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Experts: drug manufacturing rising in 2007

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Spoiling the goods: narcotics officials neutralize precursor chemicals for processing drugs

The government narcotics authorities newly released year-end stats were upbeat, but

other local drug experts said they have good reason to believe that illicit drug

labs are continuing to flourish in remote areas of Cambodia.

According to the report by the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) most

of the arrests and trafficking occurred in the provinces of Phnom Penh, Battambang,

Banteay Meanchey and Kandal.

The report released December 21 said authorities cracked down on 152 drug-related

cases and arrested 279 people in 2007. That is a dramatic decline from 2006 when

they reported 314 cases and 612 arrests.

Furthermore, the report stated that the confiscation of methamphetamine pills - which

accounts for nearly four-fifths of drug abuse in Cambodia - dropped from 428,553

in 2006 to 390,987 in 2007.

Similarly, seizures of ice - widely understood to be the trendiest high - slid from

16.2 kg in 2007 to 6.8 kg in 2007.

"I see that drug use in Cambodia has decreased because the NACD as well as NGOs

have been working hard on the issue, but drugs are still a hot issue at the moment

and it's a complicated issue," said NACD Secretary General Lour Ramin.

He said his authority added more enforcement officers in the border provinces including

Stung Treng, the border with Laos, as well as Banteay Meanchey on the border of Thailand

to crack down on drugs coming from the drug-producing Golden Triangle region of Laos,

Myanmar and Thailand.

The upbeat figures, however, stand in the face of what other local experts are seeing.

"We don't have reason to believe the situation is improving despite what the

numbers say. Data is reported to NACD through provincial drug committees. The reporting

from them varies in quality. The figures need to be interpreted with a great deal

of caution," said Lars Pederson, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs

and Crime in Cambodia.

"By logic the situation should be worsening. Trafficking, abuse, production-the

situation has been drastically worsening over the last 10 years. There is all indication

that we are at a very serious level today. We know that the drug trafficking is worsening

and arrests are decreasing. The numbers raise a lot of questions," Pederson

added.

David Harding, a drug specialist for Friends International, an NGO based in Phnom

Penh that provides drug education and rehabilitation to street children, said his

experience on the ground suggests narcotics in Cambodia are growing and affecting

more groups."An increasing number of organizations are approaching us saying

they are hitting up against drug problems." These include the Department of

Social Affairs in Kratie, Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Pailin. "The fact that

we're being contacted by so many groups says something about the drug situation."

Holly Bradford, founder of local NGO Korsang, which provides rehabilitation services,

said drug use in the capital seems to be growing.

"In our drop-in clinic, we have 1,050 heroin users this year compared to 649

last year." And, she added, "We're seeing more drug-related deaths this

year."

Beyond its growth, the drug landscape in Cambodia appears to be broadening, with

a greater variety of drugs hitting the scene and the widely-shared concern that Cambodia

is developing from merely a transit point to a production site as well. Experts cite

the high-profile discovery of large-scale illegal drug laboratories in Kampong Speu

on March 31 and Phnom Penh's Dangkor district on August 2 last year.

According to the NACD, the Kampong Speu facility, armed with six tons of precursor

chemicals and some processing equipment, was handling only the first stage of the

manufacturing of methamphetamine. Eighteen suspects were arrested, including four

Thai and Chinese nationals and three high-profile Cambodians, one of whom, Oum Chhay,

an advisor to the National Assembly and CPP honorary president Heng Samrin, committed

suicide several days after his arrest. Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry

of the Interior, said at the time the suicide was "because he did not want any

other drug ringleaders to hurt his family or relatives."

The Dangkor site, allegedly belonging to Lam Sokheng, was designed for the final

stage of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) production and was experimenting with

more potent versions of the drug.

Pederson also said there have been more seizures of Safrole-rich oil, which is used

in the manufacturing of ecstasy. He said Cambodia is also at risk of being a site

for greater transit and production of ice, which traditionally originated in Myanmar.

"I would not be surprised if we find new manufacturing sites this year. Drug

production is taking root in Cambodia," said Pederson.

The isolation of much of Cambodia is a "perfect environment for methamphetamine

factories," added Harding.

He said three factors make Cambodia susceptible to drug trafficking and production:

"High levels of corruption, an easily crossed border, and Cambodia is unlucky

enough to sit directly below the golden triangle," the border area of Thailand,

Myanmar and Laos, one of the world's hottest drug production zones.

"There are a lot of drugs coming from Laos down the very convenient Mekong,"

Harding said. Drugs produced in the golden triangle often end up being trafficked

down the Mekong through Cambodia.

Pederson said Cambodia remains increasingly vulnerable to organized drug crime.

"There have been vigorous campaigns in China and Thailand to combat drug cartels

and that has made Cambodia more attractive as a transit and production country. It's

only logical for drug routes to increase in Cambodia over the last few years,"

he said.

And typically, high levels of corruption and a tradition of strong government control

provide readily available structures for drug trafficking.

"The trafficking is becoming more systematic and more integrated into international

organized crime, which knows how to protect its own. The big fish go free. The arrests

are usually the smaller ones," said Pederson.

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