Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Drug lab suspect at large

Drug lab suspect at large

Drug lab suspect at large

An official investigation into a large-scale narcotics laboratory recently discovered

at a Kampong Speu cow farm has led authorities to suspect a powerful "foreign

mastermind" and raised new fears about Cambodia's role in Southeast Asia's illicit

drug trade.

Authorities and international experts are now attempting to pinpoint the origin of

the three tons of precursor chemicals confiscated on March 31, and learn how the

legal, but closely monitored, chemicals crossed international borders. Former government

adviser Chea Chung, the alleged owner of the farm, remains at large.

"We have an arrest warrant and police have taken measures to watch for Chea

Chung along the borders," said Teng Savong, head of the Investigation Committee

of the Ministry of Interior on April 18. "Chea Chung is a very important man

and we have suspected that there is a powerful person behind him."

Moek Dara, director of the MoI's anti-drug department, said the government is using

all available officers to search for Chung, and he believes the former adviser to

Deputy Prime Minister Nhek Bun Chhay is still inside Cambodia.

"We won't allow him to escape," Dara told the Post.

Following an inspection of the raided sites in Kampong Speu province and Phnom Penh,

a top UN drug official confirmed that the farm was used to produce chloroephedrine

- a precursor chemical for the manufacturing of methamphetamines.

"The process has different stages. This was step 1: a place to isolate and dry

chloroephedrine. They were shipping it to another site for step 2, where it would

be converted into meth," said Jeremy Douglas, regional project coordinator for

the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on April 19. "There was no actual meth,

but there's no reason to have this drug on a farm if you're not making methaphetamine.

They were close to producing it, about halfway."

Douglas said the end product that would be made from the chloroephedrine is probably

"ice," a purified and highly addictive form of crystalized methamphetamine.

"It's most likely that the final product that would reach these streets is ice.

There's more value for the money: they could decide to cut it and make pills or tablets

if they wanted to," said Douglas.

Douglas was also concerned about two Malaysian men arrested at Phnom Penh International

Airport with 2.2 kgs of ice less than a week after the drug raids.

"The theory was that [ice] came from Myanmar, now this may or may not be true,"

Douglas said.

Lour Ramin, secretary-general of the National Authority on Combatting Drugs (NACD),

said 12 types of chemicals were seized including chloroephedrine and some 800 bottles

of liquid thionyl chloride. Thionyl chloride is described in a scientific journal

as a "re-agent used for the production of chemical compounds to purify the end

product."

"We are investigating to find out where the chemicals were imported from. We

can see labels written in Chinese and Vietnamese, but the perpetrators cut the import-export

stamps off the containers," Ramin said. "We are working with neighboring

countries and the US DEA to find out which company ordered the chemicals and who

was the importer."

Concerns have been raised about the environmental impact on the Kampong Speu site.

According to Douglas, officials from the US DEA and UNODC have taken samples at the

site and will advise in its clean up. An inter-ministerial committee has been formed

under the oversight of Sar Kheng, Minister of Interior and Deputy Prime Minister.

"The committee is already working - we've had one meeting and went to check

out the scene," said Ramin. "Now we will listen to technicians' ideas about

safety for the health of the people living around the area. We will make a decision

about how to deal with the chemicals, either to burn or bury."

Kang Heang, Kampong Speu provincial governor, said the area's wells and livestock

have been checked out by government officials.

So far, 18 arrests were made after police simultaneously stormed the two locations

in Kampong Speu and Phnom Penh. Two Chinese men and one Thai were charged with drug

production and smuggling on April 5 in Kampong Speu Provincial Court. The same day

a Chinese woman was charged with the same offenses in Phnom Penh. Fourteen local

villagers were charged with colluding in drug production.

"Now, the police are investigating the big mastermind who is a foreigner,"

Heang said.

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