Highwaymen on the prowl in HCMC

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Municipal authorities, police scramble to tackle a spurt in robberies and thefts targeting tourists and residents

Ho Chi Minh City police will step up patrols and coordinate with their district level counterparts in a fresh crackdown on robber gangs as reports indicate a significant increase in robberies over the last few months, targeting both locals and foreigners.

"We will send taskforces to coordinate with district police in busting street robbers targeting tourists, especially foreign tourists," said senior lieutenant colonel Tran Van Ngoc of the HCMC Police Department.

On Monday (September 12), HCMC authorities met with the District 1 People's Committee to discuss solutions to the increasing robberies in the central district.

Pham Thanh Kien, deputy chairman of the district People's Committee, the local administration, said there have been 140 cases of robbery among 168 crimes in the district in the first eight months this year, mostly on major streets.

"Notably, many hotel owners in the area have complained to local authorities that many of their foreign tourist customers were victims of robberies," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Minh Canh, chief police of District 1's Ben Thanh Ward, also reported an increase in thefts in the locality, mostly in office buildings.

Tran Vinh Tuyen, Chairman of District 1 People's Committee, admitted shortcomings in tackling robberies.

"Most robbers target tourists at sightseeing places or shopping malls," he said.

At the meeting, HCMC People's Committee vice chairman Le Minh Tri instructed District 1 authorities to prioritize security, especially for foreigners, including tourists and those living and working in the city.

He also instructed District 1 to prepare a resolution specifically for tackling criminals in the district.

The HCMC People's Court tried 7,167 criminal cases in 2010, of which 1,200 were thefts and 1,388 robberies. A judge said it was just the tip of the iceberg because many victims do not report their cases to the police because they think it is a waste of time.

There have been instances when the police themselves are reluctant to accept formal complaints in order to maintain a better record in their area, some victims have alleged.

Robbers everywhere

Following reports from local residents about increasing robberies in Tan Phu District's Tay Thanh Ward, Thanh Nien reporters visited the locality recently.

Showing a long scar on her right arm, Lien, a resident of Che Lan Vien Street, said some robbers had snatched her bag recently and caused the injury.

Thuy, who runs a cigarette stall on Nguyen Huu Tien Street, said she also lost two cigarette cartons to robbers.

While talking with residents near the Tan Phu District police station, a Thanh Nien reporter lost her bag to two robbers on a motorbike who snatched it and sped away.

In another case, Vinh of District 10 lost his wallet to robbers when he parked his motorbike at a gas station on Tran Hung Dao Street. He said a robber grabbed it after he took the wallet out to pay for the gas, then made his escape by jumping on to a waiting motorbike driven by his accomplice.

Some robbers even follow their victims and rob them indoors.

Tuyet Minh, manager of a restaurant on District 1's Nguyen Du Street, was having dinner with a friend at a restaurant on Pasteur Street when two daring robbers drove their motorbikes inside, snatched her bag with valuables worth about VND20 million ($1,000) and escaped. She reported the case to Ben Nghe Ward police but nothing has happened since.

Besides snatching bags, cameras and cell phones, the robbers also target side-view mirrors and emblems of luxury cars.

On September 5, Nguyen Phuong Hoang, driver of the Sudan Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City drove a luxury car to the city center. He carefully set the alarm system before going to the restroom but later found the car's emblem lost.

In another case in early August, a woman reported that two robbers on a motorbike approached her car and grabbed her mirror when driving down District 1's Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street.

In June, HCMC police busted a ring of car parts robbers and arrested eight people. They confessed that the stolen car parts were sold at the Dan Sinh Market and car accessories shops on Nguyen Van Cu and An Duong Vuong streets.

The arrest sparked hope among many drivers, but it was not long before they realized that nothing had changed on the streets.

Following the increasing street robberies, a group of vigilantes was set up in Tan Phu District recently.

However, in a recent case, one of the vigilantes himself was a victim as he lost his motorbike while chasing a couple of motorbike thieves.

The case happened on Monday when Nguyen Van Minh Tien, Le Quang Binh and Chau Minh Quoc were patrolling the streets and followed two suspects on a scooter to an alley on Go Dau Street.

One of them broke into a house to steal a motorbike and the trio gave chase. When the thieves left the stolen bike behind and attempted to flee on one bike, Quoc stayed behind to watch the bike as Tien and Binh continued the chase on two motorbikes.

The two vigilantes managed to crash into the thieves' bike in an alley, and as the latter attempted to escape again, Tien left his bike behind and jumped onto Binh's to continue the chase.

They managed to catch one of the two thieves but Tien's bike had disappeared when they returned to the crash site.

Self-defense

Many residents have decided to use a range of measures to avoid becoming victims of robbers and thieves.

Phuong, owner of a jewelry shop in District 5, has recruited two men to guard his shop around the clock.

"I have also bought two trained dogs," he said.

Many people on car forums have committed not to buying stolen car parts in an effort to reduce such theft.

Nguyen Thang Long, the owner of an auto garage on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, said he had imported many car emblems recently following orders from customers who refused to buy stolen emblems at local markets.

Some drivers have carved their registration number on side-view mirrors and driven more nails into their emblems to avoid them being stolen.

Many motorbike shops have also advised their customers to install additional accessories to protect the bike's parts, including alarms.

The parking garage at the Thong Nhat Hospital in Tan Binh District has a clear notice board announcing a VND5 million award to those who report people stealing helmets and motorbike parts.

"We offered the award after many customers complained they had lost their belongings after parking their motorbikes here and the police failed to solve any cases," said Vu Kim Duc of Long Vu Company that operates the motorbike parking lot.

Duc said he had some of his relatives detect two thieves once. Both of them were drug addicts.

Last week, the United Nations has called for alternatives to compulsory rehabilitation centers for people who use drugs in Vietnam, saying these centers "do not provide either effective treatment or rehabilitation."

Although Vietnam's officially stated relapse rate has decreased since 2000, it is still high at 75 percent. Globally, most estimates put the relapse rate at greater than 90 percent, according to the Assessment of Compulsory Treatment of People Who Use Drugs in Cambodia, China, Malaysia and Vietnam conducted by the World Health Organization in 2009.

POLICE CITE FAULTS, CALL ON WITNESSES TO HELP WHILE VOWING TO GET TOUGH ON CRIME

Police have pledged to bring thieves in Ho Chi Minh City to justice by calling on local residents to take a pro-active role in curbing theft and robberies in the city.

"Information provided by residents is extremely important for crime investigation. But police have not fully taken advantage of this source," said senior lieutenant colonel Tran Van Ngoc, vice chief investigator of Ho Chi Minh City Police Department.

He pointed out two reasons for the poor cooperation. He said that many victims are not from the city and don't know where local police stations are. He also said that many witnesses were too scared to come to police for fear of becoming entangled in an unrelated case.

"If local authorities implement effective propagandizing campaigns encouraging residents to report crimes they witness, police will be able to react in a more timely manner to crack these cases," he said, adding that the easiest way to report a crime is to first tell neighborhood authorities who will forward it to local police.

Meanwhile, he admitted that some police officials "lacked willingness" or were irresponsible when receiving reports from victims of robbers or thieves.

"We have repeatedly discussed such weaknesses during meetings of the municipal Police Department," he said.

In District 1, there were 168 crimes over the first eight months this year, 34 cases less than last year.

"However, I know that there are still victims who refused to report their lost property," he said.

Ngoc rejected claims that many victims refused to report crimes because they had no faith that a police investigation would end in any way other than failure.

"That's totally untrue," he said.

"A majority of robberies via motorbikes have been busted over the past years, and the figure is always over 80 percent of total cases," he said. "Only thefts had a lower bust rate due to more difficulties in investigation."

He said that although the number of District 1 criminal cases had reduced, incidents involving robbers using motorbikes increased in several wards.

Ngoc confirmed that robberies in outlying districts have increased and become "more complicated."

In Binh Tan District, police recently busted a gang who had stabbed several victims with scissors during robberies early this year. The crimes in the district have significantly reduced since then, he said.

Ngoc said his agency is receiving crime reports via two hotlines, (08) 3 838 7342 and (08) 3 920 7196, that operate around the clock.

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