Five state employees are among six people police have identified as part of a drug trafficking gang that attempted to ship 4.5 tons of marijuana out of the country in April, a government official and a military police commander said Thursday.
Two police officers, one RCAF soldier, a military police officer and a Ministry of Agriculture official are among the suspects for which courts have issued arrest warrants in connection with the April 23 seizure at Sihanoukville Port of marijuana intended for Britain, officials said. It was the second-largest marijuana bust in Cambodia, they said.
Of the six suspects, three have been arrested, including a Koh Kong police inspector and a Phnom Penh police officer, according to Sim Hong, the deputy military police commander for Phnom Penh. He said he made the arrests.
But it remains unclear who were the masterminds behind the foiled plan.
According to the government official, the five suspects worked for a group of ethnic Chinese gangsters who were in Phnom Penh coordinating the illegal export.
The same Chinese were also behind Cambodia’s largest drugs haul—5.6 tons of marijuana—seized at a Kompong Speu military camp in January 1998, the official maintained.
“The bosses behind the operation are foreigners. They are a group of five or six Hong Kong Chinese gangsters based in Phnom Penh. They have disappeared now…They are very angry at our work,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because of security concerns.
Sim Hong also said the drug trafficking operation was run by a group of Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese who have businesses in Phnom Penh.
“The bosses run two or three companies in town doing legal business, but they run illegal business at the back of the company….That group is causing much disorder in society….[They] are making our youth addicted to drugs, kidnapping and other types of organized crime in Phnom Penh,” Sim Hong said.
However, the National Authority for Combating Drugs, in an April 26 report that detailed the bust and listed suspects, did not mention the involvement of Chinese gangsters. And two Interior officials familiar with the case have maintained powerful Cambodian generals are linked to the 4.5 tons of marijuana.
“They will say there are Chinese involved because they want to protect their business,” said one Interior official who asked not to be named. “This is their rice bowl.”
The 4.5 tons of marijuana was found in April at the port, packed in a shipping container with soybeans and furniture.
Yim Singhean, police inspector in Butom Sakor district in Koh Kong, was arrested in late July, according to the government official, who cited court documents. Chief of T3 Prison, Kuy Bun Sorn, said Yim Singhean has been held at the jail since Aug 18.
Kok Ly, a Phnom Penh police officer, and Heng Dararith, a civilian who reportedly helped store the marijuana in Phnom Penh, were arrested in late June, the official said.
Director of PJ Prison Srey Wantha confirmed Thursday both men were being detained after being handed over to prison authorities by the military police.
An arrest warrant also was issued late July for Chhin Eg, an RCAF soldier based in Koh Kong, but he has not yet been arrested. Police said Chhin Eg is thought to have fled to Thailand.
Nuon Chantara, a Ministry of Agriculture official based in Sihanoukville, was detained in April with the haul at Sihanoukville Port but has been released from custody and his whereabouts are unknown, the government official said.
The deputy secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, Khieu Sopheak, said last week Nuon Chantara had been arrested but released on bail and would be expected to appear later in court.
Pen Udom, a Phnom Penh military police officer, had been detained in connection with the bust, but he has helped investigators and it will be up to the investigating judge to decide on further sentencing, the government official said.
Sim Hong said Thursday that he used information provided by Pen Udom to make the three arrests. Pen Udom’s status and rank as a military police officer has been withheld pending further court investigations, Sim Hong said. “Without the cooperation of Pen Udom, we would not have been led to the others to make the arrests….I have already brought Pen Udom to testify in court to show that his commander did not hide a member of staff who committed an offense,” Sim Hong said.
A man who police suspect is one of the ringleaders goes by the name Touch Pov. Though Sim Hong and the government official maintain that Touch Pov is a false Cambodian name taken by an ethnic Chinese gangster, the two Interior Ministry officials say that Touch Pov exists and is a Cambodian national. His whereabouts are unknown, police said.
According to the drug authority report, the 4,581-kg shipment of marijuana was packed in a Meng Srieng Express transport container on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on April 21.
The container truck left the warehouse at 9:30 pm, and was escorted to Sihanoukville Port by Touch Pov and Pen Udom, the report said. On the morning of April 23, the marijuana was discovered by Camcontrol officials who inspected the container.
“After the marijuana haul was discovered, Touch Pov and Pen Udom, who were protected by armed men, returned to Phnom Penh,” the report states.
A spokesperson for Meng Srieng said Wednesday that they were unaware at the time that the cargo—which was packed in sealed boxes in a warehouse in Kilometer Six Village, Russei Keo district—was marijuana.
According to Skadavy Math Ly Roun, a member of the drug authority until the agency was overhauled two months ago, British police have arrested one person connected to the haul.
However, British Ambassador George Edgar could not confirm Tuesday that an arrest had been made in Britain.
The British Embassy had passed on information to British police regarding the case, Edgar added.
John Hector, United Kingdom Drugs Liaison Officer for Southeast Asia based in Bangkok, visited Cambodia earlier this month.
In a public burning ceremony July 12, authorities burned and destroyed the seized marijuana a short distance from Sihanoukville town.
Jointly lighting the first flame, then-US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn and co-Ministers of the Interior Sar Kheng and You Hockry said there would be greater cooperation between the two countries in wiping out narcotics trafficking in Cambodia.