Expert Says Drug Trade May Flourish

The recent closing of Afghan­istan’s borders could increase the production and trafficking of opium through the nations of the Mekong River region, particularly Cambodia, a top UN official said Thurs­day.

“This area is just as much at risk as the countries surrounding Afghanistan,” said Dr Sandro Calvani, East Asia and Pacific representative for the UN Inter­national Drug Control Program. “The Mekong River is a fantastic, open highway…Cambodia is very easy to enter and exit from. And [traffickers] are always looking for ways to develop their business.”

Cambodia’s weak judicial system, open borders, improved roads and generally tolerant society make it an easy target for drug traffickers who are looking for “low-risk” countries in which to establish themselves, he said.

A March 2001 UN report said Cambodia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of marijuana, with the value of illicit exports es­timated to match that of the garment industry, the country’s top legal export.

It also said that “significant quantities” of Southeast Asian heroin, as well as amphetamines made in Burma, are smuggled through Cambodia on its way to markets abroad.

“The country has become a safe haven for criminal organizations…of such proportions that they could seriously undermine the country’s fragile development efforts,” the report stated.

Currently, Afghanistan is responsible for 85 percent of the world’s opium production, Calvani said. But the amount of exported opium fell in December when the ruling Taliban regime halted production of the lucrative crop.

After the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US—believed to have been coordinated by Afghanistan resident Osama bin Laden—Afghanistan’s borders were closed, effectively halting all exports of the leftover opium supply, Calvani said.

As the world’s supply of opium has fallen, the price has risen dramatically. In Burma, for example, users are now paying 10 times the amount they were paying last year.

“Demand has not been reduced. Users around the world do not have to obey the Taliban,” Calvani said.

While authorities in Burma and Laos have cracked down on opium farming in recent years, the possibility of increased production in Laos, Thailand and Burma—the so-called “Golden Triangle” of opium production—remains. Traffickers could then use Cambodia, which shares borders with Thailand and Laos, as a staging ground for shipments to Indonesia, Australia, North America and Europe, he said.

Calvani met with top government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Wednesday to warn about possible increased drug trafficking. He recommended more police training and a sustained education campaign through the media.

Calvani also met with international donors to raise funding for drug efforts here. The UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention opened an office in Phnom Penh earlier this year and has a budget of just under $1 million for 2001, Calvani said.

“Cambodia doesn’t compare in production to Burma or to Thailand for consumption and trafficking. But it is one of the poorest countries in the region and there is an enormous need for development,” he said.

Because of Cambodia’s poverty, the number of opium and amphetamine addicts could rise quickly, much faster than in Thailand, Calvani said.

Just five years ago, there were very few amphetamine users in Thailand. Now, there have been 800,000 million “yaba” pills made and distributed among labor workers and middle-class teen-agers, Calvani said.

 

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