HANOI (AFP) – Two alleged heroin kingpins in Vietnam were killed in a shootout with police following a dramatic days-long standoff at their tunnel hideout in a mountainous northern border zone near Laos, authorities said on Friday.
Deadly clashes with police are extremely rare in the country, which has some of the toughest drug laws in the world.
Major drug busts are common in the areas close to Laos where tonnes of narcotics stream in through the porous borders every year.
Few were as dramatic as the shootout this week that left two cartel bosses and one of their staff dead. Another three dealers were arrested in the operation that also unearthed a large arms cache.
Around 200 police and armoured trucks barrelled into the area in northern Son La province on Wednesday around where the cartel was hiding out in manmade tunnels that were manned by armed guards.
Police and guards exchanged fire in a two-day standoff in the small village close to the Laos border.
“We killed three men in the attacks, two of them the ring leaders,” a Son La police source told AFP, declining to be named.
“Another three men were arrested alive while police confiscated four guns and rifles, three grenades and hundreds of bullets,” the report said.
The bosses, Nguyen Thanh Tuan and Nguyen Van Thuan, were believed to have moved nearly a tonne of heroin in their years running the drug ring.
Police were first tipped off about the cartel in a 2015 bust of 120 kilogrammes of heroin hidden inside gas canisters in the area, according to the Cong An Nhan Dan newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Vietnam’s Public Security Ministry.
Security was tight in the area on Friday as police hunted some members of the cartel believed to have gone into hiding.
Earlier this year police made a record seizure of USD3 million worth of heroin hidden inside tea packets smuggled in from Laos.
The heroin was being transported through Vietnam to a third country, though officials did not say where.
Vietnam is a key transit point in the “Golden Triangle” drug trade, a region that cuts across parts of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
The area is awash with drugs including synthetics, much of it pumped out of Myanmar’s Shan state.
This week, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos marked the International Day against Drug Abuse by torching huge stockpiles of narcotics.
Record seizures and arrests of low-level smugglers have become routine. But the capture or killing of cartel bosses remains rare across Southeast Asia.
The United Nations and others called for regional governments to stamp out corruption to stem the flow of drugs, with local police accused of turning a blind eye – or even profitting from – the illegal trade.
Vietnam’s no-nonsense drug laws are some of the most severe in the world.
Anyone possessing or smuggling 600 grammes of heroin or more than 2.5 kilogrammes of methamphetamines could face death.