After months of tracing and identifying the baron of a drug smuggling ring, forces from Vietnam and Laos raided the organization last month, seizing 5.5 metric tons of drugs – the biggest smuggling case ever uncovered in Southeast Asia.
Noticeably, the swoop on the huge drug warehouse in a forest in Laos followed a fight that lasted for an hour but did not cost a drop of blood.
The drug ring baron, Lamphunxilaxa, 47, who is a Thai national but mainly lives and works in Laos, was arrested during the raid.
From early 2015, news from detectives in Laos about Lamphunxilaxa reached the headquarters of the border guard in the north-central Vietnamese province of Ha Tinh, which is close to the Lao province of Bolikhamxay.
A native of Nong Khai Province in Thailand, he often resided in Laos and lived with his Laotian girlfriend, Malavanthommavong, 24.
She often helped him hire locals to package coal for the ‘business’ of her boyfriend.
But the coal packing sites changed from time to time, moving from a town to deep forests.
He sometimes drove a truck carrying coal into Vietnam for sale via the Cau Treo border gate, but this product did not bring him much profit.
Senior Lieutenant Colonel Vo Trong Hai, commander of the Ha Tinh border guard department, circled on a map Buavengkham Village in Paksan District of Bolikhamxay, where Lamphunxilaxa had just moved in.
It is a village deep in the forest.
Until April, detectives could easily identify and catch his personal relations and the postal addresses of each of his staff and his acquaintances.
He was then targeted officially.
Vietnamese detectives discovered that Lamphunxilaxa was responsible for receiving money from abroad to collect raw marijuana planted by villagers living along the border of Vietnam and Laos.
Detectives are about to get into forests in Laos. Photo: Tuoi Tre
He also collected chemical substances to extract synthetic drugs from the villagers.
In Buavengkham Village he rented an old warehouse from a Vientiane man to package coal.
Vietnamese forces began coordinating with Laotian police in Bolikhamxay to start busting the ring.
Recalling the job of tracking the drug baron, border guard commander Hai said, “Tens of our detectives were divided into four groups to track him for months.
“Upon identifying him as one of the suspects, we were excited to accept the challenge of following his trail.
“We know he is ‘a big beast’ and we focused on a big mission.”
These Vietnamese detectives speak Lao well and played the role of locals in Buavengkham Village who earned their living as scrap iron buyers and coal packers.
Their ‘colleague’ coal packers were Laotian policemen.
“Lamphunxilaxa was aided by a group of men who worked in a section of the 800 square meter warehouse and another group who guarded the warehouse,” Hai added.
“The men also acted as his bodyguards and were all equipped with weapons.
“Whenever the pickups and trucks owned by Lamphunxilaxa entered the warehouse, the gate was immediately closed.
“Except for his bodyguards, no one was allowed to enter the warehouse.”
Detectives hid in the forest during the day. They were camouflaged with green all over their body.
At night, they crawled inch by inch to the warehouse and prized open each brick of its wall to enter.
“The warehouse contained both coal and numerous 24-liter plastic cans,” recalled Hai.
“They collected samples from inside the cans and left, leaving the scene untouched.”
Test results showed that the substance was safrole, a kind of chemical used to produce synthetic drugs, Hai said.
“We felt relaxed then because we had a clear target, although we realized that difficulties were still ahead,” he stressed.
A plan to raid it was thus created.
Three of the most elite detectives were deployed into the forest again, some 500 meters from the target – a distance intended to maintain safety while being able to observe the area of the warehouse. They lay motionless during the day and only ate at night.
Their job was to watch for when Lamphunxilaxa arrived at the site and signaled to others waiting outside.
Lamphunxilaxa (4th from right) is handcuffed. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The three were in their positions at 3:00 am on July 15, and the fight was expected to start when Lamphunxilaxa arrived the following day. However, he disappeared for a week and only visited the warehouse on July 23.
The three detectives had to ‘mortify their bodies’ for eight days while waiting motionless in the rain.
At exactly 2:00 pm on July 23, Lamphunxilaxa arrived at the warehouse in his pickup.
Hundreds of Vietnamese and Laotian policemen raided the site at the same time, and the targets were so surprised that they could not react.
Eleven people, including Lamphunxilaxa and ten Laotians, were arrested. Around 5.5 metric tons of synthetic drugs and substances were confiscated.
“They declared that the goods would soon be transported into Vietnam and Europe,” Hai said.
The Vietnamese Penal Code rules that twenty years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment can be given to those who are convicted of illegally stockpiling, transporting, trading in or appropriating heroin or cocaine weighing from one hundred grams.