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Fugitives in Thailand

by Jason Armbrecht

10 November 2008

“The game is over.”  Those were reported to be the words arms dealer Viktor Bout uttered as he was confronted by American Drug Enforcement Agency and Royal Thai Police officers at the luxury Sofitel Hotel in downtown Bangkok this past March.  The man accused of arming the Taliban and helping to fuel bloody civil wars across Africa was apprehended within 24 hours of entering Thailand.  Bout’s high profile arrest was just one of a number of such arrests carried out in recent years against international fugitives who have sought refuge in one of the most popular tourist spots in the world.  Although Bout did not spend a single night in Thailand, his arrest set of an explosion of articles and op-eds around the world decrying the country’s status as “A Haven for Criminals.”  But while it’s true that Thailand harbors its fair share of criminals on the run, for many of these fugitives the game is, or will soon be, over.

The Hunted

The charms of Thailand are numerous – its beautiful beaches, quaint villages, delicious food and gracious people drew almost 15 million tourists to the country last year.  And it is these same qualities that attract criminals and fugitives.  A cursory look at a Most Wanted list shows that people on the run from the law are not fleeing  to cold, landlocked countries, they’re running to tropical climes, especially countries with access to the open ocean, such as Costa Rica, Indonesia and Thailand.  In fact, one of the FBI’s most wanted drug dealers, Stanley Litwin, is a professional sailor and thought to be living on his boat in Phuket.

Bangkok’s status as a major regional transit hub is also a big draw and the country’s visa waiver program provides visa free access for citizens of 41 countries.  Once past immigration checkpoints (or around them), the low cost of living means cheap accommodation and cheaper food.  With millions of other foreign visitors, it is quite easy to blend into the background in hotspots such as Pattaya, Samui and Phuket with few or no questions asked by the locals.

For those who desire, there is ready access to booze, drugs, girls and boys, to indulge  in combination or all at the same time.  This seamy side might have brought the FBI’s number two most wanted criminal, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger – Bin Laden heads the list - to Thailand on at least one occasion.  Reported sightings of the former head of the notorious Boston-based Winter Hill Gang whose life inspired aspects of Jack Nicholson’s character in the film ‘The Departed’, and his companion Catherine Grieg have been investigated by the FBI but Bulger is still at large.  Rumors fueled by two recent books about Bulger’s life have it that he was/is bisexual and a pedophile.  The author of a 2006 book about Bulger and his brother, a former President of the Massachusetts State Senate and later the University of Massachusetts, claims that his sexual proclivities are the reason that “the FBI are always hunting Whitey in Thailand.  It’s a favorite haunt for people like him.”

It is the “people like him”, ie sexual criminals and predators,  that are most worrying to Thai authorities  Thais, especially middle and upper class, are increasingly demanding that their children be taught English by native speakers, a demand reflected in the sharp increase in English programs, language schools and international schools.  To fill the demand for foreign teachers, schools cannot be overly discriminating and some criminals have slipped through the cracks.  While new Ministry of Education requirements are being enacted to ensure teachers are fully qualified, there is no effective system in place to keep those with criminal pasts out of the classroom.  According to an administrator at a large Bangkok language school, a criminal history check is not part of the hiring process, nor are there plans to do so.  

In recent years, Thailand has seen a number of its foreign teachers arrested on warrants for sex crimes committed in their home countries.  Americans James Betts and Earl Russell Bonds were arrested within two weeks of each other in February of this year.  Betts was busted in an undercover sting operation sending pornographic emails to what he thought was a 14 year old boy (it was a police officer) and charged with 184 counts of child pornography.  He turned over his computer to the authorities and then promptly fled to Thailand before his trial.  A change of address on his pilot’s license led the local sheriff’s office and the Department of Justice to Thailand, where Thai police tracked him down working for a boy’s school.

Bonds, charged in 2004 on four counts of molesting a minor, also fled before his trial.  The FBI tracked him down in Phuket, where he had been working as an English teacher and freelance writer.  Writing under the name Chris Bonds, he was awarded first prize in a local fiction contest for a story about a boy who had been sexually abused by his father. 

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