Voeun Kham village, Stung Treng province – The fog-covered mountains, steamy jungles and island-dotted waterways of the Lao-Cambodian border amount to some of the most isolated and inaccessible parts of Cambodia.
But the savagely exquisite terrain of Stung Treng province now tops the list of locations considered the most important gateway of drugs shipments entering Cambodia from Southeast Asia’s notorious narco-state the “Golden Triangle.”
Hundred of kilograms of heroin, thousands of methamphetamine pills and other drug cocktails, produced and distributed by the Golden Triangle’s drug-financed armies on the Lao-Thai-Burmese border, are thought to pass through this sleepy, backwater province in northeastern Cambodia.
Though opium production has decreased in Burma and Laos in the past several years, both countries are still the second and third largest producers of opium in the world after the number one global leader, Afghanistan.
Cambodian and international experts agree that Stung Treng is a major drug trafficking artery: amphetamines for the country’s domestic market, and heroin bound for regional and eventually international markets in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
But ask why few of the reported Stung Treng drug hauls-especially heroin-have yet wound up in the hands of Cambodian law enforcement, and the answers fade in a haze of explanation.
Powerful Lao and Cambodian drug czars, teams of drug smugglers, stupendous profits, difficult terrain, corruption, fear and a lack of police ability and equipment are all offered on a plate of answers as to why there is still little hard evidence that Cambodia has become an important corridor for Golden Triangle heroin.
But as with many things in Cambodia, national and international anti-drug officials counsel that it is better to use common sense than the burden of proof in ascertaining the truth behind the Stung Treng trafficking route.
“It’s like looking for a needle in the Mekong River,” said Border Police officer Chan Thala-a dark, stocky man based for several years at the small jumble of wooden huts that serves as headquarters for the Stung Treng border police force at Voeun Kham village.
Five remote outposts staffed by 78 officers form the Cambodian border police security net along the rugged 205 km-long Lao border, Chan Thala said.
Traversing between the frontier police posts is usually only possible on foot, and hiking for hours through malaria-wracked forests of dense jungle green is only done for specific operations not part of regular patrols, he said.
The less time exposed to the nefarious elements of the jungle the better for police officers who find themselves spending their own money for medicine if they fall ill because of jungle patrols, Chan Thala said.
“We heard rumors and read in the newspapers, but we have never heard anything from the locals about drugs,” said Chan Thala, who added that getting facts on border smuggling takes second place to staying healthy.
“It is probably true. Because if you look at the actual situation it is possible,” he says.
Human porters could easily haul drug shipments across the remote, border mountains. And they could more easily stash the drugs aboard boats on the spider-web of rivers and islands that form the Mekong River at the Lao-Cambodian border, he says.
Simplest of all, it could be packed inside the tons of dark, pungent Lao coffee exported to southerly Cambodian river ports each month.
“Customs officers do not know how to inspect [these cargoes]. They just pay the customs tax, and the coffee can go,” Chan Thala said.
In Chan Thala’s opinion, “it’s complicated” to find and stop drug smuggling on the Stung Treng border.
Southeast Asian heroin enters Cambodia from Laos and Thailand. The heroin entering from Laos can be of either Laotian or Burmese origin, and is usually smuggled by boat on the Mekong River into Stung Treng province,” the US Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2001 drug intelligence report on Cambodia.
Heroin entering from Thailand is usually of Burmese origin and is brought across a Cambodian border that is hundreds of kilometers of rugged, unpatrolled terrain, according to the DEA.
Cambodia’s heroin supply is subsequently transported to Phnom Penh for sale, international trans-shipment or to Vietnam for redistribution, the DEA said.
The DEA’s judgment: “Cambodia will probably continue to be a transit country for Southeast Asian heroin out of Laos and Burma…that is destined for markets worldwide.”
On the Lao side of the Mekong River at the Voeun Kham border post, a brood of Cambodia boatmen sip strong coffee waiting for their next passenger to take the hour-long, fast-boat ride to Stung Treng town.
They wear visored motorcycle helmets while speeding across the water in the long, narrow Thai-style speed boats that are powered by enormous, sputtering car engines.
On the opposite side of the river at Koh Chhoeuteal Thom, two Cambodian Immigration Police officers sit in wooden stilted house-cum-bureau eyeing the expensive speed boats with jealousy, and their owners suspiciously.
“There are orders from National Police to crackdown on drugs. But there’s no drugs to find because of the forests and the rivers and we don’t have speed boats to chase a suspect,” said one of the police officers.
Boats passing up and down the river are required to present their cargoes for inspection at the office, but if a suspicious substance was ever found, it would be difficult for officials to determine whether it was illegal narcotics because of the lack of drug-testing equipment, he said.
“We’ve never made any arrests. We just hear rumors about drug trafficking,” he says, adding that without binoculars, photographic cameras, drug-testing equipment or even a proper boat, it will remain a lonely fight against drug smuggling.
Smuggling to avoid customs tax is part of the river trade with Laos, says 17 year-old boatman Bun Ly as he chugs along the border regions of the Mekong River in a frumpy, leaky boat which is frequently caught in the violent backwash of the hurtling, long-boats.
Consignments of coffee, ginger, cabbage and clay cooking stoves are popular smuggler items for boatmen, who are paid $50 to bring the sealed-boxed cargoes from Laos to Stung Treng town by routes that avoid the customs posts.
Everyone knows about drug smuggling, but no one asks too many questions, said Bun Ly. He said he has never seen drugs with his own eyes: “But the name of the Lao ringleader for drug smuggling is very famous,” he added.
Some believe they know more about the Stung Treng smuggling business than others.
One source from Stung Treng province presented a detailed list of suspected smugglers, their cover businesses, their powerful supporters, their known consignments of drugs and their trafficking routes.
If the information is to be believed, kilograms of heroin and other drugs are simply driven, usually by motorcycle, to a Laotian border town then transferred to boats and taken down the Sekong River-a Mekong tributary-to Stung Treng town.
Powerful authorities on both sides of the border keep the drug smuggling business running as smooth as Khmer and Lao silk, he said.
Though several medium and large heroin busts were made in Cambodia in the mid-1990s, the drug is still an infrequent substance uncovered by the country’s law enforcement officers.
Small amphetamine hauls have been intercepted in Stung Treng and the down-river provinces of Kratie and Kompong Cham but heroin has never been discovered in the northeastern provinces, police officials say.
However, significant quantities of the “white gold” of the drugs world are turning up in foreign capitals via Cambodia.
Last month, a court in Australia court sentenced a 40-year-old man-Chieu Tran Van-to five years in jail for posting more than 2 kgs of heroin from Phnom Penh to addresses in Brisbane.
In August, three Cambodian-born New Zealand men were convicted on separate charges of importing and possessing heroin with intent to supply. Some 800 grams of near pure heroin was discovered packed into video cassettes which they had posted from Phnom Penh to Auckland
The heroin was worth about $5 million at New Zealand street prices.
That same month, a Cambodian-born Australian man To Go Sio, 29, was sentenced to 22 years in prison on charges of supplying heroin. He had been arrested last year after falling sick in Bangkok airport during a transit stop-over from Phnom Penh to Australia. Rubber balloons containing 24.1 grams of heroin had burst in his stomach.
Closer to home in July, a 42-year-old Taiwanese woman was discovered by customs officials at Pochentong Airport bound for Taipei with 1.9 kilograms of heroin strapped to her stomach and thighs.
In June, Vietnamese police arrested 11 alleged members of a drug trafficking ring that smuggled 1 kg of heroin and 100 methamphetamine tablets from Cambodia stuffed inside dead fish and toothpaste tubes.
It was a rare heroin arrest compared with the mid-1990s when “hard-drugs” busts were common in Cambodia.
Between 1996 and 1997, 11 Cambodians were arrested in three separate operations with over five kilograms of heroin which was reportedly smuggled from Laos into Cambodia.
Around the same period, four Cambodian police officers and one Burmese national were arrested in a speed boat off the cost of Koh Kong province with 71 kgs of heroin.
Due to the lack of recent evidence, anti-drug officials are loathe to speculate on the size of the heroin shipments reportedly crossing Cambodia monthly.
However, some believe the figure could be in the hundreds of kilograms.
Overlooking the confluence of the Sekong and Mekong Rivers, the Stung Treng town river front of Chinese-style, shop-house businesses are wrapped in an after-the-gold-rush atmosphere.
Not far from where the surrounding jungles meet Stung Treng’s first paved streets, the bounty of better days is evident among the several supremely ostentatious villas scattered around the town’s outer environs.
But the town is long past its 1990s heyday, when mighty fortunes were literally plucked from trees by hardwood logging companies that raped the province’s virginal forests.
Rusted, logging trucks marooned on punctured, moss-covered tires litter parking lots from the provincial capital to their old stalking grounds near the Lao border.
Not too many years ago, the logging trucks were busy hauling the forest’s bounty off to buyers in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and down the Mekong river to Phnom Penh.
Today, the profits lost when the illegal-logging businesses were forced to close have for the few, been replaced by the ill-gotten gains of drug smuggling, officials said.
“We are doing our best to crackdown but it is impossible,” said Chhim Chhorn, the governor of Stung Treng province.
“There is no market for drug users in Stung Treng. But I believe, and agree that here is a transit place,” he said during a recent stop-off at Ratanakkiri province on a flight to Phnom Penh.
There are suspects, members of a smuggling network with operatives in Laos and Cambodia, but the problem is finding evidence, said Chhim Chhorn.
Other officials say the evidence is out there, but few people would dare look for it, or act on it.
“It’s complicated,” the Interior Ministry Anti-Narcotics Police Chief Pich Chivorn says repeating the oft-heard mantra when conversations turn to cracking down on the Stung Treng drug shipments.
“We know only the ringleader’s short names. We do not have their real names. But we are collecting documents to cooperate with Laotian authorities in order to arrest them,” he said.
The amount of drug smuggled has increased each year, and the years 2001 and 2002 have been a bonanza for the narco-kingpins who now cut drugs deals like they once cut swathes of forest, Pich Chivorn said.
Small methamphetamine hauls have been busted in Cambodia’s northeast, while the largest-ever single bust-which netted 60,000 pills near Poipet last month-originated in Stung Treng, Pich Chivorn said.
“Most of the smugglers are former illegal loggers. They returned to this business since the ban of illegal logging,” he said adding that no matter how powerful, if there’s evidence, arrests will follow.
Stung Treng Police Chief Long Lim assumed responsibility for law and order in the province several months ago but knows that investigating the reported drug smuggling will take new tactics, equipment and lots of international assistance.
“We have to have a special force from Phnom Penh who are ready to make arrests. They must be undercover, and they must be paid a lot of money because this work will be very dangerous for their lives,” Long Lim said.
There are drug traffickers in the province, but no arrests because “the business is so well controlled, organized and protected it will never be found out,” he said.
“It is not just one reason. There are 100 other reasons,” he added cryptically.
Cambodia’s connection to the Golden Triangle is not a new revelation. Back in 1996, a French drug-monitoring body reported that Cambodia was playing an expanding role in the transit of drugs from the Golden Triangle, particularly heroin refined in Burma and imported via Laos and Thailand.
“According to different Western sources, Cambodian police officers and officials are involved in drug trafficking alongside Laotian soldiers who make it easy to cross the frontier, particularly by boat on the Mekong,” the Observatoire Geopolitique Des Drogues reported.
Of the traffickers, the OGD stated that they are “very well organized, with many contacts, and their rings are hard to break. The law of silence prevails.”
According to the OGD, in the early 1990s, drug traffickers in the Golden Triangle made contacts with powerful Cambodian officials and Chinese triads based in the country.
Among other forms of payment, the OGD claimed bartering Cambodian weapons for narcotics was common in the Golden Triangle which cuts through Burma’s northeastern Shan state and is the base of the largest ethnic-minority force fighting against the Rangoon junta.
Rangoon blames the anti-junta groups in the Shan state for most of the drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle.
Thailand and international drug agencies dispute the claims and charge groups allied to Rangoon, particularly the United Wa State Army, with producing most of the region’s narcotics. particularly the billions of methamphetamine pills that have flooded Thailand in recent years.
Though methamphetmaine use has boomed in the Golden Triangle, opium still earns Burma’s producers between $150-160 million annually, a UN official told Agence France-Presse in August.
A recent UN regional drug profile said Cambodia has few areas suitable for growing opium and has never had problems with the illicit crop.
However, Cambodia in the late 1990s was a major source of cannabis in the region, mostly organized by criminal syndicates who struck “contract cultivation” deals with local crime lords for export to Europe.
“In addition to marijuana, Cambodia’s principal involvement in the international narcotics trade is as a transit route for Southeast Asian heroin to overseas markets, including China, Europe, Australia, and the United States,” the UN report stated.
The UN last year named Cambodia as one of the world’s largest producers of marijuana, based on data from the late 1990s. The trade was worth about $1 billion, the UN estimated. The illegal business has since been cracked down on by police.
Worldwide busts have fingered Cambodia’s massive cannabis exports, but heroin hauls are much less common and with few confiscations of the drug inside Cambodian border, the reported smuggling syndicates remain extremely obscure and anti-narcotics officials largely bereft of hard evidence.
“We have never been given one piece of hard evidence to substantiate this,” said Graham Shaw, international program office with the UN office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in Phnom Penh.
“The heroin, much of it from what we hear-but nobody has ever given us evidence-goes from Stung Treng to Kratie to Kompong Cham and then most of it goes overland into Vietnam and probably from there by sea or air to Australia, to New Zealand and to the US and Canada,” Shaw said.
Cultivated in Asia’s damp, humid highlands, poppy plants are tended until raw opium is scraped from the flower’s bulbous head. The opium sap is then dissolved, strained and dried before being processed into heroin using alcohol and other chemicals.
Rumored to retail at $5,000-7,000 per kilogram in Stung Treng, heroin is worth three-times that price in Vietnam, and fetches prices as high as $100,000 in the US, depending on the purity.
Cut with various bulking agents, including caffeine and baking soda, a kilogram of No 4 heroin-the region’s finest-earns around $250,000 when eventually peddled on the streets of large Western cities, said Shaw.
If the reports of heroin smuggling through Cambodia are correct, it would make it a multi-million dollar business.
“It is not rocket science,” says Shaw.
The Mekong River has been used as a smuggling route for centuries. Thailand is cracking down on drug trafficking from Burma, while massive heroin hauls have been intercepted in China’s Yunnan province-a major smuggling route because of its border with Burma’s northeast.
“So the easiest way… is by going to places where human resources are very limited or where they do exist, they have very little knowledge of what drugs look like. Where there is no ability to test substances or that salaries are so low that corruption is widespread. And that’s Cambodia,” Shaw said.
UNODCCP and the Cambodian National Authority for Combating Drugs plan to establish a Border Liaison Office with Laos at the Dong Kralor border post in Stung Treng. The office will be equipped with drug testing equipment and will focus on searching and sharing drug-smuggling intelligence with Lao counterparts.
Cambodia has been ready to establish the BLO for at least six months, but Laos has yet to get on board citing a lack of human resources, Shaw said.
Meanwhile, reports of cross-border drug trafficking with Laos indicate “that it is organized,” said Shaw.
“There appears to be military protection for the activities but, again, nobody ever gave us evidence to substantiate these allegations, and that’s important.”
On the other hand, circumstantial evidence abounds.
In nearby Ratanakkiri province last month, marijuana from Laos was openly on offer at guest houses in Banlung. Methamphetamines were also available from the same sources, but only for those who inquired-a fact that could possibly indicate the pills were destined for other markets and not the province’s small budget backpacker scene.
In Phnom Penh, the street price of heroin is one of the cheapest in the world, indicating the available supply is outstripping domestic demand.
It’s basic narco-economics, say anti-drug officials.
An estimated 600,000 people are believed to abuse drugs in Cambodia. Around 50 percent use methamphetamines, while only 10 percent use heroin, according to a recent UNODCCP survey.
But, while heroin use is relatively small in Phnom Penh, officials have speculated the availability of an apparently abundant supply of heroin could be due to seepage from possibly large hauls passing through the capital city.
Indeed, while heroin smuggling has serious repercussions regionally and internationally, it’s the exponential growth of “pill popping” in Cambodia which is consider a much greater national concern that hard drugs like heroin.
Large amounts of heroin and opium have long been smuggled through the countries to Cambodia’s north, south, east and west-Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
Some 220 kilograms of heroin and 2,750 kilograms of opium were seized in Vietnam in the past five years, Vu Hung Vuong, head of the Vietnamese Public Security Ministry’s anti-drugs force, told AFP recently.
And most of Vietnam’s now 120,000 drug abusers are addicted to the heroin that is smuggled from the Golden Triangle and across the country’s borders with Laos and Cambodia.
Aware of the growing tentacles of the drug smugglers, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have signed several agreements to tackle cross-border crime. But even with strong law enforcement and tough penalties the business still thrives.
Thailand, Vietnam and now Laos have the death penalty for serious cases of drug smuggling. Last year, 55 people were executed by firing squad for drug-related offenses in Vietnam.
Two women and a man were sentenced to death in Vientiane in June for trafficking almost three kilograms of heroin and 16,000 methamphetamine pills.
They were the first people to receive the death sentence since it became part of Laos’ anti-drug law last year.
Cambodia does not have the death sentence, but has a pretty solid anti-drug law, with weighty prison sentences for offenders, officials say.
However, making arrests-and then ensuring those who are arrested are punished-has long been a problem that has earned Cambodia the title of “weak link” in regional security concerns.
On very few occasions has the full weight of justice been brought to bear on drug traffickers. Many suspects who have faced serious drug trafficking charges here have escaped with relatively minor fines.
“We need to see a demonstration by law enforcement and by the judiciary that they are willing and capable of using the Cambodian law to send a message to the traffickers and to the general population that illicit drugs are not acceptable,” Shaw said.
“Regardless of who is involved in the trafficking and regardless of what protection is given,” he said.
The Stung Treng trafficking route is a government target, said Khieu Sopheak, deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs.
The government was able to eradicate the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge movement, and it will also destroy the Stung Treng syndicates, Khieu Sopheak said.
“We do not surrender to [drug traffickers],” he said. “Cambodia is not like Colombia.”