More than 100 suspects have been arrested in Kompong Thom province since October as police continue operations to crush a bandit network that has plagued the province for years, officials said Tuesday.
Specializing in hold-ups and kidnappings, the Kompong Thom bandit gangs have been fingered for conducting an extensive crime spree since the mid-1990s that has resulted in dozens of armed robberies, killings and abductions.
Some 250 police officers and 10 units of the Interior Ministry’s elite Flying Tigers were deployed in September to Baray district—the epicenter of the bandit rampage—where several gang leaders and suspects were apprehended.
However, the bandits struck back with three mass kidnappings when the police reinforcements were recalled to Phnom Penh to provide security during the 8th Asean Summit in November.
“We arrested more than 40 bandits in [Baray] district and another 60 men were arrested for involvement in other crimes,” Kim An, Kompong Thom deputy police chief, said on Tuesday.
However, at least another 100 bandits are still at large, said Kim An, adding that the gangs are well armed and organized in a loose affiliation of separate criminal groups whose activities are coordinated by less than a dozen gang leaders.
“They are armed with AK-47 rifles and some B-40 rockets, and this place is easy to hide,” Kim An said.
Kompong Thom Deputy Governor Hem Savong said the banditry in Baray district was, for some, a family tradition that began with cattle and water buffalo rustling during French colonial rule in Cambodia.
The province has since become a refuge for criminals from Phnom Penh, Kompong Cham and other provinces. Aspiring bandits have been drawn to the area by the lucrative crime business that, until the recent police dragnet, was largely unhindered by the law.
“The [bandits] have done their career in robbery since the time of their ancestors in the French colony. They have succeeded their ancestors’ duty,” Hem Savong said.
So strong are the bandits’ roots in Baray district that locals and victims are unwilling to cooperate with police for fear of reprisal killings and kidnappings, Hem Savong said.
But the recent bandit arrests would put a serious dent in their criminal operations, he said.
“Now we can crack down on [the bandits]. Only the masters of the groups are not yet arrested. But they have split to other provinces,” he said.
However, a senior police official said on condition of anonymity Tuesday that the 10 bandit gangs known to operate in Baray are capable of dispersing and re-grouping under their old crime chiefs.
“Each group has its masters…. They are not the normal [gangs]. Each can work in [small] groups and then combine as one group,” the police official said.
One of the ringleaders arrested late last year for kidnapping was apprehended just days after being released from prison on a kidnapping conviction.
Kun Sitha of local rights group Adhoc said on Tuesday that Baray had long been plagued by robbery but the crime wave had increased at the end of the year. People were living in fear in Baray, she said.
Locals and human rights groups in Kompong Thom told reporters in September that they believed some members of the police and military were operating among the bandits.
In 2002, Kompong Thom’s bandits were held responsible for 34 armed robberies, 16 killings, eight mass kidnappings, two rapes, four attempted murders and two unsuccessful robberies, provincial police reported.