Thailand’s Irresistible Attraction for Fugitives

July 21, 2011

Give me your drug dealers, your money launderers, your felons on the lam yearning to breathe free. …

Thailand has never advertised itself as a beacon for fugitives, but the world’s wretched refuse, to tweak the noble words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, seem to show up here in droves.

Millions of tourists, most of them presumably without criminal records, travel to Thailand every year, drawn by the good food, lively night life and crystal waters. Fugitives come for the same reasons- plus the prospect, for some, of outliving a statute of limitations.

“Thailand has traditionally been one of the top source countries for extradition of criminals to the U.S.,” reads a March 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy obtained by WikiLeaks. The cable lists the wide variety of fugitives nabbed in Thailand over the years: child molesters, narcotics traffickers, money launderers and cybercriminals, among others.

The cable, which was sent from the embassy in Bangkok, counts 135 defendants extradited from Thailand to the United States in the past three decades and dozens more people “directly deported.”

But a scan of recent headlines in Thailand suggests that the U.S. fugitives are but a footnote on a long rap sheet of globe-trotting felons on the loose.

In the past two years, the news media here have reported the arrest in Thailand of Germans wanted for fraud and tax evasion; a man suspected of being a South Korean mafia boss; Czech bank robbers convicted of stealing several million euros (and who fled to Thailand after jumping bail while their case was under appeal); Pakistani passport forgers; a convicted Filipino murderer who was the most wanted man in the Philippines but worked in Bangkok as a jeweler; a French drug trafficker who thought he could elude the police by using his brother’s passport; the head of Japan’s second-largest organized crime syndicate; an Israeli fugitive convicted of double murder in Belgium and traveling on a forged Maldives passport; an Indian man wanted for sending a bevy of fraudulent spam; an Australian suspected of murdering a family of three; and a seemingly countless number of pedophiles.

Add to the list Viktor Bout, suspected of being an international arms dealer, who was extradited to the United States in November after a protracted legal battle in Thailand.

Many criminals seem to find refuge in Pattaya, the seedy seaside resort southeast of Bangkok known for its vast stretches of girly bars. A separate U.S. cable from 2005 said U.S. fugitives had “taken up residence in Pattaya over the years, along with people who should be getting treatment for mental illness, but are not.”

Thailand’s freewheeling society, its pliant law enforcement and a joie de vivre at budget prices are the powerful magnets for the dregs of many countries, says John Burdett, a British author of crime novels set in Thailand that delve into the country’s underworld.

“There are a number of minor reasons and one very major one why the jet-setting underground would find Thailand irresistible,” Mr. Burdett said in an e-mail. “The minor ones would include guns, girls, gambling, ganja and gorgeous beaches, especially for those recently released from confinement.”

But what makes Thailand especially attractive, Mr. Burdett said, “is the international reputation, whether deserved or not, of a compliant and bribable police force.”

Thailand’s leaders have long acknowledged that there are bad apples — some would say orchards of bad apples — among the police.

Lt. Gen. Wiboon Bangthamai, the head of the country’s immigration police, said in an interview that officials at remote border posts had been known to suffer inexplicable computer troubles when cash-rich people sought to cross Thai borders illegally.

“Officers at small border checkpoints would break the computers and let them in,” General Wiboon said.

The U.S. cables point to weak law enforcement, a country preoccupied with political problems and inconvenient geography.

“Thailand’s borders are long and extremely porous and the country is therefore vulnerable to international criminal elements of all kinds,” said the cable from 2009.

Another reason Thailand has struggled to contain its fugitive problem is that stamping out what makes the country attractive for the most-wanted might crimp the billion-dollar business of hosting all those tourists without criminal records. Thailand’s anything-goes ethos, most recently spotlighted in the Hollywood hit “The Hangover Part II,” is coupled with a deep-seated hospitality that often seems blind to a foreigner’s background and appearance.

Bangkok’s red-light districts crawl with glassy-eyed, beer-swilling foreigners who might not look out of place on the most-wanted poster on a post office wall. But as one Thai government adviser noted, it can be hard to distinguish between the felons and the investment bankers on vacation. (In some cases, presumably, they could be one and the same.)

The immigration department says it is overhauling its computer systems in the next two months, an upgrade that will combine all information about foreigners who enter and exit Thailand. As it stands now, data from the country’s many land crossings are stored separately from information about the arrivals and departures at international airports.

Fugitives “will find it hard to get in,” said Maj. Gen. Manoo Mekmok, the commander of the immigration department’s investigation and interrogation division. “Put simply, many will have to change their destination.”

Yet analysts of Thailand’s immigration system say the changes are unlikely to purge Thailand of foreign riffraff. What was supposed to be a command center for tracking fugitives at a government building in Bangkok was dark, musty and empty on a recent visit, inactive because of a lack of funds, according to the staff.

And even in highly publicized cases, suspects in Thailand sometimes just disappear.

In May, a man from the United Arab Emirates was charged with trafficking endangered animals after being arrested at Bangkok’s main airport with four baby leopards, a bear cub and two tiny monkeys. The case was front-page news in Thailand in part because of the novelty of trying to smuggle such a large menagerie through airport security.

But two weeks later, the police, without providing further details, said the suspect had missed his court date — and fled the country.

This article was written by Thomas Fuller and published by the New York Times on July 20, 2011.

To find additional global criminal news, please read The Global Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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