Police in Laos have confirmed the arrest of one of the country’s biggest drug kingpins as part of a crackdown on dozens of suspected smugglers over a five-month period ending in late January.
Khonpasong Soukkaseum, also known as Xiengther, was taken into custody on Jan. 10, Thonglek Mangnormek, director of the General Department of Police under the Ministry of Public Security, said at a recent press conference.
“Police arrested Khonpasong Soukkaseum … in Vientiane along with three of his associates,” Thonglek said, adding that the Lao national is “a major drug trader” on a scale even larger than Xaysana Keophimpha—a Lao methamphetamine kingpin who was arrested on Jan. 19 in Thailand.
At the Feb. 15 press conference, Thonglek said Khonpasong’s arrest was part of a crackdown on five drug syndicates that led police to take 33 people into custody since September, seizing drug stockpiles, weapons, jewelry and cash in the process. Various assets believed connected to drug activities have been frozen, he added.
Authorities also arrested several people on Feb. 14 who had attempted to bribe them in exchange for the release of a top-level drug dealer, according to the police director.
“On Feb. 14, police arrested a certain group of people who tried to bribe them with 30 million (Thai) baht (U.S. $855,500) in exchange for the release of a drug kingpin,” Thonglek said.
“The group proposed to pay 10 million baht (U.S. $285,000) up front and another 20 million baht (U.S. $570,000) after the release.”
Thonglek did not provide the names of those arrested or who they had sought to free from custody with the bribe.
In late January, a source close to Khonpasong’s family told RFA’s Lao Service that police in Laos arrested him along with his wife and one of his sons in Khammuane province as they drove home to the capital Vientiane from a wedding in the southern province of Champasak.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said at the time that Khonpasong was taken into custody on Jan. 13 after police first arrested another one of his sons on drug-dealing charges in northern Laos’ Bokeo province a few days earlier.
Khonpasong, a native of Khoua district in northern Laos’ Phongsaly province, resettled in Vientiane in the 1990s, operated entertainment venues with sex workers and gambling houses, and sold illegal drugs—methamphetamine—in Kham-houng village, according to the source.
Police were believed to have confiscated Khonpasong’s property, including his vehicles, houses, and a hotel in Vientiane—part of assets valued at around U.S. $100 million, according to some estimates, although police have refrained from making an official statement about his net worth.
According to Thonglek, drug syndicate investigations are ongoing, but the police director sought to assure reporters at the February press conference that Khonpasong and Xaysana are the “big fish” at the top of the food chain.
Many in Laos have questioned whether the arrests will effectively bring down the drug trade and dole out justice to those who benefit from it. Photos posted online suggest that Khonpasong and Xaysana enjoy close ties to the country’s business and political, and are not afraid to use their connections to move into legitimate industries such as logging, rubber and hospitality.
In response to questions over why Lao police had waited a month to address the media about the arrests, Thonglek said authorities believed that doing so would have compromised their ongoing investigations.
The police director did not say whether Lao authorities planned to request the extradition of Xaysana, who is currently in Thai custody, citing a need to look into relevant laws first.
Xaysana associate Sisouk Dao-heuang—another of the country’s major drug dealers who runs a luxury car business in Vientiane—is being sought by both Lao and Thai police.