Stories behind Mekong murder investigation

Updated: 2012-09-18 21:39


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KUNMING - It never occurred to the 13 Chinese crew members on the cargo ships of Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 that they would lose their lives for refusing to pay "protection money" to a drug lord nicknamed "Godfather".

On Oct 5, 2011, the two ships with the crew members onboard traveled downstream on the Mekong River near the Chiang Saen port in Thailand. The ships were escorted by two unidentified speedboats.

Shortly after berthing, gunshots were heard on the ships. These shots were followed by nearby Thai soldiers shooting at the two ships with machine guns, submachine guns and rifles, according to witnesses.

Dubious deaths 

The Thai soldiers boarded the ships and alleged they seized guns and drugs on the vessels.

Local media alleged that the two Chinese ships were drug trafficking and the military found armed crew on the boats and opened fire on them. The crew members were killed and fell into the river.

However, corpses found in the river were blindfolded and some of the bodies' hands were tied and handcuffed. Some bodies had dozens of shot wounds.

Doubts were raised as to whether the brutalities were from a drug raid.

After being informed of the case, the provincial police in southwest China's Yunnan Province immediately sent a working team to investigate along the river. The team got witness testimony that armed men in black were onboard the Chinese ships and escaped on speedboats before the Thai soldiers had arrived.

On Oct 23, China's Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu arrived in Yunnan to guide the investigation. Another delegation headed by Vice Minister of Public Security Zhang Xinfeng visited Thailand to get further information about the case and urged Thai police to solve the case as quickly as possible.

No more than one month after the incident, a special team was set up to help with the investigation. It consisted of police from the Ministry of Public Security as well as provincial, prefectural and county-level police authorities.

However, the mission was made harder because the scene of the crime, the "Golden Triangle," is outside of China and the suspects were believed to be foreigners. The "Golden Triangle" is a region known for its drug trafficking.

With a length of almost 5,000 km, the Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang River, is one of the most important waterways in southeast Asia, linking the countries of China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

However, the troubled "Golden Triangle" region along the river is in a state of anarchy with military forces, police, local armed forces and criminal gangs.

Identifying suspects 

In late October, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand agreed to take joint action to crack down on cross-border crime and secure transportation along the Mekong River, after a meeting attended by Meng and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Kowit Wattana, Laotian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Douangchay Phichit and Myanmar's Minister of Home Affairs Ko Ko.

The four countries agreed to share intelligence and organize joint patrols.

At the meeting, it was clarified that the Chinese crew members were innocent with no link to illegal activities.

Two months after the attack, the four countries started their first joint patrol in the Mekong waters to escort plying ships.

Meanwhile, the Chinese investigation team members agreed that identifying the men in black was a priority. A drug ring led by Naw Kham, a notorious drug lord nicknamed "godfather" in the region, became the top suspect. Naw Kham's gang was believed to be responsible for a large number of cases of manslaughter, looting, armed drug trafficking, charging "protection money" and kidnapping.

An interrogation of a gang member indicated that Yi Lai, the gang's No. 3 chief had once mentioned the group's involvement in the October 5 murders.

In mid-December, Yi Lai was arrested during cooperative action by the Chinese and Laotian police. He confessed that Naw Kham and other gang members had conspired with some renegade Thai soldiers to commit the murders.

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