Sunday, 23 January 2011 22:48 James O'Toole
Ousted anti-drug czar Moek Dara served as a trusted source for United States embassy officials in Phnom Penh, according to an American diplomatic cable released by the transparency organisation WikiLeaks, raising questions about the quality of intelligence available to diplomats and development organisations.
In the 2006 cable, the first from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh released by WikiLeaks, Moek Dara and an unnamed official from the World Health Organisation offer accounts of Cambodia’s drug enforcement and prevention efforts. Moek Dara served as secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs before being arrested earlier this month, standing accused of heading up a ring of corrupt officials involved in extortion and drug trafficking.
Citing Moek Dara, the American cable touts a “dramatic increase in heroin and [amphetamine-type stimulant] seizures and drug arrests”. Credit for these achievements, the NACD secretary general reportedly said, was due in large measure to counternarcotics training sessions for Cambodian officials led by the US State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration.
“While increased smuggling activity may account for some of the increased seizures and arrests, it is clear that the Cambodian government is turning up the heat on the country’s drug smugglers,” the cable concludes. “Training from the [US government] and other countries is playing a critical role in supporting this effort.”
David Harding, a drug expert at the NGO Friends International, said narcotics arrests and seizures had increased in recent years, but he added that it was not clear what has accounted for these increases.
“It’s really difficult to say how effective policing is, because it could just be that there’s so much more trafficking now … that people are falling over trafficking and production issues more often,” he said.
Graham Shaw, technical officer on drug use with the World Health Organisation, agreed, noting the difficulty in comparing seizures and arrests to the total amount of drugs being trafficked through the Kingdom.
“Obviously the drug traffickers, they’re not publishing their annual results, are they?” he said.
Moek Dara faces a possible life sentence for allegedly colluding with former Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean and other officials to solicit bribes from drug traffickers and even steal their shipments, Anticorruption Unit head Om Yentieng announced on Friday. His arrest represents the most high-profile case yet for the newly established ACU.
US embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said in an email that embassy officials “will not comment on the authenticity, veracity, or content of any allegedly leaked U.S. government documents”.
WikiLeaks has acquired a trove of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables. More than 248,000 have yet to be released, including nearly 800 from the American embassy in Phnom Penh.
In the cable released last week, Moek Dara and US officials discuss the 2006 arrest of a Kep municipal police officer for trafficking heroin. When questioned on the incident, Moek Dara “was not expansive … noting simply that it is not uncommon for low-ranking police and military officials to be arrested for drug trafficking”, the US report says.
The unnamed WHO official in the cable, meanwhile, “noted that drug investigations of police or military officials are very rare, and speculated that the individual involved may even have run afoul of rumoured higher-level police involvement in narcotics.”
Some observers have speculated that the arrests of Moek Dara and Hun Hean may be related to factional politics within the ruling party between Prime Minister Hun Sen and officials loyal to Interior Minister Sar Kheng. Hun Hean is a former bodyguard of Sar Kheng, while Moek Dara was formerly a police official in Battambang province, a region traditionally associated with the Sar Kheng faction.
Shaw said there had always been “a persistent rumour” among those working on drug issues of high-level government involvement in trafficking, though he said specific names were never mentioned. Moek Dara, he added, was one of the few drug enforcement contacts available to diplomats and development officials.
“There’s not that many options to really talk to – Moek Dara is one of the very few involved in those kinds of cases,” Shaw said. “It’s a pretty small pool of fish.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO