Students are the new mules

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African drug smugglers shift carriers to avoid detection

Preyanooch Phuttharaksa, a 22-year-old Thai student, was arrested on October 29 at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport for allegedly smuggling more than three kilograms of methamphetamine into Vietnam

Everything went smoothly for Preyanooch Phuttharaksa on arrival at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport after her October 29 flight from Doha.

Her bags easily passed the screening section, but the 22-year-old student was somewhat nervous.

Her nervousness caught the eye of a sharp immigration official and she was asked to wait for her luggage to be inspected. The inspection yielded more than three kilograms of methamphetamine in three packages hidden in a secret chamber in her bag.

Under Vietnamese laws, possession, transport, or trade of more than 600 grams of heroin or cocaine or more than 2.5 kilogram of methamphetamine can be punished with death.

Phuttharaksa is only one of many drug smugglers caught at Vietnam's international airports. Police have reported an increase of drug smuggling by air into Vietnam, with the smugglers using "more cunning ploys".

The smuggling rackets' kingpins are rarely caught as they always hire others to carry the drugs, police said.

In Phuttharaksa's case, the student confessed that she had met a Nigerian man in Thailand who first invited her to visit Malaysia and Vietnam in January.

In Malaysia, she met another Nigerian man who asked her to bring a suitcase of some product samples to Hanoi. Another woman, yet to be identified, also accompanied her and they managed to bring the luggage through Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport twice.

On the second visit to Hanoi, Phuttharaksa asked the other woman about the product samples and was told that it was actually drugs. However, she continued to do it because of the high payment she received, until she was arrested during her third trip.

Phuttharaksa said she is the eldest child of a family with two children and that her father is an official with the Thai army. She was handed to the Ministry of Public Security's Narcotics Police Department for further investigation.

Le Thanh Liem, deputy chief of the Narcotics Police Department, said employing foreign students to carry drugs into Vietnam is a new ploy.

Earlier, local students were found to have been hired by drug smugglers to carry drugs into Vietnam through international airports.

Liem had warned local students against falling into the traps set mostly by African drug smuggling rings after they began to target Vietnamese female students as traffickers instead of middle-aged women as they did earlier.

The warning came following a case in July where two students were arrested on drug smuggling charges.

On July 20, a 22-year-old student of the Hong Bang University International in HCMC, Tran Ha Duy, gave herself up to the police after being informed that her 20-year-old sister, Tran Ha Tien, was nabbed at HCMC's Tan Son Nhat International Airport two days earlier for attempting to smuggle more than four kilograms of methamphetamine into the country.

Customs officers found a large bag of methamphetamine at the bottom of Tien's luggage as she disembarked from Qatar's Doha Airport where she was transiting on her way from Tanzania.

Duy told the police she had known a man of African origin named Francis (no further information has been disclosed about him) since 2007.

In August 2010, Francis asked her to join his business by delivering clothes and shoes to foreign countries, and she accepted. She introduced her sister, Tien, also a student at Hong Bang University International, to the business.

Duy said she had successfully delivered four batches one from Malaysia to Indonesia and others from Benin, a West African country, to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines via Vietnam between August 2010 and July 2011.

She was paid US$1,000 for each trip. She told the police she had not known that drugs were hidden in the suitcases during the first three trips.

When she realized she was transporting drugs on the final trip, Francis forced her to keep silent, she said.

Meanwhile, Tien told the police she had realized drugs were hidden in the suitcase during her first overseas trip, but persisted with the business as she needed the money for her studies.

Human detectors

Last month, the Tan Son Nhat International Airport Customs Department held a training course for officials trying to tackle new ruses used by drug smugglers.

Following the course, the agency has implemented inspections with new equipment and police dogs.

However, the agency's head, Dinh Ngoc Thang, said equipment plays only a limited role in detecting criminals.

"The officials themselves should be "˜live screening devices' to detect suspicious faces because they (the drug smugglers) can avoid detection by machines with many cunning tricks," he said, adding that his agency has also detected weapons and explosives using this tactic.

Thang said experience helped him and his colleagues develop a special sense for detecting illegal commodities imported through the airport.

In a recent case, a company in District 4 imported 24 packages of 48 loudspeakers. The importer presented all required documents and the screening device found no suspicious signs of drugs in the packages.

However, Thang's team decided to unpack the products despite strong opposition from the owner.

They found nearly 760,000 tablets of illegal drugs hidden inside the loudspeakers, with a total market price of more than VND300 billion ($14.3 million).

"Earlier, I had agreed to compensate for the product value personally if I failed to find anything illegal inside," Thang said.


Police in northern cities and provinces busted several drug smuggling rings and seized a large amount of drugs during the first week of November.

On November 5, two armed men were arrested while transporting six kilograms of heroin in the northern port city of Hai Phong.

Tran Quang Vinh, chief of the city police department's drug crimes investigation division, said Nguyen Van Binh, 48, and Chu Van Duy, 28, had been found carrying heroin as well as 31 tablets of synthetic drugs by car.

An AK-47 assault rifle, two pistols, a sword, and VND54 million (US$2,500) were also found in the car as well, Vinh said.

Binh, who has two previous convictions of thievery and deliberate assault, has been identified as the ringleader of a massive drug trafficking ring stretching from Moc Chau District in the northwestern province of Son La to Hai Phong, Vinh said.

Later, police raided Binh's home and found more than VND100 million ($4,700) and other related pieces of evidence. The case is being investigated further.

In another case, police in Son La Province caught Giang A Phay, 40, red handed transporting 1.65 kilograms of heroin on his motorbike.

Phay told the police he had been asked by his older brother, Giang A Phenh, to carry the drug from Moc Chau District's Long Luong Commune to the National Highway 6 that connects the northwestern provinces to Hanoi.

On the night of November 1, Hanoi police attempted to pull over a five-seater car on National Highway 6 in Chuong My District. They had to shoot at the car's wheels after the driver ignored the order.

The suspect then threw a grenade and shot at the police with a pistol, but luckily no officials were harmed. However, the suspect managed to flee to a nearby hill and escape into the darkness.

Subsequent inspection of the car found more than seven kilograms of heroin in it.

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