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Cablegate: Face to Face with Smugglers and Officials Along The

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 HO CHI MINH CITY 001233

SIPDIS

State pass to USTR EBRYAN
USDOC for 6500 and 4431/MAC/AP/OPB/VLC/HPPHO

E. O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: VM ECON CB ETRD PREL SMIG SNAR SOCI CNARC TIP
SUBJECT: FACE TO FACE WITH SMUGGLERS AND OFFICIALS ALONG THE
BORDER


Summary
-------
1. An Econ trip to the town of Chau Doc and the border area of An
Giang Province revealed energetic levels of small time smuggling
that is largely tolerated by local authorities. That fat man on
the motorcycle may simply have his clothing stuffed full of
cartons of cigarettes, locals say, but they also denied any
knowledge of narcotics trafficking in did not mention any
trafficking in women. With lax border controls and a largely
unpatrolled border, however, both could easily occur. One
official stated they stopped a boat with more than 7 kilos of
heroin earlier this year, but somehow, on the open paddy fields,
the smugglers themselves managed to escape. Most border traffic
is local, with almost no foreigners crossing into or out of
Cambodia. While traveling in a marked "frontier area," Econoffs,
Econ/Pol Assistant, and Congen Driver came to the attention of the
police who, while ignoring other traffic coming and going, tried
to impress upon Congen party that they had violated Vietnamese law
by being there without permission. Police were polite, did not
try to separate or intimidate the two FSNs, and eventually sent
Congen party on their way.

"Catfish" and Smugglers
-----------------------
An Giang Province sits along the Cambodian Border where the Mekong
River enters Vietnam. Only two or three kilometers from the
border is the town of Chau Doc which is located along a branch of
the Mekong. These days it is known for raising tra and basa fish,
primarily in floating cages in the river. Like many border towns
it is also known for smuggling. Because Cambodia has
substantially lower tariffs for many goods, this can be a
lucrative business. One local Amcham contact reported that on a
recent visit to Phnom Penh he was told by a Cambodian official
that 40% of goods imported into Cambodia are eventually smuggled
into Vietnam.

Quiet Crossing and Sleepy Guards
--------------------------------
3. The official border crossing nearest Chau Doc is Tinh Bien,
about 25 km southwest of town. It sits on a causeway cutting
across a landscape of rice paddies that stretch for miles on
either side. The checkpoint is a quiet spot, and Econoffs'
arrival at the border crossing caused a stir among the motorbike
taxi drivers waiting for fares that never seemed to materialize.
Econoffs walked up to the Vietnamese immigration checkpoint where
two young soldiers in a small hut preside over the pedestrian and
vehicle crossings. Beyond them sits an administrative building,
including the customs check-point, and then Cambodia. The
soldiers, though clearly curious about their Western visitors,
were friendly, chatting with Econoffs while continuing to check
those crossing the border. Eventually, an officer emerged from
the administrative building. He was also courteous and willing to
answer questions. They told us that the nearest town on the
Cambodian side was about 7 kilometers away.

4. Pedestrian and motorcycle traffic through the checkpoint was
light but steady. People transiting from Vietnam to Cambodia were
mostly empty-handed and traveled by motorbike. Econoffs witnessed
two loads of eggs stacked high and wide on modified motorcycle
carts headed into Cambodia. Travelers entering Vietnam tended to
carry small bundles of agricultural products. We also saw a
couple loads of scrap metal and boxes on carts coming in as well.
The Cambodians were a far more ragged-looking lot than their
Vietnamese neighbors, many of them on foot or on old bicycles.
There were a few men crossing into Vietnam with picks or hoes
tossed over their shoulders, perhaps coming to work. The border
guards said that about 400 people cross the border in the 12 hours
it is open each day; about 300 of them are crossing from Cambodia
into Vietnam. Most of these trips are round-trips by residents of
the border areas. In the thirty minutes Econoffs spent
conversing with the border guards, only one, apparently empty,
truck bound for Cambodia passed through the checkpoint, none
transited in the other direction.

5. Travelers passed the checkpoint with little or no inspection.
Border residents, Cambodian or Vietnamese, are allowed relatively
unrestricted travel back and forth. Each official ID card denotes
the holder's place of residence and, as long as they reside
nearby, there is no need for visas, passports, or other
formalities. A few people heading for Cambodia presented the
border guards with their identification card and a 2000 VND fee.
The money went in a cash drawer, while the details from the ID
cards were carefully recorded by hand in a small lined notebook by
the border guard. In one such case a tall silent fellow strolled
up, raised us hat, withdrew his Cambodian ID card, presented it
with a fee, and then carefully replaced the ID in his hat, smiled,
and proceeded. Most people, however, offered nothing more than a
nod or smile. The guards stated that these were regulars - people
who crossed on a daily basis. The guards said they collect the
crossing fee from them on a periodic basis; though, there was no
apparent system of tracking the number of crossings. Very few non-
locals cross at the border, the officials told us. Since the
checkpoint became an international border crossing in February
2002, only about 200 foreigners had gone through the checkpoint.

6. The border guards acknowledged that smuggling occurred but did
not say much about their efforts to prevent it. They did
acknowledge that the one boat in their inventory was not enough to
effectively patrol the paddies during the rainy season. The
officer noted that during the recent rainy season, border guards
confiscated 7 kilos of heroin when they stopped a suspicious boat
crossing the flooded paddies. No one managed to apprehend the
crew of the boat,although escaping from a boat in a flat,
featureless landscape would seem difficult.

7. All in all, Tinh Bien was a somnolent place of very local
traffic, almost roused from quiet routine by the presence of
strangers, but not quite. The closest thing to dynamic activity
was about one kilometer back from the border where Cambodian
farmers sold their rice - which they typically brought on their
backs or on bicycle - to Vietnamese buyers at a roadside
rendezvous point. Time spent in the vicinity of the unofficial
border crossing on the edge of Chau Doc would tell a different
tale.

Texas Fives and Used Rice Cookers
---------------------------------
8. Upon arriving in Chau Doc, Econoffs dined with a prominent
family in the local aquaculture industry. These contacts, as
lifelong residents of the border area, were quite knowledgeable
about local smuggling and shared many anecdotes of living along
the main street in a border town. They described men bent under
the weight of 29 inch TV boxes shuffling by their house and
passersby on bicycles carrying so many cartons of cigarettes under
their clothes that they appeared lumpy and twice their normal size
("you know, like Westerners. Ha ha ha"). They told us that Chau
Doc was awash in smuggled goods, particularly cigarettes,
motorcycle parts, cellphones, small household appliances, and
electronics, both new and used. That is why, they said, these
items were much cheaper in Chau Doc than in Ho Chi Minh City.
They were happy to point out the area along the border very near
town where much of the smuggling takes place. Using our host's
directions, we followed dinner with a trip to the border and the
area where smugglers make their crossings.

9. Unlike the official crossing at Tinh Bien, this crossing is
just outside of Chau Doc in a populated commune known as Vinh
Nguon. Following a dirt road flanked by rough one-room houses
crafted from thatch, tin, and old lumber, Econoffs paralleled the
border with a branch of the Mekong River on the right and rice
paddies leading to Cambodia on the left. Periodic stops to look
across the darkened paddies for signs of activity invariably
attracted curious onlookers, each eager to talk about life on the
border and the local smuggling business. According to one small
group of young men that approached us, the bulk of illicit cross-
border trade flows from Cambodia to Vietnam and is in rather
innocuous goods. Televisions, DVD/VCD players, clothes, used
electrical appliances, and cigarette brands with names like Jet
and Texas Fives all cross the paddy fields. Smuggled goods come
across on the backs or under the clothes of local residents hired
by the trip. Wages for guiding others across the border are
around 30,000 VND (about two usd) per trip, while the wages for
actually carrying contraband fluctuates with the value of the
cargo. Interestingly, according to local residents, smuggling at
this area takes place mainly during daylight hours. One local
even described the "workday" as starting at 7AM. Border area
residents said the river was not a favored avenue for smuggling as
it was easy for the police to stopand serch boats. In a
separate conversation, however, the expat manager of a local hotel
attached more importance to the water route and claimed that
boatloads of contraband regularly entered Vietnam at Chau Doc.

10. Vinh Nguon's smugglers converge on various shops and houses
in Chau Doc after making their cross-border dashes. Here the
smuggled goods are collected and loaded onto trucks, or
motorbikes, for onward transport to other Delta towns and Ho Chi
Minh City. At no point did Econoffs observe any official stops or
searches of vehicles leaving Vinh Nguon or Chau Doc.

11. Local residents denied that drug trafficking occurred at this
part of the border. Although it did not appear that major drug
trafficking was conducted at this particular border point, we
cannot say for sure whether they knew and were telling us the full
story or were simply cautious talking about a more lucrative and
more dangerous trade. Although they gleefully answered questions
about used rice cookers and cigarettes, questions about narcotics
brought shrugs.

12. The biggest surprise was what they said about their treatment
by the border guards when they were occasionally caught. The
soldiers did not seek a payoff, they said, and offering a bribe
was a bad idea. They insisted the best approach was act to
contrite and beg for pity. This would generally bring release,
whereas, the offer of a bribe would bring sure arrest and
punishment.

The Long Arm of the Law
-----------------------
13. Econoffs returned to the border the next morning to see the
"dayshift" at work. Not long after we returned, one of the young
men we met the night before roared up on the back of a motorbike
and gestured for ConGen vehicle to follow. The motorbike led us
up the road to a dirt lot between two small houses. One hundred
feet back from the road the land dropped steeply to a wide expanse
of paddy. From this vantage point our self-appointed escorts
pointed out Cambodia, perhaps about 1 kilometer away, separated
from Vietnam by rice paddies criss-crossed by narrow paths atop
dikes. They also pointed out a large tin-roofed building just
across the border. This was the market where most of the local
smugglers traveled to buy cigarettes as well as clothing and small
appliances - mostly used. Econoffs observed groups of people
headed for Cambodia. Several even stopped to tell us where they
were going.

14. The presence of two Westerners and an SUV with diplomatic
plates did not go unnoticed for long. Locals began to drop by to
check out Econoffs (along with the shiny SUV) who were observing
the decidedly unagricultural activity in the rice fields. In due
course Econoffs were asked to follow uniformed border guards and a
couple in plainclothes to the local police station - a request
that followed their admonition that the ConGen group was in a
restricted border area without official permission. Deciding that
accepting the invitation was the prudent course, ConGen vehicle
followed a motorcycle to the commune police station for a two hour
discussion of the border and our "transgressions." Of particular
note during this episode was the presence of a young man on a
motorbike. He had also been at the official border crossing 25
kilometers away during our earlier visit and had engaged in a
hushed conversation with the officer in charge there.

15. At the police station, two plainclothes officials of the
first name only variety advised Econoffs that foreign visitors
require formal, written permission to visit the "buffer area" and
claimed Econoffs had violated Vietnamese law. They also requested
official ID from the Americans in the ConGen group. We explained
that the hotel kept our IDs at check-in. They refused to even
look at our business cards. Econoffs noted that they were unaware
of such a law, and, furthermore, Congen had informed the
provincial ERO via diplomatic note of Econoffs's intention to
visit the border. This conversation recycled several times. So
it went for about 45 minutes with intermittent breaks for the
officers to disappear into the back room to make phone calls,
presumably seeking guidance. During this period, ConGen FSN
telephoned the local ERO and People's Committee to advise them of
our situation and request assistance. Econoffs also requested a
copy of the law in question.

16. Eventually, a group of three border police arrived at the
police station and the two plainclothes officials faded into the
background. Major Lan, deputy commander of a local border
outpost, took over the discussion. He was polite and even
purchased bottled water for the Congen group with his own money.
He stated firmly, however, that the ConGen group had entered a
restricted area and had violated the law. Econoffs pointed out
that while they knew that they had passed a sign labeled "frontier
area," they saw no warning that access was restricted. On the
contrary, Econoffs noted that the area seemed a beehive of
activity with all sorts of people coming and going. Econoffs
noted that they had made no attempt to conceal their presence and
had informed the provincial ERO of their intention to visit the
border.

17. Evidently tipped off by our request to see the law in
question, Major Lan produced an official pamphlet detailing Decree
34/2000/ND-CP on the Regulation on the Land Border Areas of the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The law states that foreigners who
work for "central bodies" or who are hosted by Vietnamese
organizations need to obtain various permissions to travel in a
marked and defined "border belt." The law does not appear to
envision diplomats or unaccompanied foreigners. An attached
circular notes that all visitors to the "border belt" must check-
in with local authorities. After reviewing the law, Major Lan
then asked Econoffs to sign a "minute" that would document the
presence of the Congen group in a restricted area, but that no
fine or punishment would be levied. Econoffs explained that while
Major Lan should feel free to draft the "minute," they could not
sign it and at best could take it back to the Consulate for
review. As Major Lan chain-smoked Jet brand cigarettes, his
deputy laboriously drafted, by hand, two identical "minutes."
With the completed "minutes" in hand, Major Lan reiterated the
requirement that Econoffs sign them. He said that if we did not
sign, we would not be detained but we would continue talking at
the police station. Econoffs replied that if we were not being
detained, then we would leave. No, he said, we would first need
to sign.

18. Eventually Major Lan proposed an unusual solution.
Throughout the visit to Vinh Nguon's police station, Econoffs
shared the interview area with three actual smugglers caught that
morning. The unlucky trio run a store in HCMC's Tan Binh district
and had been headed to Cambodia to pick up clothes and small
electronics to replenish their inventory. This was their third
trip to Cambodia and their first brush with the authorities.
Despite their unenviable position as guests of the police, the
group did not seem worried. Their mood seemed a mixture of
boredom alternating with excitement at sharing the police station
with American diplomats. For the most part they passed their time
smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers. They did a lot of
grinning. The police took their cellphones upon arrival, so
chatting on the phone was out. Major Lan selected the leader of
this group and asked Econoffs if this man could sign the "minutes"
as a witness. Econoffs responded that he was free to sign
whatever he wanted to sign.

19. This was all Major Lan needed. The witness signed the form
and Major Lan decided business cards were perfectly suitable forms
of identification, though he did say that the refusal to sign
meant he could not give carbon copies of the "minutes" to
Econoffs. The gathering broke up with handshakes and offers of
hospitality should Major Lan find himself in HCMC or should
Econoffs return, properly announced, to Vinh Nguon. After the
goodbyes, the ConGen vehicle headed for HCMC while the trio of
smugglers and assorted officials waved goodbye from the police
station driveway.

Comment
-------
20. Even though Econoffs, Econ/Pol Assistant, and Congen driver
were asked to spend a couple hours talking at the neighborhood
police station, the police were never rude or threatening.
Although they firmly stated that we had violated the law and
admonished the FSNs that as Vietnamese they should have known
better, they were generally polite. At no time did they attempt
to restrict our contact with the outside, and in fact we made
several telephone calls. Nor did they attempt to separate the
local FSNs from American officers to try to intimidate them.
Most likely, the officials on the scene and their behind-the-
scenes superiors felt they could not ignore a foreign presence at
the border that they believed to be illegal. They chose to handle
it in the gentlest way they knew how - by warning us, creating a
piece of paper, and sending us on our way.

21. Comment continued: The smuggling and other border activity
that Econoffs witnessed in Chau Doc and at the nearby crossing was
primarily local, and is dwarfed by the amount of trade, legal and
otherwise, that crosses the border at Tay Ninh, which is the main
route between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. Just because our
local conversations did not turn up tales of trafficking in women
or narcotics, however, does not mean that it is absent here, and
both could easily occur. Other sources have named An Giang
Province as having a problem with trafficking in women. Border
police readily admit that they have trouble monitoring this
stretch - probably every stretch - of the border. What appears
to be happening here openly is that local border officials turn a
rather benign eye to the activity of local residents that allow
them to come and go freely and do much of their shopping "duty
free."


WHITE

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