Phnom Penh gangs do their dirty work up close – and it is very personal. Guns are rare when they brawl in nightclubs or in the streets, with swords, bottles, sticks and bricks used instead to slash and bludgeon rivals.
Choun Narin, deputy Phnom Penh municipal police chief in charge of penal crime, said that improvised weapons such as belts, plastic pipes, and wooden sticks are the most common weapons. Samurai-style swords are also used as are broken bottles.
But swords have become rarer since police began cracking down on market vendors selling them in 2009.
They had previously been sold with dull blades as tourist souvenirs and props for grooms at weddings, but were sometimes sharpened into potentially lethal weapons by criminals.
Nate Darom’s gang uses swords, knives and sticks when they plan an attack against rival thugs, but will also use anything at their disposal during the heat of battle, such as rocks and broken bottles.
The idea, said Darom, is never to kill an opponent. “I have hit many, many people, but not to kill them just to make them scared,” he added, pointing out that he has never been involved in a killing. But guns have been used in these fights, usually by rich and powerful gangsters.
Darom revealed that his gang’s former ringleader, who is now serving a five-year sentence in Prey Sar prison for drug dealing, would use a gun.
But as a career criminal heavily involved in Phnom Penh’s organised crime scene, his old boss was an exception even among today’s tough gang leaders.
“My boss would kill people with his gun he was well connected to powerful people and had a lot of money because he was a drug dealer,” said Darom.
“And he would always give us money and drugs.”