Officials at an annual anti-drug police conference in the capital on Tuesday called on authorities to renew their efforts to eradicate drugs in the blighted Phnom Penh village of Trapaing Chhouk, and this time, they said, make it work.
As if on cue, a contingent of about 20 anti-drug police forces swept into the village yesterday evening, scattering drug dealers and conducting spot-checks on passing civilians. But years of near-daily raids and hundreds of arrests have done little to budge the meth trade in Trapaing Chhouk.
Speaking at the meeting, National Police chief Neth Savoeun had called upon law enforcement authorities and City Hall to take action on a neighbourhood he said “damages the name of Phnom Penh”.
“They [drug traffickers] have placed cameras to watch us, but we now have to investigate and send them to the court . . . We need to find the owners of the houses and close down the places,” he said, referring to the drug dens that populate the village and a purported surveillance network that allows drug dealers to pre-emptively flee ahead of incoming police.
Lieutenant General Mok Chito, the anti-drug police director, says that since his forces began the first step of the five-point plan to clean up Trapaing Chhouk last month, 391 arrests have been made by anti-drug police and another 45 by district police.
Thirty-eight drug dens were also shut down over the course of 85 raids. Indeed, in Trapaing Chhouk yesterday, homes could be seen padlocked and boarded off, sealed with notices taped to the doors, where even as recently as late December they had been open.
“We will be able to clean up this location when there are no more dens and we find the mastermind[s] who runs the rooms,” he said, adding that significant progress can be attributed to plainclothes district security occupying some of the 100 or so drug dens and operating as informants.
“We are committed to doing it.”
However, Trapaing Chhouk has long been a particular challenge for authorities, and if interviews with locals and a visit to the village are any indication, authorities face an uphill battle.
For starters, the village comprises a warren of narrow wooden walkways connecting stilted houses that sit upon a garbage-covered pond, facilitating hasty escapes.
Koung Sreng, deputy Phnom Penh city governor, said that “when the police come, they call their friends inside to escape; this makes it hard to crack down”.
While reporters in the village yesterday did not see cameras, youths identified as drug dealers received word yesterday that the police were coming just minutes before they arrived, ducking underneath a walkway and disappearing under the floorboards of a home, drug paraphernalia in hand.
“They’re coming, quick, get the knives,” a youth called out. Another, apparently unconcerned, joked, “Better walk fast if you don’t want the police to get you!”
Moments later, uniformed police with guns and plainclothes officers wielding hatchets congregated on the market street at sundown and began their search of the village and random citizens, just after dozens of youths were seen flocking out of the back alleys and dispersing onto larger thoroughfares.
Run Phanna, a village security officer, said in an interview yesterday that despite the massive number of arrests, only one property owner – a “bong thom”, or big brother – who rents out five drug dens has been arrested. As for how drug dealers evade arrest, “there must be spies in the police”, he said.
“We need relocation to clean up this place; compensate properly in order to make development,” he said, adding that the health consequences of living in the village are a burden, even on his own family – two of his four children have been sick with dengue in the past few weeks.
Many villagers welcomed the police efforts, however, a seemingly endless cycle of arrest and release has led many to express fear of both dealers and authorities alike, and residents were hesitant to comment on the success of crackdowns yesterday.
Polin*, 32, said he was happy police were chasing drug users and that he had taken note of a decrease but was sad for the arrest of his wife, Chanthy*, on January 29.
“She just helped hand over some cigarettes, and she was innocent,” he said, claiming she had been tricked into delivering cigarettes that had drugs hidden in them for 10,000 riel (about $2.50).
Interviewed in December, before her arrest, Chanthy said she lacked the money to visit her two teenage children who are still being held at the notorious Orkas Khnom rehabilitation centre.
Asked about Chanthy’s case, Phanna said, “Her family is so poor, she unknowingly did it, so I have pity for her.”
Doung Chanthrea, a teacher at the local NGO School Children for Change Cambodia, which has close ties to the community and works to ensure students stay out of the drug trade, said that despite the raids, “students still have normal attendance”.
*Names have been changed