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Friends in high places

                                       November 29, 1998 

 Friends in high

 NARCOTICS: Wealthy, well-connected,
 and one step ahead of the law, illegal drug
 traffickers are cashing in on a booming


 Against the usual quiet of the middle-class neighbourhood of Soi Na
 Tab off Lieb Vari Road in Nong Jork, on the outskirts of Bangkok, a
 sound like gunfire was heard in the middle of the night of October 14
 and continued until half an hour later. Most of the neighbours went
 back to sleep, muttering something about firecrackers.

 The next morning, however, newspaper headlines reported that the
 blasts came from a fierce gunfight between police and a drug
 trafficking gang at house number 74/1 in village group 9 of Nong Jork.
 In the resulting chaos, drug baron Surachai Ngoenthongfou,
 nicknamed Bang Ron, managed to escape the police dragnet.

 The media detailed how the 38-year-old Bang Ron abandoned his
 house and four bodyguards in the middle of the gunfight.

 Three of them - 40-year-old Kordet Suksawai, 32-year-old Prasart
 Sukho, and 28-year-old Wongkot Kasemsak - were wounded.
 When the police finally entered the house and arrested the three,
 36-year-old Adul Polja was dead on the floor.

 It was "a little disappointing", as one police officer said, that the
 mission to capture one of the country's most wanted amphetamine
 dealers had failed.

 Connections discovered: Despite its shortcomings, the mission did
 seize a considerable stash of illegal drugs. A search of the house
 revealed 758,000 tablets of amphetamine, known locally as yaa baa
 (crazy drug).

 After years of keeping the name under wraps, the police finally
 revealed Bang Ron's identity to the media as one of the top 20 drug
 dealers on the police blacklist.

 Bang Ron reportedly dealt with various types of illegal substances until
 he shifted to amphetamine trafficking.

 The police also revealed that behind Bang Ron were several
 high-ranking policemen, army officers and connections with influential

 "We found evidence at Bang Ron's house that proves connections
 between uniformed men and officials involved in his network," said a
 narcotics suppression police officer.

 House of cards: A few days later, Pol Col Marut Channual, chief of
 Nong Jork police station, was transferred out of the district. The
 reason was that his negligence led to inappropriate connections
 between his subordinates and the narcotics trade via Bang Ron's gang.
 He has not been charged.

 His subordinates, Pol Capt Suthin Sri-udom, deputy investigation chief
 of Nong Jork police station, and Pol Sgt Nithest Saengrit of the same
 station were sacked. They face charges in connection with illegal drug

 The Bang Ron connection spreads far beyond policemen in Nong
 Jork into the offices of ranking police officers in Kanchanaburi
 province, near the Burmese border.

 Subsequent moves include the arrest of Pol Maj Sompong Ningnuek,
 chief investigator of Kanchanaburi's Thong Pha Phum police station.
 He was dismissed from the police force and charged with providing
 protection for transportation of Bang Ron's drug supplies from
 Kanchanaburi to Bangkok on several occasions.

 His superior, Thong Pha Phum district police chief Pol Col Kongsak
 Tirasuk, was transferred to inactive duty in Nakhon Pathom. He was
 accused of negligence in the line of duty that allowed his subordinate's
 involvement in a crime.

 Subsequent leads pointed to a wide network of connections among
 corrupt policemen. 

 In Lam Phak Chi, a suburb of Bangkok, chief police investigator Pol
 Maj Sawong Phukokwai was arrested and dismissed for abuse of
 authority. He had helped Bang Ron's gang members when they were
 arrested on various cases of drug-related charges.

 Late in November last year, Pol Maj Sawong arrested Vivat Tokou, a
 Bang Ron gang member, for possession of 169 tablets of yaa baa.
 However, he failed to submit the case to the public prosecutor.

 The police also arrested army sergeant Vitoon Klinkhachorn for
 trafficking drugs for Bang Ron. He was dismissed from the army.

 Influential connections: These transfers and arrests all resulted from
 strong evidence gathered by investigators following the attack on Bang
 Ron house on the night of October 14. "There are more people that
 are strongly connected to the Bang Ron gang," a high ranking
 narcotics suppression officer told Sunday Perspec tive. "But we need
 to have concrete evidence before we can arrest them."

 The officer showed the blacklist to Sunday Perspective to reveal
 several provincial policemen and border policemen in Sangkhla Buri
 district of Kanchanaburi.

 Apart from uniformed officials, the narcotic suppression police are
 closely watching state officials. Kamnan (sub-district chiefs) and
 phuyai baan (village chiefs) in Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi and Tak are
 under surveillance.

 "Some may be gang members, while others may be clients of Bang
 Ron who bought drugs for distribution," the police officer said.

 Meanwhile, the police are convinced they have enough material
 evidence to conclude that drug trafficking is a large and influential
 business. The list found during the raid proves that the illegal drug
 trade is indeed linked to offices within the government, including the
 police, the armed forces, the civil service and local administration

 Increasingly high numbers: Those who make it their business to
 fight the illegal narcotics trade feel that a completely successful drug
 suppression programme is an impossible dream.

 "We're fighting a many-headed dragon," they say.

 When Thailand's military strongman, Marshal Sarit Thanarat, banned
 the opium trade in 1968, everyone thought it was a good start. The
 ban aimed to end opium cultivation, trade and consumption. Today,
 30 years later, the country's drug problem remains. Opium remains
 widely available, as are other, more dangerous drugs.

 Recent years have seen Thailand invaded by an ever new line of illegal
 narcotics, including cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride), crack (cocaine
 base), ice (methamphetamine crystal), CAT (methcathinone), Ecstacy,
 (also known as 'E', Adam' and ETC), Blue Ice (methylaminorex) and
 LSD (lysergic acid diethylamine).

 The number of drug addicts in Thailand continues to rise. The 1990
 statistics at the Police Narcotic Suppression Division show 1,297 yaa
 baa traffickers were arrested that year. In 1991, this went up to
 1,775. By 1994, the arrests totalled 3,973.

 Authorities claim the increase is not only caused by the effects of drug
 suppression operations, but also by an increased activity in drug
 trafficking as demand soars. 

 The spread of yaa baa last year is indicated by the seven million yaa
 baa tablets seized by various state agencies. Officials believe this
 year's figures will be no less. 

 "That number is only 15 or 20 percent of the real volume of pills in the
 market that year," a police officer told Sunday Perspective. A larger
 volume is believed to have been spread not only to labourers, truck
 drivers and party animals, but also among school children.

 A 1994 research paper by the Narcotic Research Centre concluded
 that some 2.2 million people in Thailand were addicted to various
 kinds of drugs. Last year's figures show a three-fold increase of seven
 million people. Almost half of the addicts use yaa baa, the researchers

 Diverse clientele: Roughly 170,000 truck drivers deliver various
 merchandise and goods throughout the country in the evenings,
 requiring them to remain alert throughout long, boring, nighttime hauls. 

 "At least half of them (85,000) use yaa baa," a highway police officer
 told Sunday Perspective.

 Police interviews reveal that a truck driver usually drops at least two
 tablets a day on average. At the going rate of about 100 baht per
 tablet, this group spends some 8.5 million baht a day. Official
 estimates put the entire truck driver population is shelling out up to 17
 million baht a day for pills.

 The Narcotics Research Institute said that of this year's seven million
 drug users, half (3.5 million) are children in secondary schools and
 universities. Researchers found that children drop about one tablet a
 day, which would give the illegal drug industry a markets of roughly
 350 million baht a day, or about 127 billion baht a year. 

 Between these two major groups of drug abusers, the narcotics trade
 makes an annual haul of about 250 billion baht.

 Rags to riches: In the high-end illegal drug market, the top-line
 products of cocaine, crack, ice, CAT, Ecstacy, blue ice or LSD also
 command top prices, with a single tablet going for as much as 1,200

 Not surprisingly, police investigators say these drug are sold to
 high-income earners.

 "Drug abuse is found in every class of society," a top police narcotics
 suppression officer told Sunday Per spective.

 "This is a society of money, and the drug industry is easy money," he

 An illustration of this is Bang Ron, who remains at large. He is one of
 many who have moved from poverty to wealth through the illegal drug

 Several police sources reveal that Bang Ron, born a poor farmer, is
 worth more than 100 million baht today. He is 38 years old.

 A police file reveals that Bang Ron was born to a farming family in a
 Muslim community of Nong Jork. He farmed rice until he was 20,
 when he decided to become a driver for the Bangkok Mass Transit
 Organisation due to the poor income he earned from farming. 

 A few years later, he got married, started driving a taxi, and
 frequented an underground casino in the King Phetch area of
 Bangkok. "Not as a customer but as a member of a protection gang,"
 said a police source.

 It was at the casino that Bang Ron built his connections within the drug
 trafficking industry. In 1996, his name entered police files as a major
 drug trafficker. Two years later, on the night of October 14, police
 decided to nab him at his residence.

 By this time, Bang Ron's luxurious house, worth about 20 million baht,
 also housed ten luxury cars. His businesses included a furniture
 factory, a sawmill, and a tourist resort in Kanchanaburi.

 Police say these businesses are fronts for his drug business. 

 Today, the police remain unable to locate Bang Ron. Many believe
 that the drug baron has more than enough money to elude arrest while
 living a very comfortable life.

 *Next week: Analysis of the spread of drug abuse in Thailand. 



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 Last Modified: Sun, Nov 29, 1998
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