A cleared cannabis field in southern Cambodia forest land.
Cambodia is fast becoming the most attractive country in Southeast Asia for international
criminal organizations involved in activities ranging from drug and people smuggling
to money laundering and marijuana cultivation, says Bengt Juhlin, the new head of
Cambodia's New United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) office in Phnom Penh.
UNDCP, which has been running anti-drug training programs in Cambodia for more than
five years, is beefing up its Cambodian operations to address what it perceives is
the weakest link in the Southeast Asian international law enforcement chain.
Lax banking laws, porous borders and a weak judiciary has reportedly made Cambodia
a magnet for international crime syndicates that has grown beyond representatives
of Hong Kong's 14K triad and Taiwan's Bamboo Union Gang to include organized crime
organizations from as far away as Africa.
"Most of them [the criminal syndicates] are from ethnic Chinese background whether
they come from Hong Kong or Taiwan or mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia, but
you have also organizations from Thailand... the Africans and so on, " Juhlin
said of the increasingly globalized nature of Cambodian crime.
"If you want to operate in this region and travel short distances with goods
or money then there are not so many places to choose from, and Cambodia is a very
convenient one," Juhlin said of the reasons behind Cambodia's popularity with
international crime syndicates.
"With the right contacts and some simple means you can resolve problems in a
way that's not so easily done in countries like Thailand any more."
UNDCP's conclusions have been bitterly attacked by Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng,
Secretary General of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, who claims the UN
agency's data is out of date.
Repeated Post attempts to contact Sar Kheng for comment were unsuccessful.
Ironically, Juhlin attributes the success of regional anti-drugs and anti-crime campaigns
to the growing prominence of Cambodia as a safe environment for illegal business.
"[Thailand's] anti-corruption legislation is really biting, whereas Cambodia
is still behind, the law enforcement capacity is not up to standard, and they don't
have the resources and the skills," he said of the uphill battle facing Cambodia
in combating organized crime.
Cambodia's weak judicial system, Juhlin says, allows drug tycoons to operate with
a level of impunity undreamt of elsewhere.
"If they [the Cambodian authorities] do actually catch somebody they are very
seldom processed properly through the judicial system," he said of the ease
of facilitating easy release from judicial custody. "...There aren't many drug
traffickers ending up in jail in this country... there are a few but they are not
A recent UNDCP report named Cambodia as a major producer of marijuana and a conduit
for the shipment of heroin from the Golden Triangle to markets in Western countries.
The model pursued in the development of Cambodia's drug trade is strikingly similar
to that used in mainstream development work with foreign management and technical
assistance used in conjunction with Cambodian counterparts.
This has been particularly important in establishing laboratories for the production
of amphetamine type substances (ATS) which are then shipped to Thailand or, increasingly,
to Phnom Penh.
Juhlin points out that the drug industry could not survive without the consent and
co-operation of key sectors of the government, civil service, military and police.
"...the military are all over the country so you'd have to be naive to believe
that with the kind of coverage they have that a thing of this size could be carried
out without the knowledge, support or protection of [elements] of the military and
police," he said.
Heroin produced in Myan-mar's Eastern Shan State typically enters Cambodia overland
via Laos or along the Mekong river from where it is shipped either by air or sea
to Vietnam, Australia, the US, Canada and Europe. These are all markets that in the
past year have lost a long-time major supplier, Afghanistan.
In 2000, Afghan opium accounted for 75% of world production, but in recent months
virtually the entire opium crop of the strife-torn country has been eradicated by
the ruling Taliban. Juhlin agreed that the Taliban's crackdown made it likely that
the Golden Triangle would pick up some of the slack from the absence of Afghan opium
on the world market.
Juhlin says that Afghanistan's exit from the ranks of world narcotics suppliers will
inevitably lead to increased drug related activity in Cambodia, but expresses doubt
that it will lead to widespread cultivation within the Kingdom.
"There are certain limitations to growing opium in Cambodia. You have to have
land over 800 meters [above sea level]," Juhlin said. "There are areas
like that in the central highlands but cultivation doesn't really exist there today
and we don't really know why...it could be that it's too hot [to grow opium]."
Such physical limitations apparently do little to impede criminal syndicates from
steadily increasing their slices of the Cambodian crime pie from legitimate business
fronts that include hotels, import-export companies and coffee shops.
The worst, Jehlin says, is yet to come. With people prepared to pay up to $30,000
to illegally immigrate to Western countries, Jehlin said he has no doubt that the
same organizations that use Cambodia as a transit point for money and drugs will
be using it as a route to ship people.
Another expanding frontier of international illegal activity in the Kingdom is money
"We are looking at [money laundering] right now and the [anecdotal] information
indicates that Cambodia is a place for both money laundering [via the banking sector
and other financial institutions] and money transiting with the purpose of getting
money into the global banking system" Jehlin said, citing the tightening legal
restrictions in the rest of Southeast Asia as money laundering's driving force.
"Near the golden triangle there aren't that many places where you can get money
into the banking system [but] in Cambodia regulations are lax and you can make fairly
substantial transactions in cash without any serious questions being asked,"
UNDCP programs to combat organized crime and drug trafficking include a plan to use
aerial surveys to establish the extent of marijuana cultivation within Cambodia.
Jehlin conceded that the UNDCP report could be out of date as Sar Kheng has argued,
but says that the aerial surveys would provide definitive data.
"It's a long term thing," Jehlin said of the work of law enforcement
agencies, both local and international, in combating Cambodia's growing regional
pre-eminence as a transit center for human and drug trafficking.