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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Drug lab bust exposes toxic issues

Drug lab bust exposes toxic issues

The first-ever government raid of a large-scale illegal drug laboratory on March

31 has narcotics experts concerned that Cambodia may be evolving from a major transit

point of methamphetamines, into a manufacturer and regional exporter of the drugs.

Officials say the seizure is unprecedented. Two tons of "precursor" chemicals,

including a reported 400 to 500 kg of chloroephedrine, were seized at a clandestine

operation in Kampong Speu province posing as a cow farm. Seventeen arrests were made:

14 local Cambodians hired as workers, two Thai men and one Chinese man. The foreigners

have been described as managers.

Law enforcement officials simultaneously stormed a home in Phnom Penh's Toul Kork

district, found another ton of precursors and arrested a 28-year-old Chinese woman

who was charged April 5 with illegal drug production.

"This is a big shift in the Cambodia drug scene," said Jeremy Douglas,

regional project coordinator for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's regional center

for East Asia and the Pacific by phone from Bangkok. "There have been allegations

in the past about production sites in Cambodia, but this is the first proof. It's

unknown if there are more, but this is definitely huge."

Douglas said a UNODC forensic expert would arrive April 7 to help examine the substances.

US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle confirmed US Drug Enforcement Agency agents arrived

from Bangkok following the arrests to provide technical advice.

No official analysis has been released, but Meas Vyrith, laboratory chief for the

National Authority on Combatting Drugs, believes the laboratory was making the chemical

ingredients needed for producing methamphetamines, including "crystal meth"

or "ice."

"We found 12 different kinds of chemicals. In my analysis I found the final

product to be chloroephedrine. I used a color test and it matched a reference sample

we obtained from the UNODC," said Vyrith. "Chloroephedrine is the starting

material for making methamphetimine. After you have it, you can add other chemicals

and you're making methamphetamines."

If the operation does prove to be a starting point for crystal meth production, Douglas

believes it would be in line with regional trends.

According to Douglas, ice was first found in Cambodia in 2005, but the amount seized

has jumped significantly over the last 18 months.

He said that although the UNODC reported only 23 kg of ice seized in the Kingdom

last year, two high-profile arrests for "crystal meth" at Phnom Penh International

Airport were enough for his office to begin reconsidering its origin. On November

30, 2006, airport officials arrested three Malaysians with 12.4 kg of ice, and four

days later an Indonesian was caught with 2 kg in his luggage.

"This is very, very dangerous for Cambodia," said Douglas. "If this

is the first of many, or even a few, sites like this its dangerous for chemical pollution

and it's dangerous because its highly addictive. You don't want this anywhere near

the streets."

THE BUST

According to government officials the raids were the result of a month-long investigation

that included undercover agents and 24-hour surveillance.

"For a month [the suspects] have been making substances al in Kampong Speu to

produce crystal meth in Phnom Penh. We have observed them from the beginning, and

they have not yet distributed any crystal meth to the market," said Kang Heang,

Kampong Speu provincial governor, on April 3. "We sent our agent to work as

the worker at that place and we asked to take some chemicals to be examined. After

we knew clearly that the chemicals were for producing ice we acted-on April 1.."

Moek Dara, director of the anti-drug department at the Ministry of Interior, confirmed

that an operative "stole" sample chemicals for lab testing prior to the

raid.

"We investigated for more than a month. We knew that they were transporting

chemicals to produce precursors, but at first we did not know what level it was,"

said Dara. "On election day, they transported 48 tanks because they thought

everyone was busy going to vote."

THE LAND

Dara said lasted from 10 pm on March 31 until 9 am on April 1. He said the that two

tons of chemicals were found at the Phnom Penh site and two at the Kompong Speu farm.

According to NACD's Vyrith, the the farm was chosen as a front because the odor of

bovine excrement masked the stench of the toxic process.

"They used the place in Kampong Speu for mixing chemicals and drying the mixed

chemicals, and then they transported the dried chemicals to Phnom Penh to package

and distribute to the markets," said Lour Ramin, NACD secretary-general on April

4. "Now the we're focusing on is the health of the people who live nearby the

place and the Cambodian workers. HE Sar Kheng has established a committee to solve

the problems the chemical may cause for the local people and environment."

Dara said that law enforcement officials were unprepared for the dangerous nature

of the chemicals and some, including Dara himself, suffered heath problems after

the strike.

"The 14 [Cambodian] workers that they were hired now have swollen faces and

one of the Chinese technicians has vomited blood," Dara said. "One family

that lives nearby also has swollen faces and now we've asked them to move. About

two hectares of grass has died and now no one dares to go into the place. We don't

allow people to use any water near that place."

Further clouding the incident are questions about the ownership of the land in Ampel

village, Treng Trayoeng commune, Phnom Srouch district, Kompong Speu province. According

to Heang the land is the property of Chea Chung, a former adviser to Funcinpec Secretary-General

Nhiek Bun Chhay.

They laboratory was found on the land of Chea Chung. Outside farming cows but inside

producing drugs," said Heang. "We interrogated all the arrested people

and they replied that they were hired by Chea Chung. Now we are investigating Chea

Chung.

On April 3, Chheam Peth, Nhiek Bun Chhay's cabinet director at the Council of Ministers,

denied any connection between the farmland, some 40 km from Phnom Penh, with Bun

Chhay.

"The role of Mr. Chea Chung as the advisor for the Deputy Prime Minister and

Co-minister of the Defense Minstry ended automatically when HE Nhiek Bun Chhay ended

his role as the co-minister of the Defense Ministry," the statement read. "We

call for ministries to take legal measure [Chea Chung] to get maximum penalty if

he was found to be conspiring in the production of drugs.

On April 4, the newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer, or Khmer Conscience, published a 2001

letter from RCAF Commander in Chief Ke Kim Yan to six people, among them Chea Chung,

awarding the right to use the land to raise cows.

Chea Chung has since disappeared, officials said. But a witness to the events, who

declined to be named but provided the Post with photographs of the crime scene, said

Chung fled roughly five minutes before the raid.

"This is valuable, valuable stuff," said UNODC's Douglas. "By the

sounds of it it's linked to transnational organized crime."

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