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China Battles Growing Drug Trade - 2002-02-21

Chinese police say they are battling an ever-growing drug trade with outdated resources. But their efforts are still paying off. They recently arrested 12 Hong Kong residents, and seized 700 kilograms of heroin - the biggest drug bust to date in the southwestern province, Yunnan, which borders the drug-producing regions of Burma and Laos. VOA Correspondent Leta Hong Fincher just visited Yunnan province. This is the first in a three-part series on the booming drug trade there.

Officer Du Shaoyou has just scored a small victory in his daily battle against drug traffickers - this morning, he arrested three heroin smugglers from Baoshan, a town in western Yunnan Province, near China's border with Burma.

The two bedraggled young Chinese women and a man sit handcuffed on the floor, with their heads bowed down. One-inch cubes of compressed white powder wrapped in plastic lie scattered on the ground before them.

Police officer Du, 34, a member of the narcotics squad in Yunnan's capital, Kunming, explains that he found some cubes of heroin in the man's bag during an inspection along the highway from Burma to China. Mr. Du brought the man and his two companions to be X-rayed at a hospital, where he discovered much more heroin in their stomachs.

Mr. Du says together, the three smugglers swallowed more than 300 grams of heroin in Burma, one of the world's leading producers of the drug. With heroin selling for $14-$17 a gram on the streets in Yunnan Province, Officer Du says the stash is worth about $5,000, if sold in China. Once it leaves the country, the price goes up even more, he says.

One of the arrested women grimaces with discomfort and says that her stomach hurts. A policewoman takes her to the bathroom to try to expel some of the plastic wrapped heroin cubes she has swallowed like candy. Under Chinese law, traffickers found with more than 50 grams of heroin could face the death penalty.

In exchange for this great risk to their lives, the three smugglers were paid little more than one dollar per gram of heroin they transported. They don't know who the Burmese drug boss is, only that their job was to carry the heroin to China's southeastern city of Guangzhou. They are mere pawns in a dangerous game of drug trafficking in the region known as the Golden Triangle, encompassing Burma, Laos, and northern Thailand.

Yunnan Province is on the frontlines of this thriving drug trade, since much of the heroin produced in Asia passes through here, en route to international markets.

Sun Dahong, deputy director of the Yunnan police, says that porous borders and an economic boom in the 1990s have steadily increased the flow of drugs from Southeast Asia to China, and from China to the rest of the world. He says, last year, police in Yunnan Province alone seized a record of more than 10 tons of drugs, including some eight tons of heroin. He adds, that is more than the combined drug seizures of all other Southeast Asian countries for the same period.

Last November, Yunnan police confiscated almost 673 kilograms of heroin in one truck shipment from Burma - China's biggest-ever heroin seizure.

Mr. Sun says the steady flow of drugs in and out of China has fed a growing appetite among Chinese consumers. Last year, he says, there were 901,000 registered drug addicts in China. And the country is increasingly producing drugs, such as methamphetamine and ephedrine, used to supply illegal drug laboratories throughout Asia.

Mr. Sun says he believes that drug production in the Golden Triangle region will rise even further following the collapse of the Taleban militia in Afghanistan, the world's other leading heroin producer. Mr. Sun expects production in Afghanistan to go down, driving up the demand for drugs coming through China and Southeast Asia.

In the last few months, Mr. Sun has visited Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to discuss with his counterparts there how to cooperate more in cross-border efforts against drug trafficking. He says China alone cannot curb the threat from drug dealers, who are becoming more and more sophisticated, with high-tech modes of communication, money-laundering techniques and weapons.

The increasing use of arms among drug traffickers is taking a heavy toll on narcotics police. Last year, 32 Yunnan police officers were killed in violent conflicts with drug traffickers.

Officer Du, who caught the three smugglers from Baoshan, says that, in the 12 years he has worked for Yunnan's narcotics squad, he has seen more than 10 of his colleagues killed before his eyes, and known hundreds of other officers who died in the line of duty.

Mr. Du shows his small pistol, made in 1964, and says that, nowadays, many of the traffickers have much better weapons and ammunition than the police.

But Mr. Du says he is never afraid. Drugs hurt a lot of people, he says, so he feels he is helping to make the world a safer place.