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US Drug Enforcement Agency Trains Vietnamese Counter-Narcotics Agents

Instructors from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency are in Vietnam this month training Vietnamese officers in conducting drug raids. The United States wants Vietnam's cooperation in fighting international drug traffickers. But experts say police work is not the most important part of fighting drug abuse in Vietnam. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.

A column of Vietnamese police wearing black face-guards infiltrate a drug den, coached by an American DEA agent.

"Someone needs to be on that side of the door," said Agent Boix.

The agents kicked in the door and enter the room.

"Protect your back. Turn around now," continued Boix.

The guns are firing paint pellets, and the drug den is a plywood mock-up in the parking lot of a firefighting academy. The DEA agents are showing their Vietnamese counterparts the American way to carry out a drug raid.

"The drug problem is an international problem, and it's killing children, and it's killing families, and it's all the same no matter where you go," said Joe Boix, the DEA's head firearms and tactical instructor for the state of Arizona.

Lieutenant Colonel Vu Tien Chien, a border guard in Lai Chau province, says the training was different from those he was used to.

Chien says the American training focuses more deeply on exactly how to enter a building and arrest a subject.

Heroin addiction has risen rapidly in Vietnam since the country opened to foreign trade in the late 1980s. The government says there are 169,000 addicts in Vietnam, but independent experts say the real number is much higher.

The use of Amphetamines and the drug ecstasy is also rising.

But none of the drugs originate in Vietnam. Heroin enters over the border from Laos, and most probably comes from Burma, the world's number two heroin producer after Afghanistan.

According to Jeff Wanner, the DEA officer at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, many of these narcotics shipments are on their way to other countries, like China and Australia. And Wanner says the United States' main goal in Vietnam is not cutting down the country's domestic drug abuse problem.

"Our main thrust is to go after the international organizations. We'll help them out. That's what this training is for, to help them deal with their internal problem. But we want to go after the bigger organizations, the large ones, international in scope," said Wanner.

Training exercises like this one may help increase cooperation between American and Vietnamese police, but they will not do much to lower Vietnam's rate of drug abuse.

Jason Eligh, a harm reduction specialist at the U.N. Office of Drug Control's Hanoi office says harsher police action can, in fact, worsen the drug abuse problem.

"If police enforcement is extremely strong, extremely rigid, concerned about stopping all things related to drugs, imprisoning people, imposing strict fines, that's going to cause heroin users to flee from authority. In Vietnam, drug use is classified as a social evil and as a crime. Where there's strong enforcement, you're seeing drug users not want to engage in services," he said.

Harsh enforcement may drive drug users to avoid support groups, needle exchanges or HIV testing. That can lead to higher rates of HIV. Vietnam fights drug abuse by putting users in mandatory rehabilitation camps for two years. In Ho Chi Minh City, the term can be as long as five years.

But little is done to integrate former drug users into society after they are released from the camps, and Eligh says most quickly go back to using drugs.

"There are a number of better ways of dealing with drug dependence, and this is not one of them. Certainly methadone is by far the best approach to heroin dependence that we have in the world today," said Eligh.

Vietnam recently launched its first methadone treatment programs, and there are signs the country's approach to drug treatment may be shifting.

Meanwhile, police have been seizing more drug shipments, and 13 drug dealers have been sentenced to death this year.

That could be driving up prices. Since January, the street price of a dose of heroin has risen from $3 to $6.

But if Vietnam is going to attack its domestic drug use problem, it will have to do as much to help drug users as it does to catch drug dealers.