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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Drug war’s impact on traffic unclear

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A man injects drugs in Phnom Penh. Despite Cambodia’s anti-drug campaign, the flow of illegal substances into the Kingdom from abroad does not appear to have slowed. Heng Chivoan

Drug war’s impact on traffic unclear

Despite a campaign to crack down on drug traffickers and their networks in the first six months of 2017, there are no clear signs of an impact on the flow of narcotics into the country, according to a representative with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The vast majority of drugs consumed in Cambodia come from outside the country, mostly entering through the northern border with Laos into Stung Treng province, according to Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative.

“Cambodia is part of the regional Mekong drug market with supply largely coming out of the Golden Triangle,” he said, referring to a notorious drug-producing region stretching across Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

The six-month crackdown, which began in January and is likely to continue given statements last month by National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) Director Ke Kim Yan, has led to the arrest of more than 9,400 alleged drug users and traffickers. However, interviews with representatives from the UNODC and the NACD suggest the initiative has done little to disrupt drug trafficking from regional drug hubs into Cambodia.

Meas Vyrith, secretary general of the NACD, said cross-border trafficking “seems quiet[er] since the launch of the campaign”, though he did not provide statistics.

Instead, Vyrith pointed to the arrest of a Lao-Cambodian man in May 2017 in Ratanakkiri accused of storing 50 kilograms of drugs retrieved during a Phnom Penh drug raid. Vyrith also noted the arrest in Cambodia of the accomplice of two Vietnamese traffickers carrying 16 kilos of drugs in Svay Rieng in April thanks to a tip from Vietnamese authorities as an example of successful international cooperation.

But Douglas said current reports don’t suggest a significant reduction in cross-border trafficking.

“[There] have been a lot of arrests and some modest seizures, but not much else reported that indicates supply [entering Cambodia] is down,” he said.

One way of determining whether a crackdown has diminished a number of drugs circulating in the country is to examine changes in the price of drugs. A major increase in the price of illegal drugs, for instance, may signify a drastic fall in supply as cross-border trafficking decreases.

Sithat Sem, a drug programme manager at NGO Mith Samlanh, said the organisation had seen a moderate increase in drug prices, but that might be due to the difficulty of accessing dealers who have been forced to move frequently to evade arrest.

According to Vyrith, securing Cambodia’s borders from drug traffickers continues to pose an enormous challenge, with law enforcement spread thin along a porous border. “The borders are huge areas, along the valleys [and] streams and the number of the police is limited. Criminals know where there is no police and they carry out the activities,” he said.

Decapitating the organisations responsible for trafficking across Cambodia’s borders poses another problem, said Vyrith. While Vyrith claimed the Cambodian government had arrested 13 “groups” of drug traffickers since the beginning of the campaign, “authorities rarely arrest drug syndicates”, he said, referring to the leaders of criminal organisations responsible for trafficking.

“They use someone to help them for smuggling drugs, whether they [the smugglers] know or not.”

Given the limitations, the UNODC and NACD agree that nations affected by the regional drug market need to enhance cooperation.

A 2016 UNODC report encouraged countries in the Mekong region to collaborate by improving information exchange and increasing joint operations. To this end, the UNODC in May endorsed the Mekong Memorandum of Understanding between six countries – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Vietnam and Myanmar – which includes sharing “real-time information regarding drug production and trafficking” and establishing “Border Liaison Offices”, as well as joint cross-border operations.

Vyrith emphasised the importance of improving channels for information-sharing, particularly when one nation apprehends someone preparing to traffic drugs to another country.

“Authorities that find someone who is committing a crime . . . have to inform the [authorities at that individual’s] final destination,” he said.

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