Drug Mule Bell and Bridle

  A wooden bell next to a wooded, beaded bridle.
Accession Number:
2022.9.1 (Bell); 2022.9.2 (Bridle)

The term “drug mule” typically refers to someone who personally transports illegal drugs. But drug traffickers have used actual mules to move their products for years, especially across rugged terrain. Mules are bred from donkeys and horses, making them strong pack animals that can carry heavy loads.

This bell and bridle were worn by mules transporting drugs between Burma and Thailand in the 20th century. For hundreds of years, farmers have grown poppy plants in the Golden Triangle, an area in Southeast Asia that includes parts of Thailand, Burma, and Laos. Opium, a highly addictive narcotic, comes from poppy plants.

Burma is the second largest opium poppy grower in the world. For generations, local leaders and outside actors have sold opium and heroin to maintain power. Several different ethnic and political groups have clashed, often violently, throughout Burma’s history, and many have promised to protect communities with drug money. As a result, addiction, human trafficking, and even environmental destruction have plagued the country.

One of the most infamous drug traffickers in Burmese history was Khun Sa. In the 1960s, he amassed an army known as the Mong Tai or Shan United Army. Those troops supported poppy cultivation and opium production in southern Burma. They often moved drugs across the border to Thailand using mule trains or caravans.

In a mule train, the first mule wears a bell to alert traffickers of the animals’ location. This wooden bell has two clappers that strike its sides, producing a hollow sound. Each mule may also wear a bridle, which has a soft bit that the animal bites down on. Bridles allow people riding or accompanying the mules to control their direction and speed.

Khun Sa’s troops moved drugs for decades before local rivalries and DEA’s Operation Tiger Trap forced them to surrender in 1996. But drug trafficking continued.

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