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Anti-drug warriors safeguard frontier
(China Daily)
Updated: 2005-02-22 08:42

LINCANG, Yunnan: Patrolling against the trafficking of drugs is one of the most challenging and dangerous tasks faced by police in the country.

This is a reality all too familiar to the police in Lincang, Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

For the city shares a 290-kilometre border with Myanmar's First Special Region (controlled by the ethnic Chinese) and Second Special Region (controlled by the ethnic Was), two of the major narcotics planting and distribution centres in the Golden Triangle.

Spanning the border areas of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, the Golden Triangle is an area known for producing much of the world's narcotics supply. As a result, Lincang is the frontier of the country's war against drug trafficking.

"Police of Yunnan Province intercepted and captured more than 9 tons of drugs last year, which included around 7 tons of heroin mainly from the Golden Triangle," said Wang Jianzhong, director of the province's Anti-drug Bureau. He added: "It makes up over 85 per cent of the country's total capture."

In Lincang alone, said Wang Fangrong, deputy director of the Lincang Public Security Bureau, about 2.4 tons of drugs were captured last year, accounting for over 22 per cent of the annual national volume.

And this was all achieved by the city's anti-drug team, consisting of less than 200 members, said Wang. "Facing various challenges every day, our team is certainly one of the best in the country," he said.

Policing the roads

Duan Baofeng is a member of the team.

Working with the anti-drug squad of Rongde County, which is within the jurisdiction of Lincang, Duan has been policing one of the main roads from the border area to the city of Lincang for 17 years.

At a restaurant by the road from the Nanshan Checkpoint, the 44-year old police officer took some time out from his work to talk to China Daily. "We check most cars passing our temporary checkpoint, along with drivers and passengers and try our best to find every drug trafficker and block the flow of drugs from the border area to Lincang," he said.

To do the job properly, they need to leave their families out in the county town of Rongde and station themselves in a restaurant or teahouse by the road until their 15-day-stint was over.

"We must change the location where we would post the checkpoint from time to time," he explained. "Otherwise it will become much easier for drug-traffickers to elude us."

This time they chose a restaurant. Each of them give the restaurant owner 12 yuan (US$1.45) per day in order to live and eat there.

There is usually not much to do in the early morning. So instead they can play cards, smoke and drink tea while sitting around a square table outside the restaurant.

After 10 o'clock, things start to pick up as the first group of trucks and shuttle buses from Nanshan arrive at the checkpoint.

Standing in the middle of the road, Duan waves a stop sign at the approaching traffic and orders all the vehicles to pull over. Then one by one, the policemen would check the vehicles and passengers for drugs.

Most of the time, the checks are quite easy. Duan and his fellow colleagues just ask the drivers and if necessary passengers several simple questions such as "Where are you from?" "Where are you heading ?"and "What's inside the bag?" and then, if all is well, let them go.

But sometimes it can turn into interrogation and careful examination.

"It depends on whether the one we check is suspicious," Duan said. "For the average person, it might be so easy. But I can usually tell just by making eye contact or after several simple questions. I find that I am actually correct around 70 to 80 per cent of the time."

This sixth sense comes from many years of experience, he said.

"You can judge a situation by observing a variety of things," he said, "some things to watch for include how much money the suspicious character is carrying with them and whether there are mobile phone numbers written on his or her hands or clothing."

Drug traffickers on the road are usually lackeys employed by the dealers in Myanmar, he explained. So they usually have no extra money for the trip.

From Nanshan to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, the money they bring for the trip is around 200 yuan (US$24). From Nanshan to the city of Xiaoguan in the province, it is between 150 (US$18) yuan and 200 yuan. From Nanshan to Guangzhou, it is between 800 yuan (US$96) and 1,000 yuan (US$120).

As for the mobile phone numbers on hands or clothing, he said, it is often the number of the drug traffickers' local contact.

Once Duan and his colleagues target someone as suspicious, they examine his or her luggage very carefully. "Drug traffickers have become more and more crafty when faced with our checks," Duan said. "They can hide drugs in almost anything you can imagine: paper diaper, washing powder, pots with flowers..."

Situations can also turn ugly, as many traffickers have been known to carry knives and even guns.

"That means we must always be prepared during a check," Duan said, "even though the chance of meeting an armed drug dealer is still limited."

He has seized seven or eight armed drug traffickers during the years and never been injured.

"I have only worn my bullet-proof vest a couple of times as it's too heavy for me and makes it hard to move easily around on a crowded bus," he said. "Instead, my experience is to always respond before the criminals takes action."

During his 17-years with the anti-drug squad, he has seized over 1,000 traffickers. At most, he and his colleagues seize around 11 kilograms of heroin a shift. Duan said he will retire in four years. "But I will go on with my daily work until I retired, even though it is often boring and sometimes very dangerous," he says.

Patrolling the mountains

Checking traffic on the main roads into Lincang is only one of the local police's two major means of stopping the influx of drugs from Myanmar to the city.

Another is patrolling the mountains between Myanmar and the region. Compared with Duan's work, it is even harder and more dangerous, said Li Ganxian, head of the Zhengkang County anti-drug squad.

Within the jurisdiction of Lincang, Zhengkang shares a 98-kilometre border with the First Special Region of Myanmar. It consists of mainly high mountains covered by dense forests, said Li. And along the border, there are numerous mountain paths connecting the two countries.

"For drug dealers, these are the secret shortcuts through which to transport the drugs," Li said. "They often employ Chinese or Burmese villagers who are familiar with these paths to carry the drugs in. It is really a hard work to stop this kind of drug trafficking."

The local police can not post normal checkpoints on these mountain paths. "Once the traffickers know the exact location of a checkpoint, they can easily bypass it on the mountain," he says.

As a result, the local police have to patrol the mountains and lay an ambush on some mountain trails from time to time.

There are two special mountain teams in the anti-drug squad of Zhengkang, Li said, each with five or six members. Each team would take turns to patrol the mountains.

Once a team leaves, they would stay on the mountains for five or six days. They would patrol the mountains between the two countries and change different locations to lay ambushes.

As there are no place to find food and accommodations in the mountains, they are required to take everything with them, including camping gear, cooking utensils, rice and vegetables, bullet-proof vests and guns.

In the dry season, it is difficult to find drinking water in the mountains. "Sometimes we have to walk several hours to find a stream to get water," Li said.

In the wet season, Li said, they can only seek shelter in karst caves.

Their meals are also irregular. Sometimes they have to keep walking for up to 12 hours to chase the traffickers. At times, they are even forced to hide silently in the woods for four or five hours just to wait for traffickers to appear.

They do however wear bullet-proof vests, which weigh 7.8 kilograms, during their missions. This is mainly due to the fact that the traffickers on the mountains often carry guns and even grenades.

"When there are two or three or more people in a trafficking group, it can get extremely dangerous," Li said.

Last year police officers exchanged fire with criminals six times during their missions. Two policemen have also been killed and five injured since 1994, Li said.

But their hard work is certainly rewarding.

According to Li Ganxian, the patrolling teams cracked over 140 drug-trafficking cases, seized around 170 drug traffickers and captured over 200 kilograms of heroin in 2004.

In the biggest bust, police captured more than 80 kilograms of heroin.

"All of our achievements have motivated us to keep going," Li said.

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