PADANG BESAR, Thailand — It is all clear in no man's land. At the nod of a lookout, another load of contraband goes up the ladder and over the wall.
Smuggling is the No. 1 business in southern Thailand. Padang Besar is the main field office. Here on the Malaysian border, it is a 24-hour operation. In no man's land, a 50-yard-wide strip bounded by matching Thai and Malaysian border walls, the goods pile up, awaiting an opening. The lookouts keep an eye peeled for customs agents. The agents watch for known traffickers.
"We know who they are and they know who we are," said Anan Pananan, customs chief for southern Thailand. "It's a game of cat and mouse."
It is also a game of unequal teams. Anan has about 300 agents, the majority assigned to routine work at the 14 border customs posts. The smuggling syndicates have an army.
"We call it the 'ant army,' " Anan said. "They live right on the border. They're just the small guys, but they're good."
Special Squad Picked
The customs chief has recruited a special squad, 50 picked men, to battle the army, a 1980s version of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables against Frank Nitti and the Chicago Mob. So far it has been a nonviolent struggle, a game of wits, but the stakes are high.
Anan's men seized $2 million worth of contraband last year, which he admits must be a small percentage of the smugglers' total. A tour of the shops of Hat Yai, the major city of the south, gives evidence of what slipped though the customs net: Japanese stereos, French perfume, Scotch whisky--anything of portable size for which the demand is high and the customs duty is 50% or more.
Smuggling is a particular problem to the governments of Thailand and other developing nations because customs duties are an important source of revenue. In Thailand, duties represent more than 30% of the government's receipts.
A related issue is corruption. "Money can buy everybody," observed Anan, referring in this instance to customs officers. "This is our main problem."
Agents make a starting salary of $65 a month. A soldier of the "ant army" might make twice as much.
Southern Thailand has a reputation for lawlessness. The per capita crime rate in the port city of Songkhla, for instance, is six times as high as that in Bangkok, the capital.
According to authorities, smuggling networks or syndicates are put together when an opportunity arises. The profits, while large, are not sufficient to support a full-time organization.
A major operation is bankrolled by a financial big shot, usually Chinese, these authorities say. Others in the network often have some relationship--family, school, previous business associates. "A purely Chinese operation has a sort of 'godfather' structure," said a Songkhla resident who has investigated the smuggling business.
The "ants," who move the goods across the border itself, are locals hired by the day.
In smuggling country, the cats and mice watch each other closely. Anan recounted some examples:
-- His men, ensconced in a second-floor room of a Padang Besar bordello, were watching the border wall. A truck backed up to the wall and a swarm of "ants" filled it with five-gallon tins. The agents noted that the tins appeared to be light, probably empties. They radioed a waiting customs car not to bite at the decoy shipment. As the watchers anticipated, the smugglers' truck returned to the wall. The empties were tossed over the top and replaced by tins full of dutiable vegetable oil. The truck took off and the chase was on.
-- On another occasion, Anan's men received word that contraband would be moving on a Bangkok-bound train. Agents laid plans to board the train after it left the border, but the scheme leaked. The train never left the station.
At the border, Anan lamented, "ant army" lookouts keep customs vehicles under constant surveillance.
"When one moves, everything stops," he said.
But on a recent day, two foreigners and a group of Thais, including two uniformed customs agents, walked through the no man's land at Padang Besar and found the "ants" relatively undistracted from their business. If an outsider looked directly at them, they would pause and set down their cargo. If they were climbing one of the ladders placed against the wall, they would stop and retreat to the ground.
But the minute the outsider turned his head, activity would resume.
Wall Begets Wall
The Malaysians built their wall at Padang Besar several years ago, set back from the border. The Thais responded with a wall of their own last year, directly on the border. The space between, no man's land, is technically Malaysian territory, but it is patrolled by neither side and has become a sort of smuggler's warehouse area, complete with storage buildings.
Goods come over the respective walls and are held in no man's land until the coast is clear, usually at night, to be moved out.