December, 05 2013 09:46:53

Authorities pass the buck on heroin smuggling case

by Thu Van

A counter-terrorism and rescue drill took place at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City on November 30.

The large-scale simulation used the scenario of an attack by 15 terrorists who held 200 passengers as hostages and shot security staff dead at the airport.

All forces were mobilised to rescue the hostages. All bombs and mines installed at the airport were disarmed and the terrorists were arrested after nearly two hours.

The drill was deemed a success.

How about a drill for discovering 229kg of heroin hidden in empty stereo speakers?

I guess, no one can possibly imagine such large amount of drugs could easily pass both customs security and airport security checks, to be transported from HCM City to Taiwan earlier the same month, and at the very same airport.

But it did happen.

And the country's authorities only knew about this when the Taiwanese customs officers detected the consignment in Taipei.

Shortly after the plane that carried the consignment landed at Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei, Taiwan, it was inspected by local authorities.

Police dogs found 229kg of heroin hidden inside the speakers and covered with chocolate to avoid being detected by dogs. The heroin haul is estimated at US$300 million.

When Vietnamese media questioned authorities, what they received in return was a disappointing answer. No one has so far claimed responsibility for the transport.

Tran Ma Thong, deputy chief of the HCM City Customs Agency, said the agency currently examines goods going through the customs gate, based on the content of declaration forms filled out by companies.

The customs system, using such forms, will classify goods into three groups: blue, yellow and red. For the blue groups, only some information is examined before the goods proceed. For the yellow and red groups, stricter scanning procedures are applied.

The consignment in this case, he said, was classified by the customs system as belonging to the blue group. Thus, no scanning or sniffer dogs were used to examine them.

While the Security Services at the HCM City-based Tan Son Nhat Airport has suspended four security officers for further investigation, the Customs Agency, according to Thong, has organised a meeting to "review the incident and draw lessons to be learned". He also told media that "this was not the responsibility of the Customs Agency".

Meanwhile, Tran Thuy Minh, Director of the Southern Airport Authority, strongly opposed Thong's opinion, saying that the airport security's duty is to make sure no weapons, bombs or explosions are allowed on board, to ensure the safety of passengers.

She also said it is not rational for the customs agency to create favourable conditions for export goods, and place all the blame on the airport security staff.

After rather strong comments from the public, the next day, he told the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that the media has not fully understood and interpreted what he meant.

He said he did not deny the responsibility of the customs agency in this case. And he said the case was an unfortunate incident, due to the electronic-customs system. But still, he said the agency officers followed the correct procedures.

Recently, we've heard about too many "correct procedures".

Some 11 babies nationwide died after being injected with Quinvaxem vaccines this year. The health sector confirmed that Quinvaxem was not involved in these deaths, because "the vaccine has been used in the National Expanded Programme for Immunisation (EPI) beginning in July 2010".

Health officials also said correct procedures were followed.

When flood waters were discharged from hydro-power reservoirs last month, killing many people and causing uncountable damages, leaders of hydro plants said they had followed correct procedures.

I also recall the case of Duong Chi Dung, former director of the Viet Nam Maritime Department, who pocketed tens of millions of US dollar in a deal to buy a floating dock that proved to be unusable. A senior government official said the appointment of Dung was also done according to correct procedures.

There must be problems with all the procedures, because babies have died, people were killed in the flood, and an enormous amount of the State budget was lost.

And the common thing in all these incidents: the responsibility belongs to no one.

Tran Thi Thu Huong, head of the City's Customs Agency, asked the public to have sympathy because her agency is having to deal with half of the workload of the whole country's customs industry.

I don't know if she's talking seriously. Because I don't think the occurrence of such an incident is understandable. And obviously, we can't have sympathy with it.

Viet Nam still has a high rate of death penalties applied each year to drugs criminals. An unofficial source said, every year around 100 cases of death penalties were handed down by courts, mostly for drugs criminals.

In 1997, former police officer Vu Xuan Truong, who was also the mastermind of a cross-border drug ring, was sentenced to death for transporting hundreds of pounds of heroin into Viet Nam from Laos.

And the discovery of drugs being transported at Tan Son Nhat Airport is not new.

In 2003, HCM City Police found out 1.8kg of heroin hidden in 76 stereo speakers to be transported to Australia.

In 2007, Customs Security at Tan Son Nhat Airport detected more than 2kg of heroin in two speakers to be transported to Taiwan.

In 2008, they seized a consignment of more than 800,000 methamphetamine tablets hidden in 24 stereo speakers transported from Taiwan to HCM City.

With such history of drugs being transported at the airport, how could the authority be so ignorant? When drug dealing in the country is still at a high rate and prevalent, how could customs scanning be so loose, if it really is?

Regarding this case, Taiwanese police said they made their biggest heroin confiscation in 20 years.

China Airlines also said it was the largest drug case in its history.

Not only the local public, but the world is now watching Viet Nam's next moves.

The police are investigating the case. Who is responsible for what and will have to take responsibility once all questions are answered by investigators? But is it a little bit too awkward, not knowing what your responsibilities are? — VNS

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