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The St. Paul Warlord: Hmong Friends

St. Paul, Minnesota—Most nights, the streets of Maplewood, a Twin Cities suburb, resemble a tableau from “A Prairie Home Companion.” Kids toss footballs in front of red and white ranch-style houses on quiet streets lined with evergreens and tiny flower gardens full of orange blossoms. Policemen in thick parkas roll down their car windows to chat with people power-walking in the Minnesota cold.

But, on April 20, 2004, Maplewood was more Platoon than “Prairie Home.” That night, Hmong-American businessman Xang Vang was caring for his elderly mother at home when a hail of large-caliber bullets, shot from a car outside, blasted through his windows. The bullets slammed into the walls of his bedroom, pocking them with gaping holes. Xang Vang dove to the floor as his mom screamed. Frightened neighbors streamed into the street, searching for the shooters, but not in time to catch the gunman. “It was a miracle no one was hurt,” Xang Vang said.

The attack resembled a professional hit, but Xang Vang seemed an unlikely target. In the 1970s, Xang Vang had immigrated to the United States from the mountains of northern Laos, where the Hmong had lived a tribal, almost Stone Age existence, without large towns or a written language. In St. Paul, Xang Vang, whose smooth skin and black hair worn in a slicked-back helmet conceal his late middle age, had made himself into a successful developer. From a small office near the Minnesota State Capitol, whose walls Xang Vang had plastered with photos of himself with Senator Norm Coleman and other local politicians, Xang Vang sold other Hmong their first houses. At night, he returned home to preside over an extended family that included his children and grandchildren.

Police rushed to Xang Vang’s house but found no immediate suspects. Xang Vang had no criminal record or obvious enemies. Yet, one day later, the police received a call to another normally quiet Hmong neighborhood nearby. They arrived at a prominent Hmong and Lao social service organization called Lao Family Community to find it in flames. Someone had tossed a brick through the window and then set one of the organization’s offices on fire.

Just four days after that, around 1:30 a.m. on April 25, someone tossed a suspicious object—a firebomb, said some locals—through the window of a split-level home owned by a friend of Xang Vang named Cha Vang. (Vang is a common Hmong surname.) As Cha Vang’s three daughters, ages twelve, ten, and three, slept upstairs, the house began to burn. Cha Vang and his wife grabbed the kids and charged out of the inferno. By the time firefighters arrived and controlled the intense blaze, it had destroyed Cha Vang’s $400,000 home and nearly everything his family owned.

Now the St. Paul police sensed a pattern. Just a day after the suspected arson at Cha Vang’s home, someone found an unexploded Molotov cocktail outside a nearby Hmong-owned office, while neighborhood residents started receiving threatening phone calls promising far worse. Another apparent arson torched the home of a Hmong policeman.

Yet few St. Paul police officers could understand why guerrilla warfare seemed to have erupted in suburbia. Cops became so jittery they started invading Hmong neighborhoods at the first sign of suspicious activity. When a fire broke out in another Hmong home shortly after the Cha Vang incident, police rushed to the scene, only to find it had been a minor, accidental blaze. “We had no idea what was happening, where this was coming from,” says Rich Straka, a police officer who investigated the string of incidents. “It was a total puzzle.” Though no one had been killed in the attacks, Straka and his team feared that it was just a matter of time before someone was. They quickly set out to find the culprit.

Last November, on an unusually warm day, I visited the main auditorium of River Centre, the local arena in St. Paul. Billboards advertise an upcoming concert by Bob Seger, but, on this particular day, thousands of Hmong have gathered for a more unique event—the Hmong New Year festival. After migrating in large numbers to the United States in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the Hmong settled primarily in the Twin Cities, as well as in Wisconsin and around Fresno, California. Today, some 24,000 Hmong live in St. Paul, which has a population of only 287,000.

The New Year festival mixes traditional Hmong rituals with modern U.S. pop culture. In the arena’s basement, Hmong lay out blankets to create a traditional “open-air” market, with vendors selling intricately woven batik sarongs, medicines made from ground animal parts—and CDs of Hmong gangsta rappers. Upstairs, on the main auditorium stage, contestants for Miss Hmong America, dressed in gowns draped with silver coins (a Hmong tradition), dance to Hmong ballads that tell stories of love lost in the jungles of Laos. But the tales are crooned by a pop star who resembles a Hmong Elvis: a compact older man wearing a jumpsuit glittering with jewels and an enormous gold belt buckle.

By the early afternoon, Hmong of all ages fill nearly every seat in the auditorium. Older women pick through plates of spicy papaya salad and handfuls of glutinous sticky rice. Next to them, Hmong teenagers in Vikings jerseys and baggy pants text message one another or snap photos with digital cameras. As one Miss Hmong America contestant after another takes the stage, people in the audience wander across the auditorium, catching up with family members and friends.

But no one, I notice, walks into a small section in the front surrounded by a ring of private security guards. In the center of the cordoned-off area sits a Hmong man in his seventies with a bald, bullet-shaped head and black moles dotting his sagging, furrowed face. Dressed in a charcoal suit, he faces the stage, clapping politely as Miss Hmong America wannabes attempt to play traditional wooden instruments.

The old man is named Vang Pao, and, for years, the Hmong have worshiped him. Many believe he has supernatural powers—that he can heal deadly illnesses and cure infertility. Since immigrating to the United States in the mid-’70s, Vang Pao has reigned over the Hmong community, serving as its unelected political representative, adjudicating disputes and receiving supplicants. “One time, I took Vang Pao to see some refugees, and people would show up and they were crying and wanted to touch him,” says Rick Wade, who worked with Vang Pao in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “It was like Jesus was coming through town.”

In the early evening, after watching hours of ballads, Vang Pao steps gingerly to the stage, surrounded by at least ten Hmong men who form a protective bubble around him. Miss Hmong America contestants with glued-on grins stare as he unleashes a fiery speech, bellowing into the microphone, exhorting the Hmong to take more pride in themselves and their culture.

In his rambling, 20-minute-long sermon, Vang Pao never mentions a topic still on many audience members’ minds: All the victims of the violent incidents had some connection to Vang Pao. Xang Vang is an old friend. Cha Vang is his son. Vang Pao himself helped found Lao Family Community. Behind me, I notice several younger Hmong get up and head for the doors. “That man should get down,” I hear one say. “He’s the trouble.”

Vientiane, capital of the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos, hardly seems like a national capital. Just outside the center of town, water buffalo graze in terraced rice fields resembling layered wedding cakes. In the low-rise downtown, Buddhist temples inlaid with gold leaf and gems tower over the blocky, Stalinist modern buildings built by the Communist government after it took power in 1975. By early evening, the city goes dark; three-wheeled taxis putter through the back alleys, and an occasional Western backpacker tosses back a bottle of Beerlao.

North of Vientiane, in the fog-shrouded mountains separating Laos from southern China, the Hmong historically lived an even more isolated existence. Today, only occasional strips of tarmac run through northern Laos. Modern development has barely intruded, and few towns exist amid hills covered in thick jungle foliage and dotted with limestone cliffs and thin dirt footpaths. In these remote hills, the Hmong lived for decades in small clans dominated by elders and shamans. Few had connections to the outside world; most family groups farmed, planting subsistence crops like rice. Some families raised an occasional pig or chicken.

But Laos also borders Vietnam, and, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the wars in Southeast Asia crossed the border, disrupting the Hmong’s isolated existence. As North Vietnam built the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and developed a close alliance with Lao Communists, the United States looked for potential allies and secretly expanded the Vietnam war into Laos. The Hmong, who feared the lowland Laotians dominating the Communist leadership, seemed a natural friend. Across northern Laos, the CIA launched a massive covert operation. U.S. planes began dropping rifles and mortars to the Hmong, and CIA advisers moved into the mountains to train them in modern warfare.

To make their plan work, the CIA needed to find one Hmong leader. In a society with virtually no educated men, they did not have a wealth of choices. But Vang Pao had studied military tactics with the French, the former colonial power. The CIA chose Vang Pao, giving him leadership of a Hmong army of 30,000 men and spending millions to equip his force. “We helped create him,” says Vint Lawrence, a former CIA agent who lived in Laos with Vang Pao. (After the war, Lawrence joined The New Republic as a contributing artist.) “He had talent, but the agency built him.”

Vang Pao soon surpassed the CIA’s expectations. The Hmong suffered enormous casualties—by 1975, as much as one-third of their population in northern Laos had died from war or disease—but Vang Pao distinguished himself as a brilliant military strategist, winning victory after victory against the powerful North Vietnamese. “Vang Pao was a leader like no one else,” says Lawrence. Other men who fought with Vang Pao described him running into the face of heavy North Vietnamese bombing to lead his army. “I’ve never met a leader with more charisma,” says one of his former associates. “He spoke with incredible authority, such force. He could convince anyone.” Vang Pao also showed he could be brutal when necessary. He allegedly rubbed out enemies within the Hmong, repeatedly crushing internal coups.

Still, when the United States pulled out of Indochina, Washington airlifted only a few thousand Hmong from Laos, including Vang Pao, and recognized the Communist government in Vientiane. Desperate to avoid reprisal murders by the Lao government, many Hmong fled to Thailand and eventually straggled to the United States as refugees, often relying on Vang Pao and his assistants to help them. It was a reliance that would become entrenched.

The day after Hmong New Year, I park outside a regentrifying section of downtown St. Paul and walk into a luxurious apartment with high ceilings and decorated with Buddha sculptures and other Southeast Asian antiques. Stephen Young sits in the apartment’s office room, which is stocked floor-to-ceiling with books on Asia. After the Hmong began arriving in the United States in the ‘70s, Young became Vang Pao’s close friend. Young’s father had served as ambassador to Thailand, and Young himself had volunteered to serve in the Vietnam war, where he helped create a uniquely successful village development program and acquired a passionate love for Indochina. Even today, as a successful, erudite, middle-aged former assistant dean at Harvard Law School, Young holds tightly to the past. His face reddens as he condemns the way Washington abandoned the Hmong. “We just didn’t want to deal with them,” he says.

In the late ‘70s, Young helped coordinate the resettlement of Hmong refugees and began advising Vang Pao and American officials about how to help the Hmong adapt. Young says he tried to convince the Minnesota government and national leaders to play an active role in guiding the Hmong, not merely hand them welfare and then ignore them. He was rebuffed. “The Hmong were a nonpresence—we were embarrassed by them because we didn’t want to talk about the Vietnam war anymore,” says Young.

Refugee resettlement specialists knew little about the Hmong’s clan structures and history and settled Hmong with historic grievances side by side. “The Hmong had a whole structure of leadership and clans that was totally ignored,” Young says. And, unlike some other refugees, the Hmong desperately needed help. Many Vietnamese refugees came from educated Saigon and quickly built businesses in the United States. But the Hmong did not have these modern, capitalist skills. Traumatized by years of war, upon arriving in the United States, they began dying young, dropping dead of unexplained illnesses or killing themselves. Fresno witnessed an epidemic of Hmong suicides, while the Twin Cities suffered outbreaks of Hmong gang violence.

The United States, says Young, could have utilized Vang Pao’s leadership skills while also helping the Hmong become more self-sufficient. Instead, the Hmong became more dependent on Vang Pao. “With no one else to help them, what do you expect? Everyone turned to him,” agrees Lee Pao Xiong, a Hmong scholar at Concordia University in St. Paul. Vang Pao adjudicated disputes, brokered fights between clan elders, and tried to provide the Hmong with a political voice in the United States. And he continued to live his warlord existence—surrounded by mistresses and aides—first at a Montana ranch allegedly provided by the CIA and then at homes in Fresno and the Twin Cities. “Everyone around him would do anything for him,” agrees the former associate. “He demanded absolute loyalty.” At meetings with his men, says another former associate, Vang Pao would “sit in a bamboo chair, and people would come up to him and bow before him.”

Vang Pao also realized he could continue to lead his fight against Laos from the United States. After the Vietnam war, some Hmong remained in Laos and continued a lonely battle against the Lao government. Although backing combat against countries at peace with Washington is against U.S. law, Vang Pao created an organization to collect money from Hmong in the United States and then allegedly used the funds to try to equip the resistance fighters. Going house to house in Hmong neighborhoods, Vang Pao’s men would ask for small contributions, always in cash. “We’d even get money, five bucks, ten bucks, from the poorest old women on welfare,” says Tou Long Lo, Vang Pao’s former son- in-law. “We’d threaten them.... People knew that, in Laos, Vang Pao had killed, so threats worked.” In exchange for the money, donors would receive certificates promising them positions in a future Lao government.

Washington tolerated Vang Pao, treating him like an exiled head of government and paying little attention to his fund-raising, which was hardly a secret. Vang Pao openly screened videos of rebel armies marching in Laos, and, as the fighting in Laos claimed hundreds if not thousands of lives, he himself traveled to neighboring Thailand to meet fighters. “U.S. officials knew the Hmong were raising money,” says Wade. Indeed, Vang Pao remained popular with anti-Communist conservatives, and he traveled to Washington talk shops like the Heritage Foundation, where he told one audience in the ‘80s that his organization would “mobilize all Laotian people, inside as well as outside of Laos, to overthrow the puppet regime imposed on the Laotian people.” According to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, which published a three-part investigative series on Vang Pao, his organization collected millions—a significant accomplishment, since the Hmong are the poorest ethnic group in the United States.

On a late November day in 2003, over 700 Hmong and Laotians sympathetic to the anti-Communist charge packed into a Twin Cities convention hall. Before the event, Vang Pao’s aides had promised a dramatic announcement. Arriving at the hall, aging veterans of the CIA secret war wondered what their leader would say. Would he release new videos of fighting in Laos or plans to help the remaining Hmong refugees in Thailand come to the United States?

Yet Vang Pao delivered a far more shocking message: After years of battle, he wanted to make peace with the Communist Lao government. “The era of killing must stop,” Vang Pao said. “We need to slowly begin new dialogues that will strengthen the nation and the people.” Some associates believe Vang Pao genuinely decided the time had come for peace, while others thought there was financial opportunity in settling his score with the Lao government. Either way, many Hmong veterans simply walked out of the meeting. Others stood up to their leader for the first time, dragging the meeting on for six hours as they questioned and debated.

Along with anger at Vang Pao’s detente, leading members of the community, some of whom had held grudges against Vang Pao for decades, began openly questioning his fund-raising operation. Vang Pao’s son, Cha Vang, had been pushing out the general’s old advisers while apparently taking funds for himself. (In 2005, the Minnesota attorney general sued a nonprofit run by Cha Vang for breaking operating laws and taking donations for what may have been personal use. Cha Vang settled, but not before it emerged that he had spent some of the money at a massive jewelry store in Bangkok.)

Several groups split from Vang Pao. These enemies remained in the shadows, but Hmong experts point to followers of another former Hmong resistance leader named Pa Kao Her, who was mysteriously assassinated in Thailand in 2002. (His killer was never caught.) After Pa Kao Her’s death, some of his followers claimed Vang Pao had abandoned their cause, and they lashed out at him. The Lao Veterans of America, a hard-line group of former secret warfighters, also cut their ties after Vang Pao’s peace speech. Lao Veterans members began holding demonstrations blasting the Lao government and Vang Pao.

The next year, this stew of ancient animosity and modern grievances exploded. At a rally in early April 2004, in front of the St. Paul office of U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, pro- and anti-Vang Pao factions attacked one another. One woman was beaten to the ground with the sign she was holding. Straka, one of the St. Paul police officers most knowledgeable about the Hmong community, began to worry, but noisy protests at Hmong-related political events were not uncommon.

Soon after came the shooting at Xang Vang’s house and the Cha Vang arson. As Straka looked closer, he realized that all the attacks seemed to be Hmong-on-Hmong and all revolved in some way around Vang Pao. The police called in the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We realized there was so little we actually knew about the politics,” Straka says. Vang Pao increased his security protection, fearing an assassination attempt.

By the time a hit list circulated in the Hmong community, Straka believed the violence was linked to a Hmong political struggle. “No one in the community would provide information,” he said. The cops finally made one collar—one of their own. They arrested a Hmong officer named Tou Cha and claimed his gun had been used in the shooting at Xang Vang’s house. Tou Cha later admitted he’d lent his gun to another man for the shooting, but he offered no motive for the attack and no information on who ordered the hit. “Tou Cha wouldn’t tell us anything,” Straka says. By the end of the year, the violence had abated, but the 2004 cases remain unsolved.

News of the Hmong’s St. Paul civil war did not seem to have reached American refugee specialists. Thirty years after the Vietnam war, the United States is again bringing war-ravaged refugee groups like the Hmong to the United States and giving them a minimum of support. In 2003, Washington began resettling some 13,000 Somali Bantu, the biggest group of African refugees ever admitted. Like the Hmong, the Bantu historically lived a premodern existence in a war-torn country. The United States also has agreed to resettle thousands of non-Bantu Somalis and Sudanese “Lost Boys,” who have come to the United States as unaccompanied minors; and it may, in the future, resettle large numbers of refugees from Iraq. As with the Hmong, Washington often seems unable to recognize that these refugees require more, and different, types of help than someone from China or Eastern Europe. Perhaps predictably, Bantu factions have begun squabbling with one another, and with Somalis. “We’ve already seen problems [in the United States] between the nomadic Somalis and the Somali Bantu,” says Dan Van Lehman, one of the directors of the National Somali Bantu Project at Portland State University, citing fights between nomadic Somalis and Somali Bantu in St. Louis, Buffalo, and parts of Tennessee. And, if Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds all come to the United States from Iraq, one can only imagine what will happen.

On my last day in St. Paul, I meet Vang Pao at the office of one of his associates. Five Hmong men in cheap-looking dark suits and sunglasses sit around him, nodding furiously whenever he seems to be finishing a thought. One aide constantly brings him grainy faxes marked “Urgent” and another aide shows me a photo, from the early ‘80s, of a dinner for local Hmong leaders before the community turned upon itself. “That was the last supper,” the aide says, laughing grimly.

Though he occasionally loses his train of thought, Vang Pao still talks like a military general. He dispenses replies in ten-minute speeches and barks out orders to his subordinates, waving a hand covered in gold rings. And, perhaps because of the pressure from rival Hmong leaders, he has since reversed his position on making peace with the Communist government in Laos. “Why doesn’t the U.S. do anything about the Lao Communists?” he says. “The Hmong and me, myself, we were America’s best ally during the Vietnam war.” Clearly, the old fight still gnaws at him. When I ask if he has one wish left in life, he doesn’t think long. “The U.S. has better rifles, better guns than the Communists,” he says. “If they give me the guns, I can conquer Laos in 2007. I still believe I can do it.”

But, amid the bluster, even Vang Pao seems to realize that the biggest battles he faces aren’t overseas anymore, but here at home. Younger Hmong now openly criticize the cult-like leader. When Vang Pao gave a talk to a group of Hmong students, several complained the old warrior understood nothing about the new generation of Hmong-Americans. “I don’t believe the younger generation would like to go back [to Laos],” Vang Pao admits to me.

As the hours stretch on and Vang Pao keeps talking, his despair comes closer to the surface, and he constantly predicts a dire end for his people. “It is dark—misery for the future,” he tells me, staring at the wall. Finally, I give him the chance to place himself in history. “There will be no one else like me” among the Hmong, he says. “These younger leaders, they do for their own kind, their own group. But nationwide, I doubt it—no one like me.”