It is hard to defend a number of law enforcement practices in Thailand. I write a crime series. In the process of writing, I’ve researched the Thai police realm from investigation to laying charges. The feature of Thai policing largely—for better and worse—in each of the 12 Vincent Calvino novels. I also was a law professor for ten years.
My background gives me a perspective on Thomas Fuller’s NYT article titled Thailand’s Irresistible Attraction to Fugitives that leads with deadline Bangkok:
Bangkok: 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.
Foreign fugitives “in droves?” It makes Bangkok sound like there’s a foreign gangster on every corner. If that’s the case, they are well hidden. As far as I know there is no Index that ranks countries according to bolt-hole attractiveness for those on the lam. Fuller’s speculation is that Thailand would top that list. I doubt it. I seriously doubt that Thailand would make the top twenty in such an Index. And I’d wager that the USA would have a higher ranking (more about that later). What’s the evidence for this influx of foreign fugitives? A WikiLeaks cable that came out of the US embassy in Bangkok. And some news reports of foreign murderers and child molesters arrested over the past couple of years.
A popular fall back rationale for all of these fugitives in Thailand is that the police and immigration officials are corrupt. No one could say with a straight face that that corruption doesn’t exist in the police force in Thailand. That’s separate issue. The question is whether corruption is a credible explanation for all of these fugitive criminals hiding out in Thailand? Even as a fiction crime writer, I would find it hard work to show how the cops would find where these criminals were hiding. Of course they could stop every dodgy looking farang on the street and run them through a series of questions about crimes they might have committed. Obviously that might be fun to contemplate, in reality it is a non-starter.
You might ask, why not catch these criminals as they try to sneak into the airport in Bangkok? The tourist presents her/his passport as an immigration officer examines the passport, then the tourist, before asking:
IM: Mr. Tourist, do you have any outstanding conviction against you?
IM: Do you have any suspicion of anyone about to lay charges against you?
Tourist: Well, come to think of it there was that murder in Chicago.
There’s a perfectly good reason this line of questioning—and with that ending—just won’t happen. First criminals would lie through their teeth. Second, about 20 million tourists are expected to visit Thailand this year. It would take a countless hours, and the additional recruitment of thousands of personnel, not to mention new software to process a due diligence investigation on each person. After six months of queuing at the airport, the annual holiday would be over for most people only to be told when it was their turn, they’d already overstayed their visa and were subject to deportation.
Let’s say that we profile people who look shady. Twenty million Tourists is still a pretty large number. What is the pay off for looking for people who have broken a law outside of Thailand?
Some facts. That Wikileak US Embassy cable indicated that over the period of 30 years, 135 people were extradited from Thailand to the States. That works out to 4.5 criminals a year who were returned to the States. This isn’t my definition of ‘droves’ foreign criminals or any other species. Try finding 4.5 of something in a vat of 20 million something and see how easy that is. When I lived in New York City in the mid-80s, 4.5 criminal acts per hour would have been closer to the mark. And most of them looked pretty foreigner, and I suspect they were all wanted back in their home countries for some felony or other. So now 4.5 American fugitives hiding in Thailand per year is new threshold for news from Thailand to get reported in The New York Times.
And talking about the American system, of course a foreigner getting a visa can be a problem, but the daily traffic of people sneaking in from Mexico and Canada into the States no doubt includes people running from the law. And I suspect those numbers are substantially in excess of 135 people over a 30-year period—people who have committed crimes, who have been convicted of crimes, and who are on the run. Of course we have no way of knowing for sure.
Mexico isn’t likely firing up a room of lawyers to request return of their bad guys. They’re probably glad to get rid of them. Let the Americans deal with them. That wouldn’t be a bad policy. Saves the cost of prison, courts, and prosecutors. There are laws against dumping of goods, but as far as I know there’s no law to prevent one country dumping their criminals into another one. Over 30 years, I suspect more than 135 Thai nationals have elected to hide out in the USA rather than return to Thailand.
Stories like the NYT article circulate for a while and die. A couple of years ago according to the BBC, Brazil was the international haven for criminals on the lam. Some websites feature top ten lists of criminal hiding places. Anyone can play the game. Some seem to have a better grasp of how the world is organized than others. Here’s one with Canada in the number one slot and Wisconsin at number 10. Someone at the website must think that Canada is a state like Wisconsin is a state. And suspicious countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Cuba find their places somewhere on the list.
No doubt about it. The world is a shrinking place for international fugitives. Modern technology will wipe out the usual hiding places. Fugitives will have to disappear deep in to whatever jungle remains and live in caves. Where we can reach consensus (at least among our friends) are the people we’d personally like to put on a fugitive wanted list and who is hiding out and scratching mosquito bites and heat rash.
Make your list. Sleep on it. Then tomorrow send it to The New York Times. I am certain they’d be happy to print it.