The American term "wild west" - conjuring lurid images of lawlessness,
prostitution and gun-fighting - has been used so often to describe Cambodia's hardscrabble
northern border towns that it's intriguing to meet one of its real-life sheriffs
Chou Pi Chhoura, chief of Stung Treng penal police office, is the top anti-drug-trafficking
official in Stung Treng province. Assisted by only a 10-man officer corps, he has
the enormous, unenviable task of stalking the innumerable smuggling routes that snake
across the border with Laos through deep jungle and an intricate web of Mekong waterways.
Pi Chhoura is no John Wayne. In fact, at 47 he's a bespectacled family man with two
young children, and serves as a part-time youth basketball coach. His provincial
office is ordinary enough; it's only the lethal arsenal of machine guns and shoulder-fired
rocket launchers leaning in the corner that hint at a life of stakeouts, stings and
undercover operations. Pi Chhoura is the brave face of a grim situation.
"I am very concerned about my safety and the safety of my family, but this is
my duty," Pi Chhoura told the Post. "Even with 100 men we could not stop
the smugglers. It is a shame for our authorities."
A two-day tour of anti-drug smuggling operations in Stung Treng is a trip to the
faulty frontlines of Cambodia's own war on drugs. The 2005 National Authority for
Combating Drugs (NACD) report listed methamphetamine pills - known locally as "yama"-
as the nation's most heavily used drug, and named Stung Treng as their biggest point
of entry. The province has a roughly 200-km-long border with the Lao provinces of
Champasak and Attapeu. Even local authorities admit that the border is porous.
So far this year, Pi Chhoura and his men have made four major busts, made five arrests
and confiscated 80,799 pills. All the operations were based on undercover investigations
stretching back months, and several required days of waiting deep in the wilderness.
In his five years as head of the local drug squad, Pi Chhoura has found smuggled
heroin and cannabis, but this year it has been only yama.
"Ever since the Thai crackdown on drugs, the meth being made in Burma is coming
down the Mekong and through Stung Treng," said Graham Shaw, NACD technical adviser.
"As to what volume is being brought into Cambodia, we just don't know, nobody
According to Shaw, yama is made on an industrial scale in the Wa region of Myanmar
(Burma) and most of the pills found in Phnom Penh are stamped with the WY logo of
the United Wa Army.
Provincial drug enforcement forces do not receive funding from the NACD's $250,000
"This situation is extremely difficult for the government to combat," Shaw
said. "It would be a difficult border for any country to police. You've got
jungle, many tributaries of the Mekong, malaria - it's a tough area."
Leaving Stung Treng town on a rural road soon reveals swaths of dense jungle penetrated
only by ancient footpaths that disappear into darkness. Pi Chhoura says the topography
gets increasingly grueling as it nears the Lao border, and that only local foresters
can decipher the maze of ancient, canopied pathways.
"The smugglers are very smart: they travel at night and use trails that we don't
know about," Pi Chhoura said. "There are very few people living in the
area. Sometimes there is only one village for 100 km. There are some villages where
only a few residents can speak Khmer. They walk the yama through the jungle to isolated
villages where they make the drop-off to drug dealers."
The river presents its own challenges. Although Pi Chhoura explains that the majority
of contraband is smuggled over land and road, the river has been a major smuggling
route for centuries. Its multitude of islands, sandbars and fluctuating seasonal
flows make it nearly impossible to monitor.
"We don't have the transportation, budget or resources to crack down on drugs
on the river," he said. "We know that sometimes the smugglers go straight
down the river. But sometimes they travel on land for awhile and then get back on
boats downstream. There are many boats on the river, we could never check them all."
As bad as the jungle and the river are, it's the new highway that troubles him the
most. The ASEAN highway, financed almost entirely by China, is still under construction,
but it is already in heavy use by travelers crossing the border.
"Smuggling is increasing because of the road," he said. "They can
travel it day or night. The government has a policy not to use checkpoints along
the road. We can only stop a car and search it if we have very clear information.
The road will be good for travelers and for business, but it is also a good opportunity
Local military police interviewed in Stung Treng said that they are also concerned
about regulating the new highway. One mid-ranking military policeman said they are
worried about stopping the wrong car for fear of pulling over a government official,
or worse, a superior officer.
Like many field operatives, Pi Chhoura has developed a grudging respect for the smugglers
with whom he matches wits in the wilderness. He says the majority of the smugglers
he has apprehended are hardly glitzy drug lords - most are poor foresters who are
exploited by unscrupulous gangsters. These yama "mules" are merely used
for their knowledge of the terrain and unassuming appearance. He says they are rarely
armed and he does not believe they are drug users.
"The people in the remote districts are very poor," he said. "Many
of the villagers cross into Laos and back every day to look for work or to sell forest
goods. The drug dealers pay money to people who know the area. It is easy to attract
them, and then the drug dealers stay in Laos where we cannot reach them."
Pi Chhoura can even laugh at some of the smuggling tactics he encounters. He said
the small pills are easy to hide and are invariably found deep inside bedrolls, bags
of rice or sacks of clothes. He chuckles at the time his team busted a yama smuggler
who had hidden his stash inside segments of bamboo.
"We noticed a man carrying bamboo through the forest," he said. "Then
we realized that there was no reason for anyone to be carrying bamboo into Cambodia.
Look around: there's plenty everywhere to just cut down."
More recently, a months-long undercover operation found that a major shipment was
going to be smuggled through a remote jungle village. His team trekked by foot to
the town and stayed in the bush for two days waiting for the culprits. Discouraged,
they were about to give up when he noticed a small group entering the town.
"We noticed that a group of hunters had entered the village from the jungle
and didn't come to the market. We knew immediately it was the smugglers: who would
walk days through the jungle to a village and not go straight to the market?"
But Pi Chhoura does not take his difficult task lightly. He says he is saddened to
see more young people and sex workers using yama in his hometown Stung Treng. He
says only more resources and help from the government and NACD will stem the unrelenting
flow of yama through his province. He laments the lack of drug-sniffing dogs.
"I recognize that drugs are crossing into our area. It is hard to control them,
and it makes our region look very bad."