Spoiling the goods: narcotics officials neutralize precursor chemicals for processing drugs
The government narcotics authorities newly released year-end stats were upbeat, but
other local drug experts said they have good reason to believe that illicit drug
labs are continuing to flourish in remote areas of Cambodia.
According to the report by the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) most
of the arrests and trafficking occurred in the provinces of Phnom Penh, Battambang,
Banteay Meanchey and Kandal.
The report released December 21 said authorities cracked down on 152 drug-related
cases and arrested 279 people in 2007. That is a dramatic decline from 2006 when
they reported 314 cases and 612 arrests.
Furthermore, the report stated that the confiscation of methamphetamine pills - which
accounts for nearly four-fifths of drug abuse in Cambodia - dropped from 428,553
in 2006 to 390,987 in 2007.
Similarly, seizures of ice - widely understood to be the trendiest high - slid from
16.2 kg in 2007 to 6.8 kg in 2007.
"I see that drug use in Cambodia has decreased because the NACD as well as NGOs
have been working hard on the issue, but drugs are still a hot issue at the moment
and it's a complicated issue," said NACD Secretary General Lour Ramin.
He said his authority added more enforcement officers in the border provinces including
Stung Treng, the border with Laos, as well as Banteay Meanchey on the border of Thailand
to crack down on drugs coming from the drug-producing Golden Triangle region of Laos,
Myanmar and Thailand.
The upbeat figures, however, stand in the face of what other local experts are seeing.
"We don't have reason to believe the situation is improving despite what the
numbers say. Data is reported to NACD through provincial drug committees. The reporting
from them varies in quality. The figures need to be interpreted with a great deal
of caution," said Lars Pederson, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs
and Crime in Cambodia.
"By logic the situation should be worsening. Trafficking, abuse, production-the
situation has been drastically worsening over the last 10 years. There is all indication
that we are at a very serious level today. We know that the drug trafficking is worsening
and arrests are decreasing. The numbers raise a lot of questions," Pederson
David Harding, a drug specialist for Friends International, an NGO based in Phnom
Penh that provides drug education and rehabilitation to street children, said his
experience on the ground suggests narcotics in Cambodia are growing and affecting
more groups."An increasing number of organizations are approaching us saying
they are hitting up against drug problems." These include the Department of
Social Affairs in Kratie, Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Pailin. "The fact that
we're being contacted by so many groups says something about the drug situation."
Holly Bradford, founder of local NGO Korsang, which provides rehabilitation services,
said drug use in the capital seems to be growing.
"In our drop-in clinic, we have 1,050 heroin users this year compared to 649
last year." And, she added, "We're seeing more drug-related deaths this
Beyond its growth, the drug landscape in Cambodia appears to be broadening, with
a greater variety of drugs hitting the scene and the widely-shared concern that Cambodia
is developing from merely a transit point to a production site as well. Experts cite
the high-profile discovery of large-scale illegal drug laboratories in Kampong Speu
on March 31 and Phnom Penh's Dangkor district on August 2 last year.
According to the NACD, the Kampong Speu facility, armed with six tons of precursor
chemicals and some processing equipment, was handling only the first stage of the
manufacturing of methamphetamine. Eighteen suspects were arrested, including four
Thai and Chinese nationals and three high-profile Cambodians, one of whom, Oum Chhay,
an advisor to the National Assembly and CPP honorary president Heng Samrin, committed
suicide several days after his arrest. Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry
of the Interior, said at the time the suicide was "because he did not want any
other drug ringleaders to hurt his family or relatives."
The Dangkor site, allegedly belonging to Lam Sokheng, was designed for the final
stage of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) production and was experimenting with
more potent versions of the drug.
Pederson also said there have been more seizures of Safrole-rich oil, which is used
in the manufacturing of ecstasy. He said Cambodia is also at risk of being a site
for greater transit and production of ice, which traditionally originated in Myanmar.
"I would not be surprised if we find new manufacturing sites this year. Drug
production is taking root in Cambodia," said Pederson.
The isolation of much of Cambodia is a "perfect environment for methamphetamine
factories," added Harding.
He said three factors make Cambodia susceptible to drug trafficking and production:
"High levels of corruption, an easily crossed border, and Cambodia is unlucky
enough to sit directly below the golden triangle," the border area of Thailand,
Myanmar and Laos, one of the world's hottest drug production zones.
"There are a lot of drugs coming from Laos down the very convenient Mekong,"
Harding said. Drugs produced in the golden triangle often end up being trafficked
down the Mekong through Cambodia.
Pederson said Cambodia remains increasingly vulnerable to organized drug crime.
"There have been vigorous campaigns in China and Thailand to combat drug cartels
and that has made Cambodia more attractive as a transit and production country. It's
only logical for drug routes to increase in Cambodia over the last few years,"
And typically, high levels of corruption and a tradition of strong government control
provide readily available structures for drug trafficking.
"The trafficking is becoming more systematic and more integrated into international
organized crime, which knows how to protect its own. The big fish go free. The arrests
are usually the smaller ones," said Pederson.