Laos 'drug kingpin' denies Thai smuggling charges

Suspected Laotian drug kingpin Xaysana Keopimpha arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok on April 18, 2017.

BANGKOK - An alleged Laos drug lord linked to some of Thailand's rich and famous denied being a major player in the regional narcotics trade when he appeared in a Bangkok court Tuesday.

Xaysana Keopimpha, 42, was nabbed by Thai police on his way through Bangkok's main airport in January, shining a rare spotlight on communist Laos' shadowy role in the Southeast Asian pill trade.

Narcotics cops alleged he was an "international drug kingpin" and trumpeted his capture in a part of the world where major cartel figures are not big names in criminal folklore and are rarely caught.

The heavy-set Xaysana faces a string of charges including drug smuggling and possession - mainly of methamphetamine, which is known in Thai as "yaba" or crazy medicine for its effect on addicts.

Suspected drug lord linked to Thailand and Laos celebrities

  • Xaysana Keopimpha, an alleged drug warlord from Laos was arrested in Bangkok on January 19 after police were tipped off that he and three other people were flying in from Phuket.
  • According to Thai police, his network has cultivated unprecedented connections, with celebrities both in Thailand and Laos believed to have assisted him with money laundering and asset concealment.
  • “He had portrayed himself as a rich man from Laos. When he came here, he threw parties inviting entertainment figures and celebrities from many other fields of Thailand as guests. After the ties developed, he used them for money laundering,” said police.
  • His Facebook account shows only sporadic activity, with his latest post being an update of his profile photo on December 19.
  • But a few photos show selfies taken with luxury cars such as Lamborghinis and Mercedes-Benzes, which appear to have been taken at his house in Laos.
  • Xaysana, known in Laos as Hia Lop, was born in Khammouane province of Laos, opposite Nakhon Phanom’s Ta Uten district in Thailand.
  • Social network users have been accustomed to seeing photos of Xaysana posing with the country’s celebrities and young family members of politicians.
  • Famous Thai bike racer “Benz Racing”, who is married to a well-known actress, is the first celebrity to be exposed as an alleged accomplice in Xaysana’s network in Thailand.
  • Akarakit Worarojcharoendet, who is better known as “Benz Racing”, is married to Thai actress Napapa “Patt” Tantrakul, who is pregnant.
  • Police suspect that several celebrities in Thailand might have assisted Xaysana with money laundering and asset concealment.
  • Napapa’s elder brother, Anucha Tankrakul, said yesterday that Akarakit had talked to him over the phone and denied any involvement in the drug trade.
  • Akarakit Worarojcharoendet reported himself to police at the Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB) at 3.30pm Friday. Accompanying him was his mother and a lawyer.

"He denies all the charges," said his lawyer Vorakon Phongtanakul, adding his client had also backtracked on a confession he allegedly signed in police custody.

"He didn't understand Thai laws and officials told him he could change his plea at court," Vorakon said.

Under Thai law the maximum penalty for drug smuggling is death though the country has not executed anyone for years.

Xaysana's arrest drew widespread coverage in Thailand after police said a string of celebrities, including a famous soap opera star, and wealthy individuals were linked to his smuggling network.

Thai police have linked him to a massive seizure of 1.2 million methamphetamine pills made shortly before his arrest. Such pills are hugely popular across Southeast Asia.

The Golden Triangle, a region in the borderlands of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and southern China, is the world's second largest drug-producing region after Latin America.

Large amounts of opium and heroin and hundreds of millions of methamphetamine pills are churned out in remote jungle labs each year and smuggled through the Golden Triangle across Asia and beyond.

Read also: 3 police and celebrities linked to Lao drug lord

Porous borders and rampant corruption have allowed the lucrative drug trade to flourish.

Yet compared to Latin America, cartel leaders face little risk and garner none of the public notoriety.

Drug experts say Thai, Chinese, Myanmar and Malaysian police make frequent arrests and seizures but rarely catch any top figures, and there is little information on Xaysana's seniority in the criminal chain.

Laos is seen as a particularly weak link in efforts to combat the trade.

Read also: Malaysian linked to Laos drug lord arrested

Thai police say Xaysana flaunted his wealth, owning a string of luxury sports cars - some of which were seized by police - and travelling frequently to Bangkok where he held parties for members of the city's so-called "hi-so" (high society) elite.

A photo of the suspected drug lord posing with relatives of a former Laos prime minister also raised eyebrows.

The ex-premier's daughter-in-law later told Radio Free Asia the photo was taken "by accident" and Xaysana was only a casual acquaintance.

Read also: Lao drug lord linked to alleged drug networks in south Thailand and Malaysia