Cablegate: Methamphetamine Superlab Discovered; Eighteen

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O 051126Z APR 07





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1. (SBU) Summary. An April 1 police raid of two locations
in Cambodia uncovered a large methamphetamine drug lab and
resulted in the arrests of 18 individuals and the seizure of
four tons of chemicals. A Drug Enforcement Administration
(DEA) official who assisted in the aftermath of the raid
stated that the "superlab" may be among Southeast Asia's
largest. The properties are reportedly owned by a former
advisor to FUNCINPEC party leader Nhek Bun Chhay, though
there are rumors that the land was in fact given to Nhek Bun
Chhay. UN Office of Drugs and Crime and DEA officials will
come to Cambodia in the next few days to assist the police in
assessing the drug lab, identifying the chemicals involved,
and developing a plan to address the extensive environmental
damage. The discovery of this superlab demonstrates that in
addition to serving as a transit route for drug smugglers and
developing a growing drug use problem, Cambodia has now
joined the ranks of drug producers as well. End Summary.

Cambodian "Superlab" May Be One of Region's Largest
--------------------------------------------- ------

2. (SBU) On April 1, Cambodian Anti-Drug Police (CADP)
arrested 18 individuals and raided two locations involved in
the production of methamphetamines. While one location, a
house in Phnom Penh, was likely only used to store chemicals,
the second location, a 20-hectare property in Kampong Speu
province, was likely the site of major methamphetamine
production. According to Bangkok-based Drug Enforcement
Administration Special Agent Scott Seeley-Hacker, who came to
Cambodia on April 1 to assist the Anti-Drug Police in
assessing the situation, this lab was one of the largest yet
discovered in Southeast Asia, and is equivalent to the size
of superlabs found globally. Chan Keevin of the UNODC said
that if the CADP and DEA estimates of chemicals present at
the sites was correct, the lab would be considered "very
huge." Police and DEA agents estimate that there are three
tons of chemicals at the Kampong Speu site, enough to produce
approximately 100 lbs. of pure methamphetamines. (Note:
CADP Chief Moek Dara reported that an additional one ton of
chemicals was recovered from the storehouse in Phnom Penh.
End Note.) According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime
(UNODC) in Bangkok and the National Authority for Combating
Drugs, 100 lbs. of pure methamphetamine would yield roughly
500,000 tablets with a street value of USD 1.5 million in
Phnom Penh or USD 7 million in Thailand, the typical
immediate destination for drugs transiting Cambodia.

3. (SBU) Although Cambodian police and DEA agents were not
able to conclusively identify all the chemicals present, they
suspect that 1,500 liters of an unidentified liquid are the
highly caustic chemical thionyl chloride used in making an
"ephedrine reduction"--the first stage in one methamphetamine
manufacture process. Seeley-Hacker also noted that one full
50 gallon drum of acetone and four empty 50 gallon drums
believed previously to have contained acetone were
discovered. Because acetone is used in the final stage of
crystal methamphetamine production, Seeley-Hacker believes
that the empty acetone drums indicate that several batches
may have already been produced. Seeley-Hacker further noted
that the thionyl chloride manufacturing process used at this
house is not common in the United States but has been seen in
other labs in Southeast Asia. According to statements from
villagers and a family living at the Kampong Speu site, the
lab had been in operation for about eight months.

Drug Lab Connected to Senior Government Official?
--------------------------------------------- ----

4. (SBU) According to CADP Chief Moek Dara, both the
Kampong Speu and Phnom Penh properties are registered to Chea
Chung. Chea Chung, reportedly a military colonel, served as
advisor to Nhek Bun Chhay, the Secretary-General of the
royalist party (FUNCINPEC) and coalition partner with the
ruling CPP in Cambodia's government, when Nhek Bun Chhay was
co-Minister of Defense. Some sources say that the two had a
close relationship, with Chea Chung making large donations to
FUNCINPEC and Chea Chung and Nhek Bun Chhay sometimes sharing
a house or apartment. According to FUNCINPEC, however, Chea
Chung ceased advising Nhek Bun Chhay one year ago and they
have no relationship today. There are persistent rumors from
Nhek Bun Chhay's political rivals as well as local villagers
that the Kampong Speu land was in fact bought by Chea Chung

PHNOM PENH 00000515 002 OF 003

and given to Nhek Bun Chhay, with the implication that Nhek
Bun Chhay must have at least been aware of the drug
production. One political rival stated that a car belonging
to Nhek Bun Chhay was found at the property. Moek Dara said
that he had also heard the rumors of Nhek Bun Chhay's
involvement but could not comment on them.

Tip from Villagers Led to Raid, 18 Arrests

5. (SBU) CADP Chief Moek Dara told Poleconoff that police
had been investigating the Kampong Speu compound for about
one month prior to the raid. Villagers had noticed unusual
activity and smells and, despite being told by the drug
producers that the compound was merely producing herbicides,
some of them alerted the police. Two police officers were
able to infiltrate the drug-producing network and provided
information about production planned for March 20 and April
1. Police were unable to act on the March 20 production date
because Moek Dara was out of the country. Moek Dara reported
that senior government officials carefully considered whether
or not to allow a raid on April 1, the day of local
elections, because they were concerned that it would be
difficult to assemble a large force on that day when police
officers were needed to provide security for polling stations
and must also be given an opportunity to vote. In the end,
however, both Cambodian National Police Chief Hok Lundy and
Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng approved the raid.

6. (SBU) The police arrested a total of 18 individuals. In
Kampong Speu, they arrested two Chinese men believed to be
technical experts, one Thai man thought to have been called
in to provide additional technical assistance when initial
batches of the drug proved to be low quality, and 14 male
Cambodian laborers. In addition, police arrested one Chinese
woman at the Phnom Penh storehouse. The Chinese woman,
28-year-old Raun Yan, has been charged with drug smuggling
and production; the others remain in jail while the
government tries to transfer their cases to the Phnom Penh
municipal court. Moek Dara has been quoted in the press as
speculating that the Cambodian laborers may not have known
what they were producing and may be released. The police are
still looking for Chea Chung, the owner of the properties.

Superlab Leaves Significant Environmental, Health Damage
--------------------------------------------- -----------

7. (SBU) In addition to the huge law enforcement aspect,
the discovery also has significant environmental and social
consequences. During the eight months that the lab has
likely been in operation, the producers have been dumping
waste chemicals directly on to the ground, creating a huge
dead area on the property and likely contaminating the
groundwater as well. In addition to this existing
environmental damage, which should be addressed, the
remaining four tons of chemicals need to be identified and
responsibly discarded. Such an undertaking is likely to be
costly -- Seeley-Hacker reports that a similar clean-up done
in Malaysia by a Singapore-based company cost USD 200,000.
The Cambodian government has formed a commission including
the Ministries of Environment and Health to work on clean-up
plans, but will likely have difficulty funding such an
expensive effort.

8. (SBU) The drug lab has already led to significant health
problems among exposed individuals. A family of five was
hired to tend cattle on the property, and they have developed
open sores, swollen faces, and hacking coughs as a result of
chemical exposure. However, the family refuses to leave the
property as they say they have nowhere else to live. Moek
Dara reported that the two Chinese suspects were vomiting
blood when arrested. Due to the likely groundwater
contamination and wildlife eating or drinking from
contaminated areas, the local population may have been
exposed as well. Police officers at the scene lack
appropriate hazmat suits and apparently explored the compound
wearing only flip-flops when the lab was first discovered.
DEA plans to send hazmat suits to Cambodia with the chemical
assessment team.

DEA, UN Staff to Help Assess Drug Lab

PHNOM PENH 00000515 003 OF 003

9. (SBU) Bangkok-based UNODC staff will be coming to
Cambodia in the next few days to assess the situation. The
DEA is also assembling a team of staff from the US, China,
and Thailand with expertise in chemistry, clean up, and
tracing the origin of chemical precursors. The team is
scheduled to arrive on Saturday. The DEA team plans to bring
additional hazmat suits for the Cambodian police and clothing
for the affected family.


10. (SBU) The discovery of this drug lab, if it turns out
to be one of Southeast Asia's largest as some suspect,
represents a shift in our understanding of Cambodia's drug
situation. The conventional wisdom has long been that
Cambodia was primarily a drug transit country with a growing
population of drug users. There were rumors of small, mobile
methamphetamine labs operating in remote northwestern
Cambodia as well as in houses in Phnom Penh, but no
indications of major production. Now Cambodia has officially
joined the ranks of drug producers. The Cambodian Anti-Drug
Police's performance on this bust is consistent with what we
have seen over the past year: when presented with a tip,
either from DEA or local villagers, the CADP will actively
follow up and can effectively lead a raid and make arrests.
However, we continue to have serious doubts about their
ability to pro-actively investigate cases and uncover large
drug networks. It is also noteworthy that decision making is
all done at the top -- both the Interior Minister and the
head of the National Police had to sign off on the raid, and
conducting a raid when CADP Chief Moek Dara was out of the
country was not even considered.


© Scoop Media

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