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Drug tsar promises crackdown

Drug tsar promises crackdown

F rom 30,970 tablets of ecstasy to 12.4 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine, the sheer volume of outbound narcotics seized by customs officers over the last few months has precipitated Cambodia's top anti-drug official into a new no-holds-barred war on drugs.

"It is the producers we are after," Brigadier General Moek Dara told the Post on December 13. "We want to stop drugs from the Golden Triangle region from entering Cambodia [and stop production in Cambodia] rather than cracking down on low level dealers once the drugs have appeared on the local market."

To this end, police are planning to both intensify their anti-drug campaigns in Phnom Penh and expand the focus of their anti-drug units to rural areas.

"Since January 2006 we have identified and subsequently closed a number of drug production and distribution sites," Dara said. "Five of these were in Phnom Penh; one was in Battambang, one in Banteay Meanchey, and one in Preah Vihear."

The drugs being produced in such sites are methamphetamines and what Dara referred to as "precursor" - known to users by street names such as Ice or Crystal Meth.

"These are the two drugs being produced in Cambodia," he said. "After Hun Sen's 1997 campaign to crack down on marijuana the production of this particular drug [marijuana] has not been a problem in Cambodia."

The Ministry of Health and the National Authority to Combating Drugs are working to control the inflow of the chemicals needed to mix precursor drugs through a combination of tightening the importation and licensing laws, Dara said.

The government has been involved in a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) precursor chemical control scheme, including, for example, the production of DVDs in the Khmer language that warn people of the chemicals used to create Ice or Crystal Meth, said David Harding, technical adviser at Friends International.

"But as a rule of thumb you can assume authorities seize about 10 percent of what's going through the country," he said.

The seizures that have been effective are, ironically, making things harder for law enforcement agencies as Cambodia's indigenous drug production and distribution sites become aware of renewed efforts to crack down on their activities and become increasingly elusive, Dara said.

"During one recent case in Phnom Penh we were able to arrest two people, but couldn't seize any evidence of actual drug production from the site," he said. "Clearly, the producer had realized our operation was under way and had dogs and guards in place to protect the site."

Despite such setbacks, Dara said he is pleased by the immediate consequences of his new campaign.

"The price of a pill [both yama and ecstasy] is three times higher than normal," he said. "We hope this will reduce the number of addicts on the streets and also discourage young people from taking drugs recreationally."

The campaign has been particularly successful at countering recreational drug use among Cambodia's burgeoning middle-class youth, Dara said. Government-sponsored information campaigns about the dangers of drugs mean increasing numbers of concerned parents are heeding the government's warnings of the dangers of drugs and have been tackling the problem in their families head on, he said.

"If parents suspect their children of drug use they send them to rehabilitation centers," he said. "But the two big drug-using populations we are still having problems with are street kids - who use drugs such as glue in public - and wealthy addicts who take drugs out of sight in hotels, bars or karaoke parlors."

But rather than punish drug users themselves, the government is attempting to rehabilitate them. NACD chairman Sar Kheng recently issued a directive stating that all provincial authorities who are aware of more than 50 drug users in their area must establish a rehabilitation center.

"Some provinces are in the process of establishing these centers now," Dara said.

Cracking down on drug users themselves is not the primary aim of Dara's new campaign. It is both more difficult and less effective than curbing the source of the drugs in the first place, he said.

"Drug users themselves are hard to catch, as they just swallow the evidence," he said. "But if there is no producer there will be no buyer and user."

Yet despite the new campaign, little has changed along Cambodia's notoriously porous borders, said Chou Pi Chhoura, chief of Stung Treng penal police office.

"I believe the smugglers are still bringing pills across the Lao border," he said. "They use many ways to hide from the authorities."

One such way is the fairly standard practice of using low-level "drug mules" to shift the illegal substances, meaning that if they are apprehended, a shipment may be lost but the actual smuggling ring remains undisturbed, Chhoura said.

"The people we arrest are not the people who are actually running the drug smuggling business," he said. "They have just been hired to transport the drugs."

Although his police force has been successful in capturing some of the drugs flowing through the province - 68,737 pills and 3.1 kilograms of heroin since October - the sheer volume of the drug trafficking is having social repercussions in the province.

"The number of drug abusers in the province is increasing," Chhoura said. "The provincial authorities can't stop them or establish a center to rehabilitate them."


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