Witches' brew

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Rising poverty, wealth gap, unemployment and drug addiction responsible for increasing crime and violence, experts say

A member of a Task Force 141 unit stands in the middle of a busy street looking for suspicious-looking people in downtown Hanoi on December 4. The police are taking special measures to tackle a new wave of street crimes, especially armed robberies and assaults of both locals and foreign tourists in major cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

When a motorbike crashed into her bike as she was driving on Nguyen Trai Street in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, Nguyen Thi My Kim was frightened.

Luckily she was unhurt. But her anger at the offender for driving rashly turned into greater fear as the man responsible and several others nearby began jostling and yelling at her as if she had been at fault.

A few minutes later, to her relief and total surprise, a few plainclothes policemen swooped down on the people harassing her, and it was then Kim realized the accident had been staged by robbers.

When the police asked her to check her belongings, Kim realized she had lost her cell phone and VND2.5 million in cash to the robbers. Seven of the eight robbers, including the gang's kingpin were arrested. The other managed to escape.

The incident happened at around 2 p.m. on November 29. Just two hours earlier, the gang had robbed two cell phones from two other women in District 11. The gang members told the police they were robbing people to feed their drug addiction.

HCMC authorities and the media have reported an alarming increase in robberies over the last several months, and experts have weighed in, saying the worsening security situation is because of  rising unemployment, widening rich-poor gap and drug addiction.

According to a report filed December 1 at a meeting of the HCMC People's Committee, the municipal government, there were 572 crimes in the city between mid-October and mid-November and 181 cases more than in the previous month. More than 70 percent of these were robberies.

Colonel Ngo Minh Chau, deputy director of the HCMC Police Department said many of the robbers are migrants and they are very brutal.


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"[Earlier] the robbers used to threaten the victims and rob them. However, many criminals migrating from other localities have been more brutal and attacking and killing the victim to rob them [without threatening]," he said.

Chau said there have been increasing numbers of "unprofessional" robbers, people from other provinces migrating to the city in search of jobs; who either fail to find one, or are dismissed from their jobs and take to robbing.

"They have gathered around and formed gangs. Some gangs just buy a knife and rob," he said.

According to the HCMC Job Placement Center, more than 105,700 people lost their jobs in 2011, almost twice the number in 2010.  In 2012, more than 55,000 people became jobless in the first six months. The center attributes the surge in unemployment to economic difficulties that have forced many firms into bankruptcy.

While economic difficulties have been blamed for increasing crime, sociologists also point out that country's surging economy in the previous years has actually created and widened the rich-poor gap relentlessly, giving rise to growing resentment among the have-nots. This is also an important factor in increasing crimes, they say.

Pham Bich San, a Hanoi-based sociologist, said a rising number of people have "mysteriously made a windfall" and this has added salt to the gaping wounds of the poor.

"It is these nouveau riche, emerging with no cultural and intellectual base that have fueled jealousy and the desire to have the same," she told Vietweek.

Vietnam joined the lower-middle income bracket in 2009, with per capita income rising to US$1,260 last year, from $110 two decades earlier, according to the World Bank.

But the gap between Vietnam's rich and poor has also widened from 8.9 times in 2008 to 9.2 times last year, according to the latest data compiled by the General Statistics Office.

Drugs and crime

Although there is no official study that has documented the link between drug abuse and crime, experts say it could be a prime causal factor. 

Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Hoang Thang, head of the drug crimes investigation division at the HCMC Police Department, said many Vietnamese youth are regularly using methamphetamine, especially ecstasy and crystal ice.

"I am not blaming methamphetamine for increasing robberies and brutal acts. But there is a very thin line between using it and becoming a criminal," the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted him a saying.

According a report released by the Ministry of Public Security in August, there are around 170,000 drug users in Vietnam, an increase of 7.7 over last year. The ministry also said the number of relapsed drug addicts is also increasing.

In HCMC alone, nearly 3,900 drug users were admitted to rehabilitation centers over the first nine months this year, a 20 percent increase over last year, and the centers have discharged 1,200 rehabilitated drug users.

At the meeting to review the city's socio-economic situation, Nguyen Thanh Tai, former vice chairman of the HCMC People's Committee, said there has been a marked increase in the number of young criminals who are abusing drugs and are becoming more brutal in their actions.

"It's obvious that many criminals are drug users," he said.

He said compulsory rehabilitation, which international experts advise against, is still necessary. "And we need to create a better society, so that they do not relapse once they are discharged from the center," he said.

Huynh Cong Hung, head of the cultural and social branch under the HCMC People's Council, the city legislature, said there should be better management of rehabilitated drug users.

Local police should closely monitor these people to prevent them from committing crimes because they can relapse and rob to feed their habit, he said.

Duong Thuy Kim Ngan of the HCMC prosecutors' agency said there should be better programs to create jobs for drug addicts after rehabilitation and for robbers who have served time for their crimes. She wanted no leniency shown to repeat offenders.

 "Their sentences should not be commuted for any reason as deterrence to similar violations," she said.

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By Thanh Nien News
(The story can be found in the December 7th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

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