Planning a late-night ambush, Thai police were hiding near the banks of the Mekong river on the border with Laos when they spotted men loading packs into a van. At around 2am, they pounced.
As armed officers rushed in, two people fled into the night, possibly crossing the river into Laos. But the driver put his hands up. When police started questioning him, he offered some unexpected information: he was a journalist.
“The officers treated him as a suspect, and they were surprised that he was claiming to be a reporter,” said Nutchani Chanthanut, an official working on the case for Thailand’s Office of Narcotics Control Board, told VICE World News.
The porous borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar make up the Golden Triangle, with well-worn crossing points for a multi-billion dollar drugs trade that uses boats, trucks and sprawling networks to evade detection.
“The officers treated him as a suspect, and they were surprised that he was claiming to be a reporter.”
But in an area where massive seizures make headlines regularly, last month’s operation marks the first time authorities have seen someone claiming to be a reporter, according to Nutchani. About 180 kilos of marijuana were taken in the haul, which police received a tip about the night before, on May 29.
According to authorities, suspect Phattanachai Khamphukaew said that he worked for a Bangkok newspaper called the Sathom Sangkom, an unknown name to Thai media covering the story.
Police discovered that he was carrying a press card too, the Bangkok Post reported. Nutchani also said his van bore a news logo with the name of the supposed agency plastered to the side of his vehicle.
Nutchani said that he may have actually done some local news reporting as a “hobby,” but it’s likely that he decided to help smuggle drugs for extra cash.
Later, police piled up blocks of cannabis on a table for a photo op of the large seizure. The two other suspects have yet to be caught.
Thai Captain Rakhop Devapradipa, the commander of the Mekong Riverine Unit in Nongkhai, a northeastern Thai province bordering Laos, also confirmed the story to VICE World News, but said he could not provide additional details.
The spike in activity across the Thai-Laos border is a result of several factors, according to Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“Routes have shifted significantly, with Laos used extensively for storage and transshipment, and small boats carrying loads at night across the Mekong into Thailand or overland to Vietnam,” Douglas said.
“Laos has become the primary gateway for major drug shipments out of Shan [State], Myanmar in the last couple of years, with most coming into Thailand across the Mekong or going east across the land border with Vietnam. Some for distribution, a lot for transshipment.”
While Laos is a source country for cannabis, however, it’s not a primary focus compared to methamphetamine or other synthetic drugs.
Douglas added that even during Thailand’s worsening COVID-19 situation, with daily cases higher than ever, it hasn’t stopped drug traffickers from pushing across the border.
“It just keeps coming,” he said.