Cambodia's Black Sheep Return to Fold

Times Staff Writer

When he lived in Southern California, Mao So says, he drove a luxury Integra, owned two houses and routinely made $100,000 drug deals. He had money to burn and bodyguards to protect him. Today, he lives in a small apartment here in the muggy Cambodian capital. He borrows a motorbike to get around and scrapes by on $200 a month his grandmother sends from Santa Ana.

A convicted felon, So has returned unwillingly to the land of his birth -- a country he can't even remember. At 25, the member of the Tiny Rascals gang has spent more time in California prisons than he has in his homeland.

"I used to live in the fast lane," he says. "I lived a good life. I came here and I'm stuck. I think, what the hell am I going to do here?"

So is one of about 1,400 Cambodian-born felons being shipped here after serving time in the United States. Among them are murderers, rapists, armed robbers, sex offenders, gangbangers and drug dealers.

Forget the Peace Corps. America is sending Cambodia the Prison Corps.

Under an agreement reached in March 2002 between the two countries, the U.S. will deport about 10 felons a month to Phnom Penh for the next decade. So far, 46 have arrived.

While the U.S. government is pleased to be ridding itself of so many troublemakers, critics worry that it is exporting criminals and gang battles to a country that is still recovering from three decades of nearly continuous warfare.

"This is America's contribution to Cambodia's development," said Bill Herod, an American minister who founded the Returnee Assistance Project to help the former prisoners. "I understand why the U.S. wants to deport such people, but these are young human beings. How can we find a place for these people to fit in?"

Cambodia is not alone in receiving convicts. Most countries take back citizens who have committed serious crimes in the United States.

Cambodia is unusual, however, both in the political fragility of the country and the history of those who are returning. Nearly all of the returnees came to the U.S. as political refugees escaping the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of Communist leader Pol Pot, the ruthless former teacher whose regime slaughtered more than 1 million people from 1975 to 1979.

Most of the returnees left as small children in 1979 and 1980 and have no memory of Cambodia. Some were born in refugee camps and have never been here. Most lost family members and many grew up without a mother or father. Many do not speak the Khmer language or know the customs of Cambodia.

"They are products of the United States," Herod said. "If they have done bad things, they got off on this track because of their life in the United States."

As refugees, they were eligible to become U.S. citizens but never did. Some didn't bother to apply. Others believed that as permanent U.S. residents they could never be kicked out. That was a mistake.

In 1996, Congress enlarged the list of crimes labeled "aggravated felonies," greatly expanding the number of noncitizens who can be deported. Cambodia, unlike most countries, had never agreed to accept its felons. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. stepped up efforts to remove undesirable foreigners. Critics say the Bush administration threatened to withhold visas for Cambodians and to block international loans if the country didn't sign a deportation pact.

An official at the U.S. Embassy here acknowledges that Washington applied "pressure" on Cambodia to sign. Now that the two countries have reached agreement, there is a backlog of Cambodian-born prisoners eligible for removal. Some have completed their prison sentences and are being held in U.S. immigration camps while they await deportation.

Returnees here arrive in a country ravaged by civil war. More than a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Corruption is rampant. The Khmer Rouge nearly succeeded in exterminating the educated class and the effects are still felt today. Educational opportunities are limited and 65% of the adult population is illiterate.

The country is ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge fighter who turned against the Communists and aspires to be Cambodia's strongman. Despite international efforts to establish a war crimes tribunal, no one has been held accountable for the genocide.

To keep a flood of felons from overwhelming Cambodia, the U.S. agreed not to deliver them all at once. Washington pays Cambodia $100 to process each returnee but provides no resettlement assistance. The former prisoners are on their own once they arrive.

"Cambodia is in a unique situation," explained the embassy official, who asked not to be identified. "There are a lot of opportunities for the deportees to create new lives for themselves and, if they choose, to become productive citizens."

Herod, who is desperate for funds to aid the growing number of arrivals, argues that Washington should take greater responsibility for returnees.

"They don't know anything about Cambodia," he said. "They don't have any interest in Cambodia. They are being told they must live here for the rest of their lives and they don't want to."

He is especially concerned that U.S. gang rivalries will be imported to this nation.

"Hundreds of members of opposing gangs will be arriving and will want to continue their gang warfare in Phnom Penh," he said. "The propensity for violence is there. The anger and frustration are there. I regard this as a growing crisis that requires serious intervention."

Of the 46 who have arrived so far, Herod said, most are in their 20s. Many come from Southern California, the home of the largest Cambodian immigrant population in the U.S.

There are a number of gang members like So, but not all are hardened criminals. One is an 80-year-old man who would have spent his remaining years in U.S. immigration camps. A few suffer from mental disabilities.

One returnee initially landed in jail when he violated a restraining order prohibiting him from contacting his wife and children, Herod said. The man was arrested again when he encountered his wife in public with another man and slapped her. He pleaded guilty without realizing it would mean his deportation. After serving four months of a one-year sentence, he was shipped out.

Another returnee was a construction foreman in Houston who was arrested for urinating in public. He was put on six years' probation. Five years and 11 months later, he was caught urinating in public again. The offense itself is a misdemeanor, but violating probation is a felony.

The man's wife said she would bring their two children and join him in Cambodia. But after he landed, Herod said, she changed her mind. Today he is one of the most successful returnees. He works as an oil company representative and makes $250 a month, well above the average Cambodian salary.

Mao So was a year old when he left Cambodia in 1979. His grandmother took him across the border to Thailand and from there to the United States. Growing up, he said, he always believed that she was his mother. Only when he was about to be deported did she tell him that his real mother was living in Cambodia.

When he was 14, he began selling drugs to fellow students at Santa Ana High School, he said. At 15, he could make $500 in a day. He joined the Tiny Rascals and dropped out of school.

His grandmother encouraged him to apply for citizenship, but it was too much trouble.

So said he worked his way up in the gang until he was handling drug deals throughout the U.S. He had 20 armed men working for him, he said, and sold cocaine, ecstasy and "anything you can think of."

"I was the businessman at the top," he said.

So said he bought a six-bedroom home on the edge of Long Beach for $800,000 in the late '90s and used that as a party house and base of operations. He kept a smaller house in Santa Ana for his grandmother, girlfriend and twin sons, now 6.

He believes he was caught after he paid cash for an Integra. He said he gave the salesman $20,000 not to report the transaction, but that wasn't enough.

So said he pleaded guilty to drug charges and served 2 1/2 years of a 5-year sentence. After his release from prison in December 2001, he spent a year at an immigration camp in Bakersfield awaiting deportation.

By the time of his arrest, a rival gangster had put a price of $225,000 on his head. So and Herod said a thug who was once hired to kill the Cambodian has also been deported here. However, So said they are on friendly terms now.

So arrived in Cambodia on Dec. 5 and is trying to make the best of his new life.

"I just drink and party every day," he said. He can speak some Khmer and realizes that this could be his chance to start over. But he also knows that America's gang wars could spring up in Cambodia.

"There are a lot of killers coming," he said. "I hope it doesn't happen. I don't want to start a war here in Cambodia."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°