Bui Vien – surveillance state ?

A lot has been cleaned up in Pham Ngu Lao in recent times. A concerted effort existed to clear the park of drug abusers and late night criminals and it was noticeable the way shortly afterwards you could walk through the park in the early hours of the morning and not see people slouched over, sleeping unusually, camping or hanging around in a shifty manner.

But it seems that the hard drug trade has still been flourising in the alleyways, even if not so much on the street corners. In one of my local alleyways I once observed a woman pouring coloured tablets out from a large bag to a street vender girl and they were definitely not children’s candy. I always knew that some of the local older women were known to loan-shark and deal in various things but I mind my own business and smile at my local neighbourhood people as much as possible and try my best to get along. But there’s always the word “mafia” whispered from time to time from people in the know while subtly gesturing to some person with a stern face parking motorbikes or dishing out food or counting wads of cash. But they weren’t the sort of people that westerners imagine as mafia. I’d heard some of the younger street vendors, in their private moments to me refer to old sinh to vendors and other smiling older salespeople as “mafia” due to them investing money in one way or another in people or enterprises.

This week, while sitting on the street with a friend, we saw a police truck arrive with no less than seven officers who parked across from where we were sitting and walked off into the alley with great purpose. We raised our eyebrows and looked at each other and went “Hrmm, this’ll be worth watching”. After some time, the majority of the group came out escoring one of the more short, elderly women from the local alley. A woman I’d bought cigarette papers or rum off at some point and who I stepped aside with a polite nod for as she was sweeping outside her house. They had her surrounded and they took her off to the station. A large number of the women in the street followed to the corner or the alley and stood there looking unhappily after the police officers as the final one walked out of the alley. Their faces were not happy, but also mostly just a bit gossipy and disapproving.

Not a great deal of time passed and I expected to see her exit the station on foot after processing for some minor infringement, but that wasn’t what happened. The truck left the station with all lights and sirens blazing and headed off down the street with as much purpose as the officers who had stepped out of it earlier, with the old woman in the back. My friend and I hrrmmed at each other and threw around some theories before turning to the shop manager in between beers and asking “The old woman. What’d they take her for ? The police ?” and he in a very matter of fact tone he said “Heroin” and my friend said “I knew it man. Someone from the next alley got busted in that exact same way a week or so ago and it happened just like that. That’s two big busts of local residents in the same block for heroin”.

It was maybe the following day that I was coming home and I noticed some guys that I assumed were from VNPT with some wires laid out on the street, and I thought nothing of it other than the fact that I should have noticed that the wires were not the usual black ones, as I stepped over them. The following day I heard some noise outside the window and I noticed a guy with a hardhat looking up from the ground grinning and saw me poking my head out. I wondered again but didn’t connect the events until today when my friend pointed across the street and said “You notice the new wires ?” and I looked up at the usual rat’s nest which I had seen slowly grow over the years into the current mess of fibre and coax and I said, with my IT geek showing, “They’re blue. That’s networking cable. What is that doing up there ? Who runs cat5 down the street in a VNPT bundle ?” My friend commented “Follow it .. see what it’s connected to. Look at the street sign above the hem”. My eyes tracked it and I looked up and said “Oh. Oh there’s a CAMERA there. That’s like a little commercial grade networked security camera with LED lights and stuff”. He pointed further down the street and said “Next hem too man. The police have wired up. They’re watching the alleys now. The drug alleys”.

Interestingly, many of the locals hadn’t even noticed themselves. I’m not sure how long it’ll take before the word spreads around but with the bright blue network cables standing out and the white cameras perched atop the old street signs it surely won’t take long. And that was how the PNL police department implemented a very quick couple of busts and the addition of some networked surveilance cameras watching not the outdoor intersections for bag thieves, but the alleyways for the faces of people leaving, especially the ones slipping in to get their fix.

A good thing ? Well, hard to argue that it’s not beneficial, but it’s an odd move to make when you know that all the locals know without a second thought who’s peddling drugs out of their house. Or maybe “just about” everyone knows. Lips can be very tight or very loose around here, depending on who’s talking to whom. Protect your own but badmouth your enemies is sometimes the ethos, but other times, tongues don’t even need to wag much for everyone to know certain things. I don’t mind the new cameras although I know very well they’ll only be used when the police actually want them to be used and I don’t imagine them proving crucial in solving too many bag snatchings, but any perceived improvement in public safety and the elimination of crime is a good thing, phải không ?

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