Ho Chi Minh City thieves are taking advantage of the puny penalties for possessing and trading "˜support tools' like Tasers and tear gas
A man caught smuggling Tasers and tear gas in Ho Chi Minh City. Lax management over "˜support tools' has led to rampant use of the illegal products by thieves in the city. Photo by Dam Huy
When Nguyen of Ho Chi Minh City's District 7 would leave her office late at night, she carefully stowed her two cell phones and diamond ring worth VND40 million (US$1,880) so that thieves would not see them and try to rob her.
"I started doing so because many robberies have been reported in the media. But my precautions weren't enough," the 27-year-old woman explained.
Last August, when Nguyen was driving home late on Tan Thuan 2 Bridge connecting districts 4 and 7, four robbers on two motorbikes raced up and sprayed her with tear gas, stealing her scooter before fleeing.
The number of robberies involving the use of Tasers and tear gas in HCMC has reportedly increased over the past several years. Although such weapons are not allowed for personal use in Vietnam, they can nevertheless be bought easily on the black market and online.
Major general Phan Anh Minh, deputy director of the HCMC Police Department, said he has repeatedly instructed the city police to crack down on the illegal trade of Tasers, tear gas and the like. But the penalties for violating the law are too lenient to constitute a deterrent and therefore, the trade of support tools is booming, he said.
The four thieves who robbed Nguyen, including the gang's kingpin Nguyen Thuy Hoang, were arrested last October. Last month, the city's prosecutors proposed District 7 investigators hand over the case to the city investigators. Prosecutors said the serial thieves, responsible for dozens of robberies in the city, were highly dangerous.
Preliminary investigations found the gang pulled off at least 29 robberies in 12 districts between August 2009 and September 2012, using Tasers or tear gas to attack the victims and steal their motorbikes whether they resisted or not, investigators said.
A District 7 police official wishing to remain anonymous said most of the victims have been women who drive expensive scooters and the majority of robberies take place on empty streets.
"They attack with Tasers or tear gas and the victims can't recognize their faces or read their motorbike's license plate number to report to the police," he said.
Booming black market
A recent Vietweek investigation found that it is exceedingly easy to buy illegal Tasers and tear gas canisters both online and on the black market.
A 2011 ordinance on weapons, explosives and "support tools" bars individuals from possessing, transporting and using them.
Support tools include guns that shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, handcuffs and clubs capable of delivering electric shocks.
According to the city police, most of the instruments being sold illegally are smuggled into Hanoi and HCMC from China.
An undercover reporter for Vietweek posing as a customer contacted a man named Tung, who advertises such weapons online. Tung said he sold many weapons disguised as legal products, such as iPhones equipped with Tasers and tear gas canisters made to look like bottles of French perfume.
"I am in Hanoi but I will have someone to deliver the products [to HCMC] immediately. Just transfer the money into my account," he told the reporter. "If you google my phone number, it will lead to online trading sites which have all the details."
In HCMC, it is easy to buy Tasers and tear gas at the black market on Le Thi Hong Gam Street in District 1.
"I sell any product you might want," another man told the Vietweek reporter.
"A tear gas dispenser that looks like a tube of lipstick and can be attached to key chain costs VND1.2 million. Or you can choose a Taser that looks like a cell phone, for VND1.5 to 2 million," he said.
Illegal weapons are also sold at Dan Sinh Market in District 1 and near the An Dong Market in District 5.
Thieves' best friend
In a recent case, HCMC plainclothes police witnessed Tran Hoang Quan stealing a woman's bag as they were patrolling Au Co Street in Tan Binh District on July 2.
Quan was arrested after leading the cops on a chase through many streets and attacking them with tear gas.
However, in most cases, the perpetrators go uncaught.
Binh Chanh police are investigating a case of a man who was lured to the Conic Dinh Khiem apartment complex on Nguyen Van Linh Street by crooks who were then able to steal $22,000 from him.
Police said the robber called the victim, identified only as D., owner of a currency exchange shop in District 6, saying he wanted to change Vietnamese dong into US dollars.
The robber, who introduced himself as Vuong, asked D. to come to the apartment where he attacked him with a Taser, tied him up and stole the money. Later, a neighbor heard D. banging on the door from the inside and freed him.
Police said the robber had rented the apartment a few days earlier under a false name using fake identity papers.
In another case, at midnight on July 9 two residents of District 8, Hung and Nhat, were driving on District 6's Nguyen Van Luong Street when seven robbers on motorbikes attacked them with Tasers and stole their motorbike.
District 6 police are still searching for the suspects.
Illegal but not criminal
During the first half of this year, the city traffic police detected 13 cases involving the illegal possession of weapons and support tools when pulling over motorbikes for traffic violations.
Nguyen Thanh Cong of the HCMC Bar Association said that currently, police only issue administrative fines for possessing and transporting illegal support tools.
According to a 2010 regulation on violations that threaten social security and order, the illegal possession, transport or trade of support tools are subject to fines ranging from VND4-12 million.
Cong clarified that Vietnam's Penal Code, however, only stipulates criminal penalties for the production, possession, transport or trade of "military" weapons.
"This is a loophole being abused by criminals to possess weapons and support tools. There should be stricter measures against them," he said.
During its recent investigation, Vietweek found that Ton The Vinh, 21, is still selling support tools despite having been fined several times for the violation, which so far, does not qualify as criminal activity.
"I sell Tasers for VND800,000 and a tear gas canisters for VND350,000," he said, insisting on delivering the illegal products to the undercover reporter's home, rather than in a public place.
As the law lags behind, it seems that illegal weapon traders are becoming more cunning.
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