ILLEGAL DRUGS IN VIETNAM: OPIUM, HEROIN AND THE DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG SMUGGLERS

ILLEGAL DRUGS IN VIETNAM

Vietnam has a centuries-old history of opium use. During the Vietnam war, heroin flows from the nearby Golden Triangle to Western markets rose sharply. Heroin, most of it from the 'Golden Triangle' countries of Myanmar and Laos, is the most popular illegal drug in Vietnam and — because it is often injected with shared needles — the leading cause of HIV infections, experts say.

AFP reported: "In 2004 Vietnam estimated that little more than 30 hectares of poppy fields remained, mostly grown by remote and poor ethnic minority villagers. However, Vietnam's proximity to Myanmar and Laos — still the second and third largest opium producers after Afghanistan — and its porous borders and long coastline have made it a major transit country, say experts. Domestic drug abuse in Vietnam has risen sharply since the 1990s, especially in the cities, where "heroin continues to be the preferred drug among younger drug abusers," according to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime Control. Opium smoking had long given way to heroin smoking and increasingly injection, which now causes about 60 percent of known HIV infections, the UN agency said in its 2005 country report.

According to statistics from Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, there were 76,443 drug cases between 2001 and 2007. In that time, police have arrested 119,286 people and seized 1.28 tons of heroin, 1.77 tons of opium and 800,000 drug tablets, mostly methamphetamine. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur, February 22, 2008]

Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have recently embraced or long resorted to compulsory detoxification and punitive detention amid concern over a recent, sharp rise in methamphetamine use.

Heroin and Opium Use in Vietnam

For generations, Vietnam's drug of choice was opium, which was widely grown and encouraged under French rule. But by the early 1990s, Reuters reported: " Hanoi moved to eradicate the crop. At Hang Kia, a remote northern mountain commune near Vietnam's border with Laos, where once opium poppies stretched as far as the eye could see, there are now plums. These sour fruit have sweetened life for Hmong ethnic minority people in this highland valley, with most farmers saying incomes are higher than with opium."People have grown opium for generations, hundreds of years,'' said local farmer and former addict Sung A Sa. "As long as there have been people there has been opium.'' But by 1993, in the twin communes of Hang Kia and Pa Co in Mai Chau district some 170 kilometers (106 miles) west of Hanoi, hit squads arrived to slash poppies in a national campaign which led to almost total elimination of the crop. "I used to smoke opium, but stopped when they banned growing it,'' said Vung A Vo. "By growing plums I can make a profit and get income for my family.'' [Source: Reuters, July 21, 1999]

But while opium use has declined in Vietnam, heroin use among young people has been on the rise since the 1990s. The UN Office for Drugs and Crime Control says heroin has been Vietnam's most popular illegal drug since the 1990s. Injecting drug users are a driving force behind HIV infections across Vietnam. Intravenous drug use now causes two thirds of all known HIV infections. In 2011 Vietnam said there are 138,000 drug addicts in the country and 30 percent them are HIV positive, down from 60 percent in 2006.

It is not unusual to see addicts hitting up liquid opium or heroin or smoking heroin or opium mixed with tranquilizers on the streets of Saigon. Some even shoot up heroin mixed with boiling water. There are lots of drug busts on Vietnamese news broadcasts. In 1997, 96 people between 15 and 23 were arrested for smoking heroin in a karaoke bar in Saigon. One officials at the time said he thought there were 30,000 addicts in Saigon, and "10 percent of drug users were women, including girls aged 12 or 13." He also said that 70 percent of the 1,500 addicts arrested in one four month period were from wealthy or well-connected families.

Heroin and opium is often sold in gum wrappers at bars, karaokes and opium dens. One user told AFP, "All I want to do is experience that strange sensation that I feel each time. I'm not a heavy smoker but it hard to imagine going out with my friends without heroin." A more serious user told AFP, "I use between 20 and 30 small hits of heroin a day, with the price varying between 30,000 and 40,000 dong [$2.60 to $3.60]...I ask my parents and grandparents for money, and if they don't give me some, I steal from them."

In April 2003, Associated Press reported: "The number of known drug addicts in Vietnam jumped 25 percent over the past year to 142,000 despite a government crackdown, state-controlled media reported Thursday. Among them, 25,453 are serving sentences at prisons and other correctional facilities run by the Ministry of Public Security, the Ho Chi Minh City Police newspaper quoted a government report as saying. The newspaper said more than 67 percent of the drug addicts known by police are under age 30. The number of addicts has continued to rise in recent years despite tough penalties, including death sentences on drug-related offenses. The government has announced plans to send all known drug addicts through tough rehabilitation programs by the end of 2005, while reducing the relapse rate of the programs to 60 percent. The current relapse rate is more than 90 percent. Most of Vietnam's drug addicts are heroin users. [Source: Associated Press, April 3, 2003]

United Nations: Drug Use on the Rise in Vietnam

In June 2013, Thanh Nien News reported: "The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned that amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) is the most common drug used among Vietnamese in big cities, border areas and industrial zones, while its use continues to rise in rural areas. A press release by the UN in Vietnam on Wednesday said that ATS remained the second most commonly used drug in Vietnam since 2010, despite the availability of some new psychoactive substances (NPS)."We recognize the increasing number of drug seizures and cross-border trafficking operations in Vietnam, as well as the danger of increasing abuse of ATS and new psychoactive substances among the Vietnamese youth," said Pratibha Mehta, the UN Resident Coordinator in Vietnam. "We need to help young people become more aware of the harmful consequences of these substances," Mehta said. [Source: Thanh Nien News, June 27, 2013 \+\]

"According to the UNODC’s 2013 World Drug Report released the same day, the number of NPS, which are marketed as "legal highs" and "designer drugs," is increasing at an unusually rapid rate. UNODC member states have reported the number of NPS in their countries have increased from 166 at the end of 2009, to 251 by mid-2012. "New psychoactive substances can be made by slightly modifying the molecular structure of controlled drugs, making a new drug with similar effects which can elude national and international bans," according to a Reuters report. NPS include ketamine and kratom – which are common in Asia. \+\

"The use of NPS endangers public health as the drugs have yet to be formally outlawed, said the report. It said the drugs are sold openly and represent a "lucrative" business, but can be "far more dangerous" than traditional drugs. Street names like "spice" and "meow-meow" lure people into believing that they present an opportunity for "low-risk fun," but their potentially adverse effects and addictive properties remain poorly understood. \+\

"Drug busts frequently make headlines in Vietnam, which has some of the stiffest drug laws in the world and where those convicted of serious offences involving traditional drugs like heroin and methamphetamine commonly receive the death penalty. Transporting drugs via air travel in particular is also common in Vietnam. In the most recent case, a US national of Vietnamese origin was arrested Tuesday at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City for attempting to transport 1.1 kilograms of heroin from Vietnam to Australia. Official figures show that Vietnam now has over 172,000 drug addicts, up 8.5 percent since 2011. \+\

Drugs and the Vietnam War

Drug use was rampant among GIs in the Vietnam War. Marijuana was a common recreational drug. Good quality stuff included "Thai sticks" and opium-laced hashish. Many American servicemen became addicted to heroin while in Vietnam. It was not unusual for battalion to have a single combat death but 18 from overdoes.

On one way China was helping North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai told the president of Egypt in 1965: "Some [American troops] are trying opium, and we are helping them. We are planting the best kinds of opium especially for American soldiers in Vietnam...Do you remember when the West imposed opium on us? They fought war with opium. We are going to fight them with their own weapons."

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence on the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

Michael Herr wrote in "Dispatches", "Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. [...] I knew one 4th division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. "They sure give you the range," he said." [Source: Michael Herr, "Dispatches", Knopf, 1977]

Marijuana and Heroin Use During the Vietnam War

Marijuana was grown all over Vietnam, and many soldiers had their first experiences smoking it overseas. It helped them mellow out, it helped them continue fighting. It took their mind off what the war was about and helped if they didn'tt necessarily believe in the cause for which they fought. In The Things They Carried, drug use is treated matter of factly: it is another not-too-wonderful strategy for trying not to see what is going on around the users. Some soldiers have religion, others have girlfriends waiting for them at home, others have dope. [Source: gradesaver.com +++]

Although smoking marijuana -- the drug of choice among soldiers -- was a punishable offense under army rules, many soldiers still indulged. Precise statistics are not available, but army records suggest that marijuana use at the time was much more widespread in Vietnam itself than it was in the United States. After outraged, sympathetic and bemused newspaper reports drew international interest to the issue, the southern Vietnamese government took steps to make marijuana harder to obtain in 1968. The problem was soon overshadowed, though, by the rise of heroin as a popular drug among soldiers. +++

Some leaders chose to ignore the problem. Others encouraged marijuana use, because it kept their men mellow and focused, because it diffused social problems in the group, because it had fewer side affects than alcohol use and abuse, or because they simply could not imagine trying to prohibit it. It is unclear whether a crackdown, ordered from above, on marijuana use helped feed a switch to heroin. What is clear from army documents is that heroin was a larger problem. Heroin is debilitating. And when soldiers returned to America they were sick for months because they no longer had access to the drug. This was often in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness portrayed in many of O'Brien's stories. +++

In O'Brien's fiction, all drugs are grouped together under the term "dope." As when writing about many of the other aspects of the book -- casual sex, killing, to name a few -- O'Brien the narrator remains non-judgmental. They are things that happen. Some people are drug addicts, others carry their girlfriends' stockings. In the moral balance and the wider craze of the war, these small transgressions hardly seem to matter. +++

Drug use in the book is even used to fuel some of the troops' humor. Ted Lavender is the group's habitual drug user. When he is high, the other men like to ask him how the war is going. Lavender responds: "...real smooth. Today we've got ourselves a real mellow war." This is always good for a laugh. When Lavender is killed, the others try to convince themselves that he is just high, is in a higher place, has taken so much dope that he's up there floating in the clouds somewhere. To help themselves believe this, the soldiers all partake in smoking what's left of Lavender's dope. This anecdote illustrates that drug use, though it may have been insubordination according to strict army definitions, was also simply a form of escapism for the soldiers. +++

Heroin Abuse Booms in the 1990s as Opium Use Declines

In 1999, Reuters reported: "Opium may be almost gone, but experts say heroin arrived as a by-product of Vietnam being an emerging transit point for drugs from the infamous Golden Triangle. In the nearby settlement of Mai Chau an elderly man from the White Thai ethnic minority — a group not traditionally involved in opium cultivation — bemoaned what he saw as a breakdown in the community's traditional hierarchy. "We never had drug problems here, but now the drugs and alcohol situation is terrible,'' he said. He added that students returning from studies in Hanoi brought back crime and heroin habits, while an influx of foreign backpackers had created demand for drug dealers — a market that was spilling over into young villagers. Jens Hannibal, representative for the U.N. Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) in Vietnam, said trafficking and abuse went hand-in-hand. "Because of the trafficking the problem is not going away and ...we now have reports of villagers starting to use heroin,'' he said. [Source: Reuters, July 21, 1999 *+*]

"The picture in the cities -- which are home to most of Vietnam's estimated 100,000 drug addicts -- has become particularly gloomy, where detected heroin addiction rates have soared by hundreds of percent over recent years. Shooting galleries and dealers can be found across urban Vietnam, and around 65 percent of users are aged under 25. Decades of war, poverty and strict communist controls have left Vietnam with almost no developed youth culture. While mini-skirts and stack-heels are common in large cities, rock-'n'-roll has yet to penetrate and young rebels can be found illegally racing motorbikes, singing karaoke, visiting prostitutes and shooting heroin. Bombed-out addicts are a common sight in Hanoi parks, while residents complain of rising levels of petty crime. *+*

"Nguyen Vi Hung, chief of Hanoi's anti-social evils department -- the body charged with eradicating drugs, prostitution and other subversive cultural activities -- blamed the new market economy. "They are gradually forming trafficking rings and retail points in the city and we are not experienced enough to combat the situation,'' he told Reuters. Officials say busts, seizures and prosecutions are running at record levels. Media reports have said that in 1998 local courts dished out death sentences to 49 drug offenders.The UNDCP's Hannibal said seizures had risen steadily in the past couple of years but in the first five months of 1999 jumped a record 80 percent over the same period last year. "We hope it is because they are more efficient, but how can you tell?'' he said. *+*

Vietnam Official Admits Drug Addiction Not Just Bourgeois Scourge

In 2001, AFP reported: "Thirty percent of Vietnam's registered drug addicts are blue-collar workers, union bosses said Thursday in a frank admission that narcotics are not the bourgeois scourge often depicted by communist ideologues here. Of the 100,030 addicts registered to July last year, 30,000 of them were state sector employees, the deputy head of the Vietnam Labor Confederation's (VLC) drugs and social evils department, Le Van Nhien, told the Gia Dinh va Xa Hoi (Family and Society) newspaper. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 22, 2001 /=\]

"A survey carried out by unions in drugs rehabilitation units across the country also found that 30 percent of addicts were trade union members, the English-language Vietnam News reported. By contrast students, regarded in most Western societies as a key risk group, formed just 1.6 percent of addicts, while farmers, who form the huge majority of Vietnam's 78 million population, accounted for only 0.6 percent. Alarmingly for travellers, the transport industry proved the "most notorious" sector for drug use, with 6,000 addicts uncovered in the survey. The coal industry came a distant second with some 300 addicts found. /=\

"Nhien said that the VLC had been working to persuade managers against automatically firing staff who were found to have a drug problem. "We have been directing those units to learn that state employees who become addicted to drugs for a first or second time should be regarded as victims," he told the newspaper. "Only if they return to the habit for a third or fourth time are managers entitled to sack them." VLC deputy chairman Do Duc Ngo said the unions had also been urging employers and local authorities to help recovering addicts find a job as employment often proved the most difficult part of their rehabilitation. /=\

"The ready availability of cheap heroin has fuelled a massive increase in addiction in Vietnam's big cities in recent years, greatly complicating the government's fight against AIDS. Despite the widespread use of the death penalty in a draconian campaign against trafficking, opium and its derivatives continue to pour across the border from neighbouring Laos and the other poppy-growing Golden Triangle countries of Myanmar and Thailand beyond. Needle sharing among heroin users has so far been the main factor behind the spread of the AIDS virus here, the health ministry says. /=\

"But growing heroin use among prostitutes has seen an alarming rise in sexual transmission, with infection rates among Ho Chi Minh City prostitutes leaping to 15.9 percent in 1999 from just 3.1 percent the previous year. Mounting official concern about the spread of AIDS has prompted a growing frankness about a raft of issues that were previously regarded as bourgeois "social evils." Last April the social affairs ministry made the shock admission that as many as 70 percent of the men who use Vietnam's myriad brothels were not decadent Westerners but communist party cadres and civil servants. /=\

"Prostitution has developed in an alarming and fairly open manner in Vietnam since 1997 ... largely due to the lack of firmness shown in punishing prostitutes' customers and particularly those who are party cadres or state officials," the head of the ministry's social evils department, Nguyen Thi Hue, said in a frank newspaper interview. Hue's 70 percent figure for the proportion of brothel-goers who are party or government officials was repeated by the Ho Chi Minh City youth daily Tuoi Tre Thursday in its report on the trade union drugs survey. /=\

Treatment for Heroin Addicts in Vietnam

According to the U.S. Department of State: The Vietnamese government reported in September 2011 that more than 32,300 drug users—the large majority of whom were administratively sentenced to forced detoxification without judicial review—were living in the 121 drug-detention centers countrywide. According to the government, the stated population did not exceed the intended capacity of the centers, which had separate facilities for women. At these centers, according to a September report from a nongovernmental organization (NGO), authorities allegedly forced individuals to perform menial work under harsh conditions and mistreated them. After his November visit, the UN special rapporteur on health criticized these centers as ineffective and counterproductive. [Source: 2011 Human Rights Reports: Vietnam, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State; 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Report, May 24, 2012 ***]

Describing the Vietnamese boot camp method of drug rehab, Reuters reported: "A sharp blast from a shrill whistle calls around 300 emaciated and tattooed Vietnam heroin addicts to muster. The pyjama-clad men shuffle out of crowded, concrete rooms and stare vacantly as they spend 10 lacklustre minutes moving through orchestrated early morning exercise at Re-education Center 06 at Ba Vi, 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Hanoi. [Source: Reuters, July 21, 1999 ||||]

"Six months' cold turkey greets Hanoi addicts at Re-education Center 06. They have been removed from society by the authorities or long-suffering relatives in a bid to kill the habit. Nestled in lush, green hills in the shadow of army firing ranges and just down the road from Center 05 which houses prostitutes, 318 addicts withdraw and undergo physical exercise, work and strict discipline. They are taught of the dangers of drugs, government policy and how to become model citizens. But anti-social evils chief Hung said re-addiction rates for former camp inmates were as high as 85 percent. ||||

"Vu Huy Luan, director of Center 06, said most camp addicts expressed a genuine desire to kick the habit, but once they were freed many slipped back into old ways.He stopped short of seeing them as victims, but said he was sympathetic to their plight. "We want to give advice...so that when they return home they feel regret and change their lifestyle. Most of them have chosen the wrong way and they are also criminals,'' he said. ||||

The U.S. provided $7.7 million to Vietnam for methadone treatment and community-based drug intervention, according to the US Embassy website. The World Bank has funded an HIV/AIDS prevention program in 20 drug rehabilitation centers across Vietnam.

Tran Kung Dam, a former construction foreman and owner of a herbal shop, claims that he has developed an herbal cure for heroin addiction called Heantos (the Greek word for plants). Although he won't reveal the formula he says it included cinnamon bark and ginger. To test it he purposely addicted himself to opium and heroin and used his concoction to overcome them. Thousands of addicts have reportedly been cured with Heantos, which is consumed in a liquid by an addict an hour before he thinks he will have a craving for opium or heroin. The liquid leaves a smokey aftertaste and makes the addicts fall asleep.

Human Rights Watch: Forced Labor in Vietnam Drug Centers

According to Human Rights Watch: “People dependent on illegal drugs can be held in government detention centers where they are subjected to "labor therapy," the mainstay of Vietnam’s approach to drug treatment. In early 2011 there were 123 centers across the country holding some 40,000 people, including children as young as 12. Their detention is not subject to any form of due process or judicial oversight and routinely lasts for as long as four years. Infringement of center rules—including the work requirement—is punished by beatings with truncheons, shocks with electrical batons, and being locked in disciplinary rooms where detainees are deprived of food and water. Former detainees report being forced to work in cashew processing and other forms of agricultural production, including potato or coffee farming; construction work; and garment manufacturing and other forms of manufacturing, such as making bamboo and rattan products. Under Vietnamese law, companies who source products from these centers are eligible for tax exemptions. Some products produced as a result of this forced labor made their way into the supply chain of companies who sell goods abroad, including to the United States and Europe. [Source:Human Rights Watch World Report 2012]

In 2011, Mike Ives of Associated Press wrote: "New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Vietnam of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of drug addicts over the past decade without due process and forcing them to work long hours for little pay. It also alleged that the U.S. and Australian governments, the United Nations, the World Bank and other international donors may "indirectly facilitate human rights abuses" by providing drug dependency or HIV treatment and prevention services to addicts inside some of the centers. About 309,000 drug users nationwide passed through the centers from 2000 to 2010, with the number of facilities more than doubling — from 56 to 123— and the maximum length of detention rising from one to four years, the report said, citing government figures. [Source: Mike Ives, Associated Press, September 7, 2011 ^*^]

"The report called drug treatment at the centers "ineffective and abusive," claiming donor support for health services inside such facilities allows Vietnam to "maximize profits" by detaining drug addicts for longer periods and forcing them to do manual labor. "People who are dependent on drugs in Vietnam need access to community-based, voluntary treatment," Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch in New York, said in a statement. "Instead, the government is locking them up, private companies are exploiting their labor and international donors are turning a blind eye to the torture and abuses they face." ^*^

"Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga called the report "groundless," saying compulsory drug rehabilitation in Vietnam is "humane, effective and beneficial for drug users, community and society." Vietnam's drug rehabilitation centers comply with Vietnamese law and are "in line" with drug-treatment principles set by the U.S., the U.N. and the World Health Organization, Nga added. ^*^

"Detainees inside the Vietnamese drug centers report beatings and spells of solitary confinement, and some who attempted escape say they were captured and shocked with an electric baton as punishment, according to the 126-page report that interviewed 34 former detainees in 2010 who were held at 14 centers in and around southern Ho Chi Minh City. It also charged Vietnam with forcing prisoners to sew clothing, lay bricks or husk cashews for between $5 and $20 per month, a violation of domestic labor law, which guarantees a minimum monthly wage of about $40. ^*^

"Instead of providing health services inside the centers, donors should focus on releasing detainees back into their communities, the report said, citing government reports that place the relapse rate for drug users treated inside the centers at 80 percent or higher. China and other Southeast Asian countries have also come under fire from rights groups in recent years for alleged human rights violations inside similar drug rehabilitation facilities. Several large escapes from Vietnam's drug rehabilitation centers have been reported in recent years. The centers, which began opening after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, are one facet of Vietnam's ongoing campaign against drug abuse, prostitution and other so-called "social evils." Most detainees are young male heroin users, the Human Rights Watch report said, citing government data. Some are rounded up by police while others are sent to the centers by family members. ^*^

Drug Trafficking in Vietnam

Vietnam has become a major transhipment center for Golden Triangle opium and heroin originating in Laos and Burma. "Vietnam is a transit country for drugs going into the international market," Jeffrey Wanner, the DEA's Vietnam attache, told AFP. "It's based on their proximity to the Golden Triangle, to some of the major producers," he said, referring to the Thai-Lao-Myanmar border area that has long been a hotspot for opium poppy cultivation. "Some (traffickers) use the Mekong River, some use mountain routes, some use the main highways. Then it's compiled again in a central location and brought into the local market or to the ports for international distribution." [Source: AFP, August 2, 2008 \=\]

"Most heroin in Southeast Asia comes from within military-ruled Myanmar, where syndicates are also increasingly producing synthetic drugs including methamphetamines and MDMA or ecstasy, Wanner said. "The amount of heroin they are producing is decreasing, but the amount of synthetic drugs is increasing dramatically. It's easier to do, the profits are a lot higher and there's a growing demand for that." \=\

"Vietnam has become a major trafficking country, in part because of its porous borders with Laos and Cambodia to the west and China to the north, as well as its 3,200-kilometre (2,000-mile) coastline. Vietnamese police Senior Captain Luu Duc Cuong, a course participant from Cao Bang province on the Chinese border, spoke of drug gangs who use sawn-off Chinese-made AK-47s assault rifles. "It is easier to conceal and causes more severe injuries," he said. \=\

AFP reported: Vietnam's mountainous northwest accounted for almost half of the confiscated heroin, while the Chinese border area was identified as another "hotbed." In the Lao-border province of Dien Bien, authorities have recently launched a major drive against the rise in heroin smuggling, the state-run English language Vietnam News daily reported Friday. Villagers in the province had been asked to sign pledges not to grow opium poppy, not to use opium, and not to help smugglers carry or sell drugs. The report said traffickers had become more sophisticated and dangerous, with some ready to attack police with firearms and grenades. [Source: Agence France Presse, December 28, 2007]

In 2002, Reuters reported: "Drug-linked crimes were up 10 percent in Vietnam this year, with heroin featuring in high-profile drug-smuggling cases. Between November 2001 and November 2002, police in Vietnam uncovered about 14,000 drug trafficking cases, a rise of 10.5 percent, the state-run Vietnam News Agency reported. Police say the quantity of heroin seized over the year is up 62 percent. Other drugs seized in transborder smuggling cases this year were opium and narcotic pills. [Source: Reuters, December 31, 2002 /*/]

For a while it was said that Vietnamese ran the heroin business in Australia. Australians of Vietnamese descent were at the center of a number of heroin smuggling cases in the early 2000s. Three Australian sisters, aged 12, 14 and 24 faced charges of smuggling heroin to Sydney and a 34-year-old Australian of Vietnamese origin was arrested on a similar charge. /*/

Combating Drug Trafficking

Vietnam's communist government has mostly eradicated large-scale opium cultivation and imposes harsh penalties for drug users and smugglers. People caught with more than 600 grams (21 ounces) of heroin or 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of opium, its raw material, are usually sentenced to death by firing squad. Vietnam also has the death penalty for drug smuggling. Public campaigns have included billboards in cities warning of the dangers of drugs. In the early 2000s Vietnam invested over 500 billion dong ($32.55 million) to upgrade and build detoxification centers in Ho Chi Minh City to treat 23,000 addicts, the Vietnam News Agency said.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Public Security, there were 76,443 drug cases between 2001 and 2007. In that time, police have arrested 119,286 people and seized 1.28 tons of heroin, 1.77 tons of opium and 800,000 drug tablets, mostly methamphetamine. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur, February 22, 2008]

Vietnam has signed agreements to combat drug trafficking with Laos and the United States. Sometimes drugs produced in the Golden Triangle are transhipped to China or the United States through Vietnam. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has run US-Vietnamese training exercise in which DEA agents pass on some of their skills to their Vietnamese counterparts. The exercises included drug raid drills, handcuffing practice, arrest scenarios using an interactive gun-and-video screen system, and first aid training for bullet wounds. More than 80 Vietnamese officers from counter narcotics units, Customs, army and police academies joined the two-week courses with the US agents in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The British Embassy in Hanoi has funded a computer network to collect and analyse drug control information across Vietnam.

Police have also conducted nightclub raids. In April 2007, Associated Press reported: "Hundreds of riot police raided a nightclub in the Vietnamese capital, detaining more than 600 people for suspected drug use, state media reported. About 500 riot police were deployed in the raid of the New Century discotheque in downtown Hanoi early Saturday morning, the online Tien Phong (Pioneer) newspaper said. Those detained were taken to a police station where they were being tested for drug use, the paper said. The newspaper said the raid was part of a campaign by police to ensure security and social order ahead of celebrations for national reunification day on April 30 and May Day. Authorities have said many nightclubs and karaoke bars are used as fronts for drug abuse and prostitution. [Source: Associated Press, April 28, 2007]

Vietnam Reduces Opium Poppy Fields

At one time Vietnam was a major producer of opium. Opium production was reduced by 90 percent in the 1990s. Illegal opium production (tons in 2000); 1) Afghanistan (3,276); 2) Burma (1,087); 3) Laos (167); 4) Columbia (88); 5) Mexico (22); 6) Pakistan (8); 7) Thailand (6); 8) Vietnam (2).

In 2001, Associated Press reported: "Vietnam has reduced its opium-producing poppy fields by 97 percent over the past decade under a government eradication program, an official said Wednesday. Just over 1,000 acres are now used to grow poppies compared to about 47,000 acres in 1992-93, said Hoang Van Dong, director of the Ministry of Agriculture's Department of Settlement and Crop Stability. [Source: Associated Press, February 21, 2001 \^/]

"The fight against opium planting has been successful, with 97 percent of the growing areas in over 800 communes eliminated," he said. The 800 communes represent nationwide production. Opium -- the milky substance drained from the poppy plant -- is converted into heroin and sold in Europe and North America. Officials say, however, that opium poppies are still grown in the northern provinces of Son La, Lai Chau, Ha Giang and the central province of Nghe An. Between 1992 and 2000, Vietnam invested $22 million in its drug control program, including $7.8 million for poppy eradication. At times, military troops were sent in to destroy poppy crops. As part of the program, farmers were given financial incentives to replace poppies with cinnamon, anise, tea, fruit trees and drought-resistant rice. \^/

"In addition, the U.N. Drug Control Program gave $3.8 million to fund a similar program in Nghe An province. In spite of its success in poppy reduction, Vietnam faces problems with spiraling addiction and its role as a major transit route for heroin and opium trafficking from neighboring countries. Vietnam has toughened its penalties on drug crimes since 1997, applying the death penalty for possession, trading or trafficking of more than 3.5 ounces of heroin or 11 pounds of opium. \^/

Vietnam Police Arrest Man with 70,000 Amphetamine Pills and a Tourist with Prescription Pain Pills

In 2005, UPI reported: "A French man has been arrested in Vietnam for being in possession of prescription drugs that are legal in France but banned in Vietnam. Van Huong Pham, a French national of Vietnamese decent, was arrested by Vietnamese police at the end of July for being in possession of some 50 Valium and other pain-reducing pills. His family says he suffers from severe back pain, and that they have had no news of him. He was on a 3-week vacation in Vietnam. The French Foreign Ministry told reporters Tuesday that it was looking into the matter. [Source: United Press International, August 2, 2005]

In 2008, Deutsche Presse Agentur reported: "Police in Vietnam have arrested a man with 70,000 tablets of methamphetamine, weighing around 20 kilograms, local media said. Du Kim Dung, 39, was arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking. Police discovered the tablets in a suitcase during a search of Dung's home in Haiphong City, 100 kilometers east of Hanoi. Police also found two guns in his house, and two other firearms in his BMW sedan, the report said. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur, February 22, 2008 ////]

The newspaper said Dung brought the drugs into Vietnam from foreign countries and then sold the pills in large discotheques and bars in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Haiphong City. Methamphetamine is a popular drug in Vietnam. Scores of young Vietnamese have been arrested using the pills at dance clubs, karaoke bars and in hotel rooms. Laboratories inside Burma produce most of the synthetic drugs that end up in Vietnam. Not only is illegal drug use in Vietnam on the rise, but international drug enforcement agencies believe the country is becoming a larger player in drug trafficking to third countries. ////

Death Sentences for Drugs in Vietnam

Vietnam has tough drug laws and possessing or trafficking 600g (21 ounces) of heroin can result in a death sentence. There are nearly 700 people on death row in Vietnam, many for drug offenses.

In 1998, eight members of a heroin smuggling ring were executed in Vietnam. In 2007, the country sentenced at least 118 people to death in 2007, including 85 for drug crimes. In March 2013, the Vietnam News Service reported that two men from the mountainous Son La Province's Moc Chau District were sentenced to death for drug trafficking after being arrested for carrying over one kilogram of heroin to sell to a woman in Hanoi.

In April 2000, a 44-year-old Vietnamese-born Canadian was executed for possession of 5.5 kilograms of heroin found in some art work at Hanoi Airport in 1996. Her arrest and execution set off a diplomatic row between Vietnam and Canadian officials who claimed the woman had been duped. The woman’s mother was also arrested and sentenced to life in prison but was set free in a general amnesty in 2000.

Amnesty International reported: "Over the course of two weeks in November 2007, Vietnamese courts condemned 35 people to death for drug related offences. It was such a flurry of death sentences that even the media became interested after having ignored the issue for so long. The Government of Vietnam admitted in a 2003 submission to the UN Human Rights Committee that, "Over the last [few] years, the death penalty has been mostly given to persons engaged in drug trafficking." According to a recent media report, "around 100 people are executed by firing squad in Vietnam each year, mostly for drug related offences." [Source: Amnesty International February 27, 2008]

Vietnam Sentences 43 Heroin Traffickers to Death in a Month

In December 2007, AFP reported: "Vietnam has sentenced eight heroin traffickers to death, a court official said, raising to more than 40 the number of drug smugglers to receive the death penalty over the past month. In the latest mass trial, the Hanoi people's court also jailed 29 others, 18 of them for life, for trafficking heroin across the country's mountainous north over two years, a court clerk told AFP. Working a common trafficking route, the gang had smuggled the heroin from the northwestern Son La province near the Lao border to the capital Hanoi, the port of Haiphong and to Ho Chi Minh City, the court heard. [Source: Agence France Presse, December 28, 2007 //\\]

Since late November, Vietnamese courts have sentenced at least 43 people to death and jailed scores more in several group trials against heroin smuggling syndicates, often extended family and clan networks. Vietnam's police say they have uncovered more than 8,200 drug trafficking cases involving 12,500 offenders this year. Foreigners involved came mostly from Laos, Cambodia, Australia, China, the United States and Taiwan, the Ministry of Public Security said according to a report by the Vietnam News Agency. "Police admitted that drug trafficking into Vietnam is increasing but actions to prevent and stop the negative phenomenon along the borders... remained on a limited scale," the state media report said. //\\

Phillip Smith wrote in his blog StoptheDrugWar.org: "A Vietnamese court sentenced eight people to death for smuggling heroin Wednesday, bringing to 35 the number of people sent to death row for drug trafficking offenses in the past two weeks. This week's death sentences came only days after 11 people were sentenced to death November 29 and four more sentenced to death November 30. In the most recent case, 26 people were convicted of trafficking 50 kilograms of heroin over an eight-year period, and eight, including the ringleader, a 35-year-old woman, were given the ultimate sanction. Eight others received life sentences, and the rest were jailed for between 15 and 20 years. [Source: Phillip Smith, StoptheDrugWar.org, December 14, 2007]

In the November 29 case, the Hanoi People's Court sentenced 11 people to death for trafficking 440 kilos of heroin in Vietnam and China, while seven more got life in prison. Others got 20-year sentences. In the November 30 case, a court in the central province of Nghe An sentenced four more people to death and three others to life for trafficking an unspecified amount of heroin.

Thirty People Sentenced to Death for Drugs in Single Mass Trial in Vietnam

In January 2014, Associated Press reported: “A Vietnamese court has sentenced 30 people to death for trafficking in heroin at the conclusion of a mass trial. State media reported the 21 men and nine women were convicted on Monday of being part of a ring that smuggled nearly two tonnes of heroin from Laos into Vietnam and then on to China. The trial lasted 20 days and was held in the northern province of Quang Ninh. [Source: Associated Press, January 24, 2014]

Cyrus Engineer wrote in the Daily Star: “Thirty people have been sentenced to death for smuggling over 12 tons of heroin in Vietnam after the country's biggest ever drugs trial. Dozens more have been convicted of trafficking in the south east Asian country and given lengthy jail terms. In total 89 defendants have been found guilty of trafficking heroin between 2006 and 2012 at the mass trial in the province of Quang Ninh, which borers China. [Source: Cyrus Engineer, Daily Star, January 21, 2014 \=/]

“There were so many accused at the proceedings it had to be held outside rather than in a courtroom. “This was Vietnam's largest ever trial in terms of defendants, the number of death penalties given out and the amount of heroin involved” Presiding judge Ngo Duc said: "This was Vietnam's largest ever trial in terms of defendants, the number of death penalties given out and the amount of heroin involved. "Because of the large number of defendants and the seriousness of the case, the trial was held at the prison." The guilty persons belonged to four major international smuggling rings responsible for transporting heroin and other drugs from nearby Laos into Vietnam and China since 2006. \=/

Twenty-Three-Year old Female Student and a Foreign Woman Sentenced to Death for Drug Trafficking

In June 2012, the Voice of America, reported: "A former female student aged 23, Tran Ha Duy, who has been charged with drug trafficking, had her life sentence increased to the death penalty at an appeal hearing in Ho Chi Minh City. The Procuracy claimed that the sentence was inappropriate in light of the nature of her crime. According to the indictment, in October 2010, Duy, then a student at HCMC-based Hong Bang University, engaged in a transnational drug trafficking ring run by foreigners. She later lured her younger sister, 21-year-old Tran Ha Tien, also a student, to join the ring’s activities. They were paid US$500-1,000 for each international trafficking trip. Tran Ha Duy nearly passed out in the court room after being given a death penalty [Source: Voice of America, June 21, 2012 <:>]

"Tien was arrested at Tan Son Nhat Airport in HCMC in July 2011 after being caught carrying 4 kg of methamphetamine hidden in the bottom of a suitcase from Doha, Qatar. After Tien’s arrest, Duy surrendered herself to police. Duy confessed that in 2007 she happened to meet a Kenyan man, named Francis, on a bus in HCMC. The man later suggested that Duy deliver sample goods, including garments and footwear, from Vietnam to other countries for his company, which would pay her US$1,000 for a delivery to Benin, a West African country, and $500 for delivery to Malaysia. Francis said he would pay for all expenses related to Duy’s trips abroad. She said that after taking a few trips she knew that drugs had been hidden in the goods sent from Vietnam, but she continued working for Francis to enjoy the high reimbursements. At the first instance hearing, Duy and Tien told the court that they had decided to work for the drug ring since they wanted money for their daily needs. <:>

In March 2013, VietNam,net reported: "A Filipino woman was condemned to death for transporting 5kg of narcotics into Vietnam. On March 11, the Hanoi City People's Court convicted defendant Javier Engracia Ebalang, 41, a Filipino citizen, on charges of illegal transportation of narcotics into Vietnam. She was sentenced to death. On April 27, 2012, at Hanoi’s Noi Bai international airport, the police caught Javier in the act of illegally transporting drugs into Vietnam on a flight from Doha to Hanoi. [Source: Vietnam.net, March 12, 2013 /~/]

"The authorities detected three yellow plastic packs containing white crystals, weighing more than 5kg, in the bottom of her suitcase. The white substance was then defined as Methamphetamine. Javier testified that in early April 2012, a friend hired her to go to Bangkok, Thailand, to transport goods to other countries, with $300 per trip.In Thailand, she met some fellow countrymen who did the same "job." Javier was assigned to go to Mali to receive suitcases and take them to Hanoi, then to Thailand by land. When the suitcases were to be handed over to the recipient, she will be paid. On April 20, 2012, Javier arrived at the Mali airport and was picked up to a hotel, where she stayed for 4 days. After that, a man gave two suitcases and air ticket to her and told her to fly to Vietnam. Javier was arrested right at the Vietnam’s airport. Javier declared that she only knew the suitcases were containing banned goods but she did not know it was drugs. She insisted that in this case, she was just a victim. /~/

Female Thai Student on Death Row in Vietnam for Smuggling Amphetamines

In August 2012, the Bangkok Post reported: "Charge d'affaires Boonrong Pongstiensak said that the Thai embassy in Vietnam is working to help Preeyanooch Phuttharaksa, 23, a Thai college student from Bangkok who was sentenced to death for drug trafficking by Ho Chi Minh City court in June 2012. Preeyanooch was arrested for trafficking three kilograms of methamphetamine pills from Nigeria's Benin city into Vietnam through Saigon airport in October 2012. She was arrested after the drugs were found in a false bottom of her suitcase. She told the court she was paid about US$1,570 (about 50,000 baht) by a Nigerian trafficking ring to smuggle the drugs. [Source: Bangkok Post, August 14, 2012 *\*]

Mr Boonrong said Preeyanooch had appealed for a reduced sentence on the advice of the Thai embassy in Vietnam. He said the embassy was waiting for the Vietnamese president's decision on whether to reduce her death sentence to life imprisonment. But Mr Boonrong said a reduced sentence would be difficult to obtain as drug trafficking is considered a most serious offence in Vietnam. Mr Boonrong said four other Thais arrested for drugs trafficking are now being detained in prisons in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. *\*

Mr Boonrong said he had received information that many Thai women are being deceived into trafficking drugs by international drugs gangs. Permpong Chavalit, deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, said the Foreign Ministry recently reported that about 100 Thai women are currently being detained for drug trafficking in several countries, including China, India, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Brazil and South Africa. Some of them had married citizens of African countries and were forced to become involved in the trans-national drug trade, while others were willing to act as drug couriers due to the high pay, he said. He said African drug syndicates are using Thailand as their base, and that African gangsters used different tactics to dupe Thai women into the drug trade. Mr Permpong warned Thai women to stay away from African men to save themselves from being tricked into becoming a part of the drug networks. *\*

Chinese Man Sentenced to Death for Trafficking 11kg of Narcotics

In March 2013m VietNam,net reported: "To get $40,000 for a delivery fee, a Chinese man transported nearly 11 kilograms of drugs from Cambodia to Vietnam and then to China. On February 28, the Ho Chi Minh City Supreme People's Court of Appeal rejected an appeal for penalty mitigation, sentencing defendant Zhang Zhi Hua, 52, Chinese national, to death penalty on charges of "illegal transportation of narcotics." [Source: Vietnam.net, March 5, 2013]

According to the indictment, at 7.30pm on February 1, 2012, at the Moc Bai joint control station in Tay Ninh province, the police checked the taxi number plates 51LD -9184. Through inspection, the police detected passengers Zhang Zhi Hua carrying two bags containing 20 yellow nylon bags. Inside these bags were 120,000 tablets in pink and yellow colors, which were suspected as synthetic drugs. According to the assessment results, these tablets are narcotics, with a total weight of 10.9 kg.

Zhang Zhi Hua confessed that in November 2011, a Chinese man named Vy, who lived in Cambodia, rented Hua to traffic drugs from Cambodia to China, but Hua refused because the delivery fee was too low. After that, another Chinese man named Trinh, who is Vy’s friend and lived in Guangdong, China, called Hua, asking him to carry 120,000 tablets of drug from Cambodia to Vietnam and then to China with the delivery cost of $40,000. Hua agreed. According to plan, Hua would receive the drugs from a Thai couple in Cambodia then going through the Moc Bai border gate, getting a taxi to Saigon and then to Hanoi and going through Quang Ninh to China.However, the defendant was arrested at the Vietnam- Cambodia border.

Australians Gets 20 Years in Vietnam for 200 Grams of Heroin

In September 2009, AFP reported: "A Vietnamese-Australian has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for heroin possession, state media reported. A court in southern Ho Chi Minh City found Chu Hoang Mai, 47, guilty of attempting to smuggle 215 grams of heroin on a flight to Sydney, Vietnam News reported. It said customs officers found the drug in three small packages on her body during a routine check at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat Airport on June 11 last year. [Source: AFP, September 5, 2009]

In June 2005, DPA reported: "An Australian man has been sentenced to 20 years in prison in Vietnam after being convicted of trying to smuggle 200 grams of heroin from Vietnam to Australia. Tony Tran, 43, an Australian of Vietnamese descent, was arrested at a house in Phu Yen province after trying to send 200 grams of heroin in laminated photographs to various addresses in Australia, said Nguyen Van Minh, a court official in Phu Yen, 500 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City. Tran faced a maximum sentence of death for the crime but the court gave him its lightest penalty. The court said Tran and his girlfriend bought the heroin in Ho Chi Minh City, and tried to post it in small portions in May 2004, Minh said. "We seized the heroin in the photos before it was sent out, and the crime is punishable by between 20 years in prison and the death sentence, so he was given the lightest sentence," the court official said. [Source: DPA, June 2, 2005]

Tran's 33-year-old Vietnamese girlfriend Le Thi Van was given 15 years in jail after the two-day trial that ended yesterday. "An Australian-based officer from the consulate was present at the trial," a spokesman for the Australian consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, told AFP later. A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra said Australia's travel advice warned of very stiff penalties for drug trafficking. "`We urge all citizens to read the advice about harsh penalties and the limits to the assistance we can provide,'' she said. There are nine Australian citizens and one Australian resident currently in prison in Vietnam on drugs charges, four of them are awaiting trial, and two are facing possible death sentences.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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