The dealers were ready, drinking coffee and waiting for customers. The transaction took just a few minutes. Wrapped in gold cigarette foil paper, the $10 heroin was bought in a Phnom Penh coffee shop in the Daun Penh district as an occasional motorbike passed by.
Some customers don’t go far to use the product. In the bathroom a discarded hypodermic needle protruded from a red plastic waste paper bin.
In another coffee shop across town, $5 worth of opium took a bit longer for the same police officer to procure. This dealer sat at the back of the cafe, but was just as accommodating.
Heroin was also available here but the dealer had run out and needed to make a telephone call to have some delivered. It would have taken another half-hour and the anti-narcotics police officer didn’t wait.
The officer, who asked not to be identified, said buying yet another sample of the drugs for sale on Phnom Penh streets would have done little good.
The trade, he said, will continue as long as drug peddling rackets such as this one are protected by higher-placed officials—including police officers—who profit from the business.
“But it is not all anti-drug police,” he insisted. “We are the police also and we are against drug trafficking. If we were to collect money from drugs we would also be bad guys. Then who would protect the country?
“It’s easy to be the seller. But for our superiors this is their own mistake. They do not know their duty or their job,” he said.
Three Interior Ministry police officers, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, said an ethnic-Vietnamese man supplies heroin, opium and amphetamines through a network of coffee shops, karaoke parlors and private residences in the city.
The dealer and his business are common knowledge in anti-drug police circles. But little is being done or can be done because he is protected by powerful people, the officers said.
The majority of clients, they said, are Vietnamese or ethnic Vietnamese living in Phnom Penh. Many are sex workers or their pimps.
While the police officers said they could not accurately estimate the amount of drugs peddled, the suspect’s group is believed to smuggle kilograms of heroin to Phnom Penh from Laos through Stung Treng.
Ou Vanna, Municipal Police anti-narcotics police chief, said that the coffee shop drug ring is under investigation and that he is awaiting orders from higher officials and permission from the courts to launch a crackdown.
“We have already cracked down on a few coffee shops and it seemed to calm down but now it has started again,” he said.
Ou Vanna said he does not know if the outlets are being protected but said district police officers have been told to shut down the shops. He said he was concerned that this had not been done yet.
Preventing drugs from coming into Cambodia should be the priority, to Ou Vanna said. He said cracking down when the drugs have entered the country is almost impossible. “It’s like trying to remove a small species of fish from the sea,” he said.
The US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2001 released earlier this month called Cambodia a “weak link” in regional anti-narcotics efforts.
Corruption, lack of trained law enforcement personnel and weak anti-drug laws were highlighted as the main reasons for the country’s continued presence on the State Department’s drug blacklist.
The three Interior Ministry officers, traveling in a civilian car, stopped to investigate one coffee shop last week. But they hurriedly changed their plans and continued driving when they recognized a familiar face among the customers: a member of the anti-narcotics police who is known to provide protection to the drug peddlers.
It would have been dangerous to stop, they said.
On a second pass 20 minutes later, the police officer had been joined by another member of the police force. The two, the interior officers said, are part of one of the best-established Cambodian drug syndicates.
Municipal Police Chief Suon Chhengly corroborated some of the disgruntled officers’ claims last week, saying that a suspect known as “A Chi” is one of the city’s most notorious drug peddlers and one the police have not been able to put in prison.
But Suon Chhengly also criticized anti-narcotics officers for possessing important information but not passing details on to higher police authorities, whom he said could “deal with it .”
“This man I have arrested once. But when we sent him to the court, it was not long before the court freed him. Then he went home and did the same thing,” he said.
Suon Chhengly said he could not identify the man by name.
“This man is the most-wanted suspect. But, what is the use in arresting him? He has not even received 10 days in detention. He has money to pay the court to release him. So the police will arrest him again and again without meaning,” he said.
Suon Chhengly said officers do gather evidence and arrest drug suspects. But the government, he said, needs to amend a provision in the country’s anti-drug law that allows offenders to pay a fine rather than receive prison time, even in the most serious cases.
Cambodia’s drug law stipulates a maximum prison term of 20 years. But the term can be commuted to a fine of $2,500.
Pich Chivvon, director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-drug department, said he was unaware of the alleged drug dealing, which, he said, is the jurisdiction of the municipal police force.
“There is nobody who can protect [drug dealers]. If anyone did and we have enough evidence, they would be punished by the law because the director general of the National Police [Hok Lundy] absolutely orders not to be involved with this,” he said.
One of the officers said police who join drug rackets are only looking for extra money to support themselves and their families.
A police officer’s salary necessitates working as a motor taxi driver or in other employment to make ends meet, he said.
And until corruption among the police is dealt with, he said, projects run by organizations such as the National Authority for Combating Drugs and the UN International Drug Control Program will be ineffective.
Lour Ramin, NACD deputy secretary-general, agreed that the foremost problem was collusion between drug traffickers and some Cambodian authorities.
“The NACD makes it look like our country has its own department to combat drugs,” one officer said.
“But the NACD is like a beautiful car. It looks very good, but when you want to drive it somewhere you find it has not tires, steering wheel or petrol.”