By Patrick Winn, GlobalPost.com
By day, this is a forgettable farming village, a speck of civilization sprung from the Mekong River banks.
Buffalo and man work the earth, scenting the breeze with toiled dirt. Teenagers zip along rice pastures on noisy motorbikes. Across the river, Laos’ scrubby shore is visible through a silver mist.
But after nightfall, the howling begins.
Long-haul trucks chug into town with stinking loads, bound for makeshift platforms on the Mekong. Though tarps cover their cargo, there is no mistaking it: the nuclear-strength musk of fur, urine and frightened animal. Each truck can carry more than 700 dogs. Their stink singes the throat.
There is no permanent, sanctioned border crossing in the village of Baan Pehng. But each night, the riverbanks here come alive with cargo trucks, long-tail boats and smugglers working in sync to smuggle roughly 1,000 dogs across the border.
No fees, no customs, no inspections. Just cage after cage of stray dogs, freshly caught from the Thai countryside, secretly transported to Laos and trucked to Hanoi-area abattoirs.
“All this exportation of dogs, it’s a mafia,” says Phumpat Pachonsap, a motorcycle dealer who represents the Nakhon Phanom province in parliament for Thailand’s Bhumjai Thai party.
Recently, Phumpat has taken the parliament floor to recount the dog trade’s ills: animal cruelty, the spread of rabies, unchecked smuggling – even the rancid smell. So far, he says, his pleas have been met with apathy and even threats from other politicians.
“There hasn’t been a crackdown because the officials, the police, they all take bribes,” he says. “It’s deceitful. It’s corruption.”
According to police sources, politicians and traffickers themselves, the trade exports more than 30,000 dogs per month — and even more as winter approaches. During chilly weather, the meat is ceremonially consumed to warm the body.
Though reviled by mainstream Thai society, killing and eating dogs carries no legal penalty. Much of the other laws broken by regional dog traffickers — such as noise disturbance and transporting unvaccinated animals — are largely unenforced.
But Baan Pehng’s underground ports constitute the dog trade’s most criminal element: nightly cross-border smuggling. The village is ideal for trafficking to Vietnam, separated by only a 100-mile sliver of Laos.
Convincing authorities to tolerate the illegal ports requires extensive pay-offs, traffickers and police say. One inside source in Baan Pehng says the bribes amount to 25 baht per smuggled dog — about 75 cents — paid to a local administrator who provides a one-stop kickback service that divvies the cash out to every necessary authority.
“It’s a big network involving low-level politicians to high-level politicians … who then use it to fund their political activities,” says Phumpat. “I’m just asking the politicians and police to not look the other way. To follow the law.”
But provincial and customs police largely regard dog smuggling as minor compared to other illicit imports, such as drugs and illegal immigrants.
“Don’t give so much attention to these dogs,” says Maj. Gen. Panamporn Eithiprasert, chief of Nakhon Phanom province. The chief, who claims the highest volume of narcotic seizures in the region, insists that chasing dog traffickers would only distract from real police work.
“With drugs, even a small amount can ruin lives. With illegal immigrants, they take jobs from Thais,” he says. “But stray dogs? Is anyone taking something from us that we value?”
Baan Pehng’s mayor, in a 2007 Thai TV documentary, compared dog collectors to garbage men. “Society says those who trade dogs are low-lifes. But I’m a politician and I say it’s an honest business,” Mayor Narong Pansan told reporters. “It’s like selling garbage to foreigners for a profit.”
Villagers tend to regard dog syndicate bosses as Capone-like figures: untouchable, connected and extremely wealthy.
Baan Pehng locals say one smuggling boss paid tribute to his profession by commissioning a statue of a helmeted dog, displayed on a pole on his front lawn. Another recently murdered boss, a female called “Jae Gim,” still inspires wild rumors from the grave.
“She owned 50 cars,” says Tassanee Hemha, who runs of a home-based dog meat eatery in Nakhon Phanom province. “She was very rich, for sure. But they say she overpromised the Vietnamese.”
At $10 per dog, the price Lao or Vietnamese distributors are said to pay Thai traffickers, a night’s profit can easily reach into the tens of thousands. If 1,000 are smuggled per day — the most widely accepted estimate — the trade could generate as much as $3.6 million each year for Thai dog syndicates.
Others insist the traffic is much heavier. “I’ve seen 5,000 cross in one night. Never less than 2,000,” says Somchai, a former elected official and retired tobacco farmer in Baan Pehng. Publishing his full name, he says, would lead to payback from dog traffickers.
Somchai’s country estate sits within earshot of the noisy, illegal piers. He has only seen the traffickers shut down once: during this year’s swine flu scare. “There was some scrutiny then,” he says. “But, mostly, they never stop. The countryside will never run out of dogs to catch and sell.”
By the Mekong, Somchai revealed a string of muddy ports littered with bamboo ramps. Each was linked to the highway by cratered paths.
By 10 p.m., the first transfer truck arrived, creaking under the weight of 700-plus dogs. Through a gauzy tarp draped over the cages, hundreds of eyes flickered in the dark. The high yips and guttural woofs sounded out across the fields for miles.
“It’s noisy. It’s disgusting. It reeks … and outsiders mock us,” Phumpat says. “We just can’t allow this.”
Next in The Dog Meat Mafia: Conscience. Many Thais wonder whether Southeast Asia's booming dog meat trade is animal cruelty, or taking out society's trash.
Start at the beginning of The Dog Meat Mafia.