministry operates more than 20 liaison offices in places around the world, including the United States.
Liu took up temporary headquarters at Guan Lei, on the Mekong River in southern Yunnan province, and sent Chinese officers to the three capitals to work as liaisons with local officials. He was in touch with these officers every day, Liu said.
Naw Kham proved to be a formidable target.
He had operatives within the Burmese and Thai armies and the Laotian security forces, according to an Asian official who works in the Golden Triangle and who spoke of the delicate case on the condition of anonymity. To counter Naw Kham's web of protection, China was able to rely on contacts developed over the past decade from the training of more than 1,500 police officers in Southeast Asia, the official said.
China also had an array of informers - "flip-flops," the official said - from among the increasing number of petty Chinese traders and businessmen in the region.
"He had his people, we had our people," Liu acknowledged in a rare interview with a foreign reporter in his office in Beijing.
The Chinese were so intent on catching up with Naw Kham that security forces considered using a drone to kill him.
The drone idea was eventually abandoned, purportedly for legal reasons, even as Naw Kham outfoxed his pursuers in Myanmar's mountainous jungles, said Liu, a precise man with a photograph of himself at a Mao Zedong heritage site on his office wall.
The Chinese news media reported that Liu's superiors had ordered that Naw Kham be captured alive. Liu, whose anti-narcotics bureau runs a fleet of unarmed drones for surveillance in China's border areas, insisted that the idea was shelved because of legal restraints.
"China using unmanned aircraft would have met with problems," he said. "My initial reaction was that this was not realistic because this relates to international and sovereignty issues."
But China had another asset, on the ground. In northern Laos, 10 miles south of where Naw Kham would eventually be arrested, a lavish Chinese-owned casino called the Kings Roman, decorated with statues of larger-than-life Roman figures and a huge crown affixed to its roof, operates in a special economic zone run by Chinese businessmen on the edge of the Mekong.
The complex feels like a Chinese enclave: street signs are written in Chinese, and Chinese currency, the renminbi, is favored over the Laotian kip. The casino offers stretch limousines for its customers, and a caged tiger to pet. It maintains its own Chinese security force, which probably played a role in the search for Naw Kham, the Asian official said.
In the beginning, the Chinese had no idea of Naw Kham's whereabouts, and did not know on which side of the river he was hiding, Liu said. Gradually, they began picking up his tracks.
In December 2011, they learned he was in northern Laos. "Naw Kham had many friends, including in the local police," Liu said. "His friends would alert him and protect him, and local officials would delay operations by leading us down the wrong road, literally."
With the help of his supporters in Laos, Naw Kham evaded the Chinese and at night escaped across the river to Myanmar. "Under Lao norms, law enforcement activity is not done after dark," Liu said wryly.
Once back in Myanmar, Naw Kham shuttled between hiding places in the mountains around the district of Tachilek, a center for the manufacture of methamphetamine. The factory-made drug has overtaken opium as the most lucrative product in the Golden Triangle, and anti-narcotics officials say it was central to Naw Kham's empire.
One of the links between Naw Kham and the two boats with the 13 Chinese seamen involved 920,000 methamphetamine pills, with an estimated value of $6 million, on board, according to the Thai police.
The Chinese authorities say the drugs were planted on the boats. Some Thai authorities contend that Naw Kham knew the boats were laden with drugs and sent his men to punish the crews for not paying protection money as they sailed from China into Thai waters.
Other Thai officials say that nine members of an elite Thai military unit were also involved in the killings of the Chinese seamen. Liu said he agreed with that assessment, and that the nine Thai soldiers should be prosecuted.
The factories for making the methamphetamine pills are hidden throughout the mountainous terrain of Shan state in Myanmar, an area Naw Kham knew instinctively, Liu said.
In February and March 2012, the Chinese investigators missed him twice. But each time the Chinese closed in, they swept up supporters, increasing the chances they would flush him out, Liu said.
"There were gunfights where people were captured or killed, others were frightened off, and so he had fewer and fewer people around him," Liu said.
As Naw Kham's security net evaporated in Myanmar, the Chinese learned that he planned to escape across the Mekong River to Laos in a small boat, Liu said. The Laotians were alerted. "This time we didn't have to persuade the Lao to act," he said.
Naw Kham landed on the muddy banks with two associates. The Laotian police captured him as he tried to flee, Liu said.
Liu denied having his own men on the spot, but it was almost certain that Chinese agents were on hand, the Asian official said.
For China, the arrest was a substantial victory, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and an author of the book "Cashing In Across the Golden Triangle."
"The capture of Naw Kham sends a message that no group or state is going to be allowed to mess around with China on the Mekong River," Chambers said. "Everyone now knows the top dog on the Mekong is China."
In some ways, China's operation to scoop up the drug lord echoed Gen. John J. Pershing's endeavor to capture Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader who in 1916 killed 18 Americans in New Mexico, Chambers said.
At the time, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to demonstrate that under the Monroe Doctrine, the United States was the power in Mexico, and that a popular folk hero would not be permitted to challenge it.
"China has its own Monroe Doctrine in the region, and this is the Pancho Villa case of the Mekong," Chambers said.
But there were two distinctions.
"Number one, the Chinese caught Naw Kham," Chambers said, alluding to Pancho Villa's skill in dodging Pershing's army. "And number two, for smart diplomacy, they gave the credit to Laos."