The recent discovery of two huge methamphetamine laboratories in Cambodia has led to fears that the country is becoming a major regional center of illegal drug production and consumption. Authorities say that tougher anti-drug programs in neighboring countries have led some major drug producers to shift production to Cambodia. Rory Byrne reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
This meth lab recently discovered in Phnom Penh's Dangkor District is the largest ever discovered in Cambodia. Police at the scene confiscated laboratory machinery, $100,000 in counterfeit notes, guns and huge quantities of methamphetamines.
Police say the lab was used to manufacture and test new generations of increasingly potent illegal drugs.
Another so-called super-lab recently discovered in Kompong Speu province, west of Phnom Penh, was used to make the raw materials needed to produce methamphetamines.
Police say they discovered almost four tons of drug-producing chemicals, enough to make hundreds of thousands of pills.
Lars Pedersen is the head of the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs in Cambodia. "This puts Cambodia in a higher league in terms of the drug problem. It's now clear that we have drug production taking place in Cambodia. The main drug, which is abused in the country -- and that goes through the country -- is metamphetamines."
The U.N. says 60 percent of the world's 25 million methamphetamine users are living in Asia. Eighty percent of those are under 26 years of age.
In the past, drug enforcement officials say traffickers used Cambodia solely as a transit point. Most drugs came down the Mekong River from Burma and Laos into Cambodia en route to Thailand and Vietnam. Some got shipped further to Australia, the U.S. and Europe.
Pedersen says that the recent discoveries of production facilities in Cambodia reflect a growing drug problem in the region. "It's part of a worsening trend in general in the region," he says. "But trafficking in Cambodia is also influenced -- trafficking and production for that matter -- is also influenced by the crackdowns in Thailand, by a tougher policy in Thailand and in China for that matter, also. So it's a matter for traffickers, producers, to find alternatives and this country is a very attractive alternative."
Robert Bruce is with GSM Consultancy and works with governments in the region to safely dispose of illegal drugs. He says that the Cambodian government and other partners deserve credit for acting quickly to try to contain the methamphetamine problem. "It's really unfortunate that Cambodia is being used as a production center but at the same time I think it's very good that the government is stepping in early, supported by donors and supported by other governments to take actions before it becomes more widespread."
Pedersen says methamphetamines made in Cambodia pose a threat to all countries. "We should not forget that it affects all of the rest of the world because drug production in the magnitude that we see here is not only intended for the Cambodian market, it is intended for the world market."
U.N. officials say that greater cooperation between law enforcement and government officials in the region is needed if the threat from illegal amphetamines is to be contained.