Cablegate: The Front Line in the Cambodian Drug Struggle

DE RUEHPF #0767/01 1580921
P 070921Z JUN 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: A remote location, geography conducive
to evasion, and a long and poorly patrolled border with Laos
make Stung Treng province Cambodia's drug smuggling hot spot,
with the value of drugs smuggled estimated in the "dozens of
millions" of dollars. During a May 17-19 visit to this
northern region, INL Program Analyst, Poleconoff, and Polecon
Assistant learned that the recent renovation of a national
highway has dramatically facilitated transportation of licit
and illicit goods between Laos and Cambodia, although the
highway's growing reputation as a drug trafficking route has
caused some smugglers to evade police by using smaller roads
in neighboring provinces. Law enforcement capacity is weak,
with local officials lacking the will and the equipment to
patrol effectively. Rumors of police and military
involvement in drug trafficking are widespread in Stung Treng
but officials are reluctant to confront the issue and civil
society has little specific information to confirm these
suspicions. End Summary.

Stung Treng: A Drug Trafficker's Dream

2. (SBU) Stung Treng, a remote and sparsely populated
province in northern Cambodia, has long been a transit point
for illicit drugs coming from Laos, leading provincial Deputy
Police Commissioner On Saron to describe it as the "front
line" in Cambodia's struggle against drugs. Governor Loy
Sopath described drug trafficking as the province's most
serious problem, estimating the value of the drugs smuggled
through the province to be in the "dozens of millions" of US
dollars. Stung Treng province shares a 160-mile-long border
with Laos, and much of that area is sparsely forested and
mountainous, making it relatively easy for would-be
traffickers to pass through on foot, bicycle, or motorbike
and offering many opportunities for hiding from or evading
law enforcement. The Mekong River, which travels north to
south across the east-west border, is filled with small
islands and parallel channels, making it equally easy for
traffickers to hide their movements there.

3. (SBU) Government officials, NGO workers, and local
business owners told the State Department team that local
villagers bring drugs across the border in small quantities
by foot, boat, motorcycle, or bicycle, often concealed in
piles of fruit or vegetables, wrapped in waterproof packets
and placed within containers of liquid resin, or hidden in
car tires or car frames. Once across the border, these drugs
are trafficked--either in small quantities or after being
consolidated into larger loads--through Cambodia into Vietnam
or Thailand.

4. (SBU) Drugs--first heroin and now predominantly ATS--have
historically traveled through Cambodia down the Mekong River
and Highway 7, often stopping in Phnom Penh before being
routed to Thailand or Vietnam. The recent Chinese-funded
renovation of Highway 7 has transformed the section of road
between Kratie (a provincial capital five hours from Phnom
Penh) from a one-lane pot-holed dirt track into a smoothly
paved, lightly trafficked two-lane highway which one resident
expat described as "the best road in the country." The new
road cuts travel time from Kratie to Stung Treng from 12-14
hours to 3 hours, making it possible to travel from Phnom
Penh to Stung Treng in one day. At present, the improved
road stops at Stung Treng town and anyone wanting to travel
further north to the Lao border must take a ferry across the
Sekong River. However, construction of a Chinese-funded
bridge will be completed in July 2008, and the Chinese also
plan to improve and pave the dirt road leading from Stung
Treng town to the Lao border within the next year. The
province is currently undertaking its own project of
constructing gravel feeder roads to connect to remote
communities, an effort the governor said he hoped would be
finished by 2008.

5. (SBU) While the improvement of Highway 7 has facilitated
the flow of licit and illicit goods from Laos into Cambodia,
sources also report that the widespread recognition that
Highway 7 and the Mekong are used for drug trafficking has
pushed some traffickers to use alternate routes. Sources
speculated that smaller players in particular are using new
routes, while large-scale traffickers have little fear of the
police and can use the far more efficient Highway 7 with
relative impunity. Stung Treng Governor Loy Sopath reported

PHNOM PENH 00000767 002 OF 004

that Highway 78 in Ratanakiri is gaining popularity as a new
route. Several sources reported that drugs are often
trafficked from Laos into the remote northeast Siem Pang
district of Stung Treng province on foot, and then taken
either south into Phnom Penh or west into Vietnam via
Ratanakiri province. Other reported routes include:
--traveling south from Stung Treng and then cutting east
through Kratie and Mondulkiri provinces to enter Vietnam
--traveling west from Stung Treng into Preah Vihear province
and then entering Thailand through Preah Vihear, Oddar
Meanchey, or Banteay Meanchey provinces

Narcotics Washing Up on the Mekong's Shores

6. (SBU) While most of the drug busts in the province have
been fairly small, two related and rather spectacular
incidents illustrate that larger-scale illegal activity
likely takes place. Cambodian officials report that in
August 2006, Lao law enforcement authorities seized USD
$940,000 that Chea Eang, a Cambodian businessman, was
carrying in cash from Cambodia to Laos. Chea Heung claimed
that he earned this money importing gasoline, but Cambodian
authorities suspect it really came from drug smuggling.
Despite these suspicions on the Cambodian side, the Lao
authorities eventually returned the money to Chea Heung. Two
months later, a boat transporting Chea Heung and at least
seven 30-liter jerry cans filled with ATS tablets and heroin
sank in the Mekong River. Chea Heung was arrested but later
released by the Lao authorities; boat owner Peng Kao is
reportedly in hiding. The case was never reported in the
newspapers, and local villagers were reportedly very confused
to find containers full of tablets and powder washing up on
shore. Not realizing that they were illicit drugs, some
tried to sell the contents to local pharmacies, while others
turned them in to police.

Law Enforcement Capability Low

7. (SBU) There are few drug busts in the province relative to
the area's importance as a trafficking route, and most busts
are made by provincial police based on tips from police
informants. According to provincial Deputy Police
Commissioner On Saron, the provincial police were involved in
15 drug cases in 2006, but only one so far in 2007--a decline
he attributes to smugglers becoming more circumspect.
Gendarmerie, military, border police, and border liaison
officers all play some role in drug interdiction, but are
responsible for far fewer drug busts. The border police's
only drug case was the September 2004 seizure of
approximately 10,000 methamphetamine tablets, and the border
liaison offices' only drug case was the October 2006 arrest
of one individual with 17,000 methamphetamine tablets, On
Saron stated. He was unclear about the role of the
gendarmerie and military in patrolling the border, but noted
that they had been involved in only one drug case since 2004.

8. (SBU) There are two official border crossings in Stung
Treng province--a land crossing at Dong Krolor and a river
crossing at Chhoeu Teal Thom Island (Koh Chhoeu Teal
Thom)--plus eight unofficial but commonly used trails, and
myriad places for a traveler to forge his/her own path.
There are a total of four Border Liaison Offices (BLOs) in
the area--one each on the Lao and Cambodian sides of each of
the two official border crossings. The Cambodian BLOs are
each staffed by five to seven officials, including customs,
border police, and immigration police. BLO officials report
that they can't carry out their main duty--patrolling the
area--because each office has only one boat and one
motorcycle and little or no money for gas. In response to
questions from Poleconoff, the officials indicated that they
could patrol on foot and did so occasionally, but were
unenthusiastic about the idea.

9. (SBU) The Cambodian border police have observation posts
(remote one room wooden shacks without electricity, water, or
inspection/law enforcement equipment) at the eight unofficial
passages, but these are only sporadically staffed and are
tasked with merely observing border crossers without
inspecting or challenging them. When the Deputy Police
Commander led the State Department team on a boat trip from
the provincial capital to the border, the island observation

PHNOM PENH 00000767 003 OF 004

post we visited was unstaffed and there were no signs of any
people--law enforcement officers or civilians--within sight.

10. (SBU) The governor and law enforcement officials readily
admit that their law enforcement capability is low and are
eager for international assistance. The Deputy Police
Commander was grateful for the 4Qoining police, military, and
other officials received from military and DEA trainers last
year during the JIATF-West sponsored training course, and
would like to participate in more training. He also outlined
needs for additional equipment, specifically vehicles, boats,
cameras, walkie-talkies, office stationary, and x-ray
machines. The BLOs appear to be slightly better equipped as
the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has provided them
with some equipment--including a boat and a motorcycle,
walkie-talkies, a camera, and a few computers for computer
based training (although one of the BLOs has no electricity),
all housed in a a small wooden office/dormitory. BLO
officials at one BLO checkpoint presented the State
Department team with their wish list: corrugated metal
(presumably to build additional facilities), a generator, a
solar panel, a car, two motorcycles, six walkie talkies, two
toilets, two boats, and a well. Lars Pedersen, the newly
arrived head of UNODC's Phnom Penh office, said that the BLOs
had been successful in facilitating communication between the
Lao and Cambodian authorities on the ground, but that there
had not been the increase in drug seizures that the
establishment of BLOs in other countries had spurred.

Persistent Rumors of Local Corruption

11. (SBU) NGO and local business sources said they believed
reports post has heard that military and police officers have
a significant role in larger scale drug smuggling, but none
had direct evidence nor detailed knowledge of these
operations. These sources said there were persistent rumors
to this effect, and pointed to the unexplained wealth of some
military and police officials as supporting evidence. One
local businessman said he had heard that the police were
becoming more aggressive in catching small-scale drug
traffickers, a move he suggested benefited the larger-scale
operations with ties to police, military, or government

12. (SBU) Government officials admitted that there may be
some corruption, but downplayed its importance and avoided
discussing the topic at length. The Deputy Police
Commissioner described two recent cases involving local
officials: an outstanding arrest warrant for a police
officer believed to have been smuggling more than 1700
methamphetamine tablets, and one police officer and one
military official who were jailed for two months for
possessing 400 grams of crystal methamphetamine but were
later released when the sample inexplicably tested negative
for narcotics at the NACD drug laboratory. The Governor
suggested rotating border liaison officials frequently to
discourage the development of criminal collaboration with
local smugglers, and evaded a question about what should be
done to target the big players controlling drug trafficking
in the province.


13. (SBU) It's no wonder Stung Treng has long been a favored
spot for drug trafficking: its remote location, sparsely
distributed and poor population, and maze-like forests and
waterways make it a narcotics smuggler's dream. While the
governor and law enforcement officials rightly claimed that
their operations are hampered by lack of equipment and
funding, lack of political will and corruption are likely
more fundamental problems. The enthusiasm Border Liaison
Officers displayed in discussing the need for equipment to
conduct motorcycle and boat patrols dissipated once the
conversation turned to their infrequent foot patrols, which
could be done with equipment they possess now. Similarly,
government officials stuck strictly to talking about small
time drug traffickers, ignoring the larger players that are
likely carrying the majority of drugs and that some have
suggested have connections to the local political and
military elite. With a small Pol/Econ section (which will
lose an officer for 2007-8) and no INL budget, post's efforts

PHNOM PENH 00000767 004 OF 004

to encourage better law enforcement in the region are
currently limited to annual JIATF-West training sessions.
However, post is encouraged by INL's increasing engagement in
Cambodia and believes that this will be a fertile area for
work if INL's FY09 budget request for Cambodia can be
supported within a larger foreign assistance envelope for

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