For 15 years, Trapaing Chhouk village has been an intractable hub of methamphetamine distribution in the heart of Phnom Penh.
Local authorities suspect more than 70 per cent of residents are involved in the drug racket, and years of near-weekly raids and hundreds of arrests have done little to curb the illicit trade, which is plied in plain view.
Now, with the workings of the drug ring that reportedly runs Trapaing Chhouk still as opaque as the fetid pond that gives the village its name, police are promising more of the same – an approach that experts and research worldwide say is unlikely to help.
“The royal government has no plan or policy to displace villagers from Trapaing Chhouk village to other places,” said National Police Lieutenant General Mok Chito, responding to common sentiment among villagers that the only solution to the community’s problem is to tear it down and start from scratch.
The problem, Chito insisted in a recent interview, can be traced back to methamphetamines from Laos, smuggled into the Kingdom through Stung Treng province. Apart from attempting to staunch the flow of imported drugs, he said, police have little choice but to muddle on.
According to Chito, police have a five-point “strategic plan” for Trapaing Chhouk. “Phase one: We are educating our people in Trapaing Chhouk village not to use drugs or purchase drugs, raising awareness on drug uses and registering newcomers,” he said of the transients often blamed for driving the local trade.
(All the locals interviewed over multiple visits to the village said that they were unaware of such efforts.)
Phase two of the plan, Chito said, was to crack down on the Lao smugglers. Phase five is remarkably similar, but will involve the help of unspecified international authorities.
“We cannot work alone in combating it,” Chito said.
Phase three, meanwhile, is “to gather drug users and send them to rehabilitation centres for drug detoxification”. Phase four is to issue harsher sentences to repeat offenders – up to one year in prison and a $500 fine.
However, seemingly endless arrests – with more than a hundred reported in recent months – have done little for Trapaing Chhouk so far.
Built for trouble
Trapaing Chhouk village chief Meas Soy, 69, has lived in the Sen Sok district village since it was founded in 1980. Before being renamed in 1983, Trapaing Chhouk was called “Village 13”, and was settled by veterans who were offered land by the government.
“Before, this area was a lake, and there are many ponds with lotus growing. This was why it was called Phoum Trapaing Chhouk,” or the village of the lotus ponds, Soy said outside his home last month.
Urban growth hemmed in the collection of stilted homes accessed by narrow wooden pathways. Only occasionally does the maze of rickety walkways and homes give way to clearings where lotus plants still grow through the layer of trash that blankets the pond.
“This village became a place of drug use and trafficking in 2000,” according to Soy, who said it was not until after 2007 that Trapaing Chhouk’s reputation for drug trafficking became widespread.
In 2008, a fire that Soy says was caused by a feuding, drug-dealing couple tore through Trapaing Chhouk, burning large swathes of the village.
Authorities reportedly blamed careless use of lamps, while other villagers claimed the blaze started in a Vietnamese-owned brothel.
Another villager said the 2008 blaze was caused by undercover police setting fire to suspected drug dens in order to force resettlement as a way to solve the drug problem.
If that was indeed the aim, it was unsuccessful. It only took a minute of strolling down the walkways this month for pushers to offer reporters ice – crystal meth – or yama, tablets containing a mix of methamphetamines and caffeine.
“You want some drugs? Come with me, it costs $5,” said a 14-year-old boy, offering to lead the way to one of the many local drug dens available for rent.
Curbing the now 15-year-long problem has been a challenge to authorities, Soy continued, as “those who came to purchase drugs or use drugs in this area are the gang youths and are from other places, and we cannot identify them”.
“On the other hand, the rental houses or rooms in this area are built on water, and also [the paths] are very complicated,” making it easy for suspects to flee and hide during police raids.
This was a story repeated by several villagers who said that in the past month, the corpse of a man fleeing from a raid was fished out of the pond after he had drowned under the garbage.
By day, the market street in the village is bustling with ordinary business, vendors selling fruits and vegetables, a cafe where men play cards, but when the sun goes down, Soy says the sale of drugs leaves the side streets.
“Every evening, starting from 6:30pm onwards . . . they were purchasing drugs in front of my place, and they did not fear me even though I wore my village security uniform.”
Even Soy, who in uniform patrols the village with five or six security personnel, says he worries about safety.
Police efforts to curb the drug trade have for the most part been limited to street-level round-ups, which villagers say leave those holding the strings unscathed.
As recently as last week, a raid in the village saw 19 arrests and the confiscation of two swords.
However, such actions, common in Trapaing Chhouk, do little to deter dealers.
A brief interview about drug trafficking in the area with a villager loitering in front of a home was cut short when another man appeared in the doorway beside him holding a sword and asking, “Do you want to die?”
Brigadier General Buon Sam Ath, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh municipal police’s drug-trafficking unit, confirmed that police raid the village on a weekly basis, arresting 10 to 100 people at a time.
However, villagers and their children are often swept up in the mass arrests. Locals, for their part, feel that the arrests are fruitless, as many suspects are quickly released, and maintain that the dealers managing the trade are not arrested.
One 45-year-old villager – who declined to be named, and who is one of the few former soldiers who still lives in Trapaing Chhouk – claimed the police regularly take bribes from arrested drug dealers in exchange for release.
“After raids, police took money from them, at least $100 to $300 each, in exchange for their release. That’s why police cannot crack down on drug users or trafficking in Trapaing Chhouk village,” he said.
Chanthy*, 57, who collects bottles and cans to pay for a small shed with no running water, says she gave birth to 17 children at Trapaing Chhouk over the years, but lost 13 to disease.
Two of the remaining four – her 14-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter – were arrested for alleged drug use in recent police raids.
“During a raid, my daughter was sitting and watching the television inside my room. Police ordered her to come out to meet them, but when she refused to come out from the room, police accused her, saying that if she did not come out . . . [then] she has drugs hidden inside the room,” Chanthy said.
“So when she came out and met them, the police arrested her,” she continued. “Police asked me for $500 in exchange for her release . . . I did not give it to them, because I have no such amount of money to bribe them.”
“Three days later, police reduced the price, asking me for $300 to release her, but I did not have money.”
Later, in a classic case study of Trapaing Chhouk’s revolving-door policing, Chanthy’s son was arrested a second time, only a week after his release from his first arrest. Chanthy said her children are now being held at the notorious Orkas Knhom – “My Opportunity” – rehab centre.
Soy and village security regularly monitor activity and make reports to district authorities. An undercover village security officer, Phearum*, whose family resides in Trapaing Chhouk, says there are currently 10 of his men embedded with drug users and drug traffickers in the village.
“I have been working here as undercover police since two years ago. For this work, I have dealt directly with drug dealers or drug users who were my spies,” he said, adding that, like him, the drug-dealing networks have their own informants that warn of approaching police.
Based on observations by Phearum and his men, the majority of drug users are itinerant, such as school drop-outs and youths who left their homes and often join gangs.
Phearum maintained the situation had slowly improved through policing, but estimating that to this day 70 to 80 per cent of villagers either use or deal drugs.
To end the seemingly endless cycle of arrests, Phearum said he thinks the government should simply tear down the village and build a new one, although he acknowledged the government has no money for such a plan.
In search of solutions
While the authorities maintain that the only way to win the war on drugs in Trapaing Chhouk is through boots on the ground, those who’ve worked in this community for years say the only way forward is to improve residents’ lives.
Vuthy Sokanha, a communications officer for the NGO Friends International, which has been working in Trapaing Chhouk for more than a year yet still has difficulty building deep ties with the community, says their position is that “the best thing is to get closer to the communities” and provide education and vocational training.
While Sokanha made it clear that law enforcement has a role to play, “Arresting those young people won’t make any difference.” He identified poverty and a lack of employment and education as the main drivers of “viral drug use”.
Meas Sovann the director of the Drug Addict Relief Association of Cambodia (DARAC), held similar views.
“What the government has been doing is OK, but arresting the children was not the perfect thing to do. They should arrest the main drug dealers,” he said, adding that “usually, the children who were arrested were poor and homeless children”.
“After they arrest the children, they don’t do anything with the children; they just keep them in detention for months and months,” he said, offering DARAC’s approach of teaching practical skills for employment to addicts in rehabilitation as a more productive alternative.
Several parents in the village said that the best way to keep their children from being caught up in the drug problem is to keep them off the streets.
“When my children are not at school, they’re at home,” said one father of four, who sends his children to the local NGO school Children for Change Cambodia (CCC).
Lim Leanghorng, the operations manager at CCC, says villagers “themselves feel there is no way out”.
“There is fear. They feel they can’t say anything even though they know whose family is dealing drugs,” and as for the authorities, Leanghorng says the villagers feel that “the security [forces] just come and get your money”.
According to Leanghorng, children are paid commissions by distributors to ferry drugs.
To address the issue, Leanghorng says the staff takes an indirect approach, reminding children of the importance of school. While he says CCC keeps drugs out of the school, “it’s very obvious” which students are working nights in the drug trade.
“They come to school with more pocket money, new toys and candy, they are also tired from working at night . . also the other children, all their friends know.”
Additional reporting by Morn Vanntey
*Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities