Police said on Tuesday that they were poised to make arrests linked to the discovery in Australia last week of 24 kg of heroin smuggled from Cambodia, a drug shipment that Cambodian officials claim was under surveillance since entering Cambodia from the Golden Triangle.
Interior Ministry officials said the heroin haul was allowed to pass through Cambodia and on to Australia as part of sting-style operation aimed at identifying major drug traffickers operating in both countries.
Information related to the smuggling suspects has been passed to Cambodian courts, and police expect to start making arrests soon.
“[The heroin] was a controlled delivery,” said Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman and deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs.
“We knew the smuggling route, but we wanted to catch the big fish,” Khieu Sopheak said.
“[Now] we are going to catch the big fish and the small fish.”
According to Khieu Sopheak, the undercover police work was conducted in a joint operation with Australian Federal Police officers based in Phnom Penh.
The Interior Ministry claims could not be independently confirmed with Australian Federal Police officials as they are prevented from speaking to reporters in Cambodia.
AFP officials in the Australian capital of Canberra have not replied to inquiries regarding the recent bust or to other previous requests for information.
After discovering the heroin inside a consignment of Cambodian fish-paste cakes that arrived in Sydney’s main container port last Wednesday, Australian customs officials said they had scored their largest drug bust in 12 months.
Australia’s Minister of Justice and Customs Chris Ellison said the heroin-worth an estimated $14.5 million-was discovered as a result of new, hi-tech X-ray equipment just recently installed at the port.
The Australian minister made no mention of the heroin shipment being a “controlled delivery” from Cambodia.
Declining to provide too many details before arrests have been made, Khieu Sopheak said the 24 kg of heroin, stashed inside a shipment of fish, mirrored a method of smuggling used by Cambodian drug traffickers in the mid-1990s.
Police at the time discovered one kilogram of heroin stitched inside large, freshwater fish that were being transported from Cambodia to Australia, via Singapore, Khieu Sopheak said.
“They are using the same method but it’s a different company,” Khieu Sopheak said.
The heroin discovered last week was brought from the Golden Triangle-the name given the lawless drug producing zones on the borders between Thailand, Laos and Burma-and into Stung Treng province.
It was then brought to Phnom Penh where it was wrapped and packed with the fish shipment, he said.
As yet, there are no links between the heroin smugglers and Cambodia’s state-run fish export company Kamfimex, Khieu Sopheak said.
Kamfimex was named by leading Khmer-language daily newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia) on Tuesday as having been the company responsible for shipping the fish and, unknowingly, the hidden heroin to Australia.
Kamfimex Director Nou Buntha said on Tuesday he had no information about the heroin hidden inside the Cambodian fish shipment.
Kamfimex was only responsible for shipping cargoes from other fish producers, he said.
“We do not know about this. We just provide the service and fulfill the paperwork with authorities to export for [other companies],” Nou Buntha said.
Cambodia has increasingly been named as a major conduit for heroin shipments from the Golden Triangle.
However, none of the alleged large, heroin shipments have ever been interdicted either passing through Cambodia or arriving at destination countries.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)