Ministry of Interior police say they have broken a sophisticated forgery operation in Phnom Penh that was responsible for an estimated 100 people bearing fake Cambodian passports entering the US on valid visas in recent months.
Three Ministry of Interior police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the forgeries are the latest example of extensive corruption among those entrusted with issuing new Cambodian passports. The forgeries also highlight the widespread selling of valid passports by their holders to criminal networks, they said.
Kim Veasna, 29, a former law student, was arrested Monday following a raid on a residence in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district that uncovered 34 Cambodian passports, Lek Vannak, deputy chief of the Criminal Police Department at the Interior Ministry, said Wednesday.
The passports, including 17 official-service passports belonging to government staff, were bought by the forgery ring, which specialized in replacing the official bearers’ photographs with that of their clients.
Official service passports are issued to lower ranking government officials for overseas missions only, said Chhay Sokhan, deputy director of the legal and consular department at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
A police official at the Interior Ministry’s Serious Crime Department said Wednesday that Kim Veasna and his gang bought a large number of passports from minor government officials who were not using them.
“He tried to buy as many as possible of the official passports because they are powerful and similar to diplomatic passports. When [US] embassy officials see these passports and interview the people, they easily get a visa,” the police officer said.
The three Interior Ministry officials said internal corruption among a variety of government officials has lead to thousands of Cambodian passports being issued illegally to foreigners.
Two of the officials said this week that more than 2,000 Cambodian passports were issued to Chinese and Vietnamese nationals between 1998 and 1999 alone.
Cambodian passports, both new passports and old passports doctored for new owners, fetch upwards of $5,000 each, the police officials maintained.
The fake passport business slowed in 2000 after a crackdown on human smuggling by Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara and the introduction of new passports with digitally scanned photographs.
But it is still an active and highly lucrative business, the officials said.
The forgery operation was broken after the arrest of Phnom Penh resident Kruy Lao, 37, on Sunday at Pochentong Airport as he attempted to leave the country with a fake passport bearing a valid US visa.
On Friday six people, including two police officers who authorities said were helping four fake passport holders through airport security, also were arrested at Pochentong Airport.
Kim Veasna told police he provided, along with the doctored passports, forged land title deeds, banks accounts and professional qualifications required by US visa applicants, Lek Vannak said.
He also schooled his fake document holders in answering questions asked at the visa application interview in the US embassy in Phnom Penh, Lek Vannak said.
“It was very rare that people who got to the interview at the US Embassy were refused a visa,” he said.
Those who received a visa and successfully arrived in the US would arrange to pay the forgery ring between $8,000 and $12,000, Lek Vannak said, adding that an investigation is under way to arrest more suspects believed to be involved in the operation.
Kruy Lao told police that he was provided with his passport by Kim Veasna, whom he promised to pay $12,000 when he arrived in the US.
A spokesman at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said Wednesday that the altering of genuine passports was a worldwide problem and the latest revelations will not mean a tightening of procedures for genuine US visa requests in Cambodia.
“This happens all over the world all the time,” the diplomat said. “It goes with the territory.”
While altered passports are not unusual, the Cambodian police operation to break the forgery ring and arrest suspects is probably the first of its kind, the diplomat said.
A second Western diplomat said the revelations will not affect visa issuing regulations at his embassy, as the problem has existed for a number of years.
“This is a reminder to everyone that forgeries are common and there is a need for continued vigilance,” the diplomat said. “It is a problem and will remain a problem.”
With lax enforcement at its borders and airports, Cambodia has been an ideal transit country for smuggling rings.
In November 1999 more than 600 illegal Chinese immigrants were deported from Phnom Penh following a months-long operation to break a human smuggling network that Chea Sophara said was operating in the capital with the protection of corrupt officials.
Although a high-level government committee was formed to investigate the claims that high-ranking police officials were protecting the smugglers, no one was arrested.
Chea Sophara said the arrest of the passport forgers indicated that illegal immigration from Cambodia is still a problem, but not on the same scale as before.
“Our operation had good results. I received information on the forgeries. But it is a small problem,” Chea Sophara said.