Friday, December 3, 2010

Our SE Asia encounter with smugglers or drug traffickers

July 17, 2010

I am writing this while it is fresh in memory, but delaying publishing date of this blog entry until we are cleared out of Malaysia for the final time.  I am writing this blog to warn future travelers to be very aware at all times of what is happening around them, especially on trains and buses.

We took the overnight train from Bangkok on July 13, 2010 to Butterworth, Malaysia. At the last Thailand stop before reaching the Malaysian border, 2 women and a man wearing a blue train uniform shirt boarded the train carrying several large plastic bags. It is not unusual for passengers in this part of the world to carry their belongings in plastic garbage bags. Both women were dressed in long pants and long-sleeved tops and appeared to be somewhere in the 50 to 60 year age range.

Bill and I were sitting with Zachary and Elisabeth at one of the tables between 2 of our seats playing cards. One of the women started to sit in our other 2 seats across the aisle. We told her that these were our seats and she moved. We had booked 4 seats in coach #3 (berths 9, 10, 11 and 12) on this train and this afforded us 4 beds, upper and lower on each side of the train. These seats fold down at night and make into lower beds, and there are upper berths that fold down to become the upper beds. During the daytime, the upper berths are folded back up and securely locked into place by a porter with a key.

The woman then attempted to sit in another seat and the occupant there also told her to move out of his seat. She tried a third seat and was successful in finding an unoccupied seat that time. The second woman sat across the aisle from her. I did not notice where the man sat, simply assumed he was working somewhere on the train. These women very obviously did not have tickets for this train but I assumed they were family or friends of the man in the train uniform shirt and that he was letting them ride without paying the fare. None of my business.

We tired of playing cards and Elisabeth and I moved across the aisle to our correct seats. From this seat I was facing the first woman who was sitting in the next set of seats toward the middle of the train from our seats. I only noticed her because she pulled out a brush and make-up and was freshening up. Then she pulled out a black headscarf like the kind commonly worn by Muslim women in Malaysia. I pointed out to Elisabeth that the woman must have been shopping in Thailand and didn't wear her scarf, but now that she was going home to Malaysia that she was covering up again. Certainly implied to us that wearing the headscarf was not her choice if she took it off when outside Malaysia.

Very soon the train stopped at the Thailand/Malaysia border. All passengers were required to disembark carrying all their luggage and belongings. Soon our passports were stamped out of Thailand and we walked to the opposite end of the building and were stamped into Malaysia. While the passengers were clearing out of one country and into the other, the train moved one train length forward --- from Thailand and into Malaysia. All passengers completed the Malaysian formalities with Customs and Immigration and again boarded the train and moved to their ticketed seats. All very normal procedures.

About half-hour later the porter came to our seats and unlocked one of our upper berths. Actually, he first came and unlatched the safety straps and put the key into place to unlock it; but he looked down the train and saw something and stopped his actions and walked away. I had Zachary re-latch the safety straps. Several minutes later the porter returned and unlatched the safety straps again and used his key to open the berth. He folded the upper berth partially down and removed a bed pillow and one of the large plastic garbage bags that the women had brought aboard. We recognized the bag because of its color and shape. The porter re-locked the upper berth in place and re-latched the safety straps and walked away with the plastic bag to the toilet area at the end of our coach.

This struck us as very strange and our antennae went up. There was plenty of room for that bag to have been stored beneath any number of seats, including the seats where the women were sitting. They brought it aboard and then it was hidden in our berth without our knowledge. Why? That bag was not inside our berth when the bed was folded up a few hours earlier. That was most definitely not our bag; we had no plastic garbage bags on this trip. That bag was not inside our berth when we got off the train to clear out of Thailand. Yet it was locked inside our berth when the train moved forward into Malaysia. That short time period was the only time that we had not been physically present in our seats beneath that upper berth. Why was this bag locked in our berth?

We watched the porter do the same thing at another berth. We again recognized the plastic bag by its color and shape as being one of the ones brought aboard by the 2 women . That berth was also occupied by a westerner, not an Asian. Very strange that 2 bags had been hidden in berths occupied by 2 westerners during the time the train cleared into Malaysia and the passengers were clearing Customs.

By this time both Bill and I were closely watching the porter and the 2 women and the man in the blue train uniform shirt and trying to figure out exactly what was going on. The porter placed both the large plastic garbage bags near the toilet area of our coach. One of the women walked to that area and pulled out one of the metal ladders that were stored in a slot under a steel cabinet near the sinks open to the aisle area. The ladder had several rungs. Behind the farthest rung was a third plastic bag. She removed it and placed it with the other 2 bags that the porter had taken from the locked berths. Bill walked to the toilet and got a good look at the bags on the floor. Each was filled with plastic wrapped "bricks" or rectangles approximately 10"X5"X4". The plastic wrapped on each brick was a dark tan or light brown in color and it was not possible to see the contents.

Both women changed headscarves to different colors than the ones they had worn when they cleared into Malaysia.

To sum up so far: 2 women and a man dressed as a train employee boarded the train without tickets at the final stop in Thailand before reaching the Malaysian border; the women changed their appearance/clothing to appear Muslim and cleared into Malaysia; large plastic bags filled with bricks of something were hidden inside 2 locked berths ticketed to western travelers and another plastic bag filled with the same bricks had been hidden inside a metal ladder slot; the women again changed their appearance/clothing to different colors.

The train continued toward our final destination. About an hour passed and the train again stopped at a small terminal before our final destination. The two women, the man in the uniform shirt and several other people exited the train with a total of about 8 plastic garbage bags.

There is no doubt in our minds that smuggling was going on before our eyes. And there were obviously many people involved including some train employees. We have no idea if authorities were involved. We do not know what they were smuggling, but suspect drugs. The penalties for trafficking drugs and smuggling varies by country, in Malaysia that sentence is death.

We cannot help thinking about what would have happened to us or the other traveler if the officials had found those bags hidden in our upper berths. We intend to write a letter to the US Embassy in Malaysia, including photographs of the people involved. We could not forgive ourselves if we let this go unreported and another American is caught unaware. I remember reading about an American young woman who was arrested in one of the SE Asian countries for drug smuggling and she insisted that she knew nothing about any drugs. Like most people, I figured she was guilty since the drugs were in her bags. Now I am not so certain of her guilt. This could happen to anyone. It could also happen in the USA with transportation workers using your luggage to transport drugs from one airport to another. Really scary to think about the possibilities.

Profiling grandmothers for drug trafficking may be a good thing, especially if they are, or are pretending to be, Muslim.

I will not complain the next time I see a grandmotherly type singled out by TSA.

August 3, 2010  Update

Last night Bill met with a special drug enforcement task force in Johor Bahru.  Someone we know and trust put Bill in contact with the leader of this task force.   They were aware of this smuggling ring but have not been able to identify the players.  They were very appreciative of the photos the Bill had managed to get.  They had no idea that older people were transporting this stuff but they did know that some train employees had to be involved in some way.  They said these folks are smuggling heroin into Thailand from Tehran and then into Malaysia.  The photos will help them identify the players.  And our description of how the smuggling process was handled at the border also helps. 

1 comment:

  1. Freaky, Judy! Thanks for sharing this. We're happily moored in Sydney now and not sure if/when we'll get to Malaysia (hopefully that's a 'when', though!)... but this is fascinating. Good onya, as they say in Oz, for being so alert.


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