PREAH SIHANOUK PROVINCE, Cambodia—They were some of the most searing images of violence to emerge from the land crisis that swept Cambodia over the last decade. In scorching dry-season heat, the military shot villagers and torched their homes across this seaside province.

Witnesses said one eviction in April of 2007 at the village known as Spean Ches was particularly brutal. Security forces inflicted gunshot wounds at close range, used live fire to disperse crowds, and beat villagers, sometimes with batons that deliver electric shocks.

A joint force of about 150 members drawn from the police, the army, and the Royal Gendarmerie burned 80 houses and demolished another 26 homes.

“They used a type of fire gun to shoot flames to burn down the houses,” said Yeang Ren, 32.

Gendarmes arrested villagers, forced them to lie face down, and repeatedly kicked them in their heads, Ren said. “We felt great distress when we heard our houses being knocked down with an excavator.”

That month, a Cambodian navy unit burst into another community 15 miles away, beating one villager unconscious and burning down five houses to seize land that residents now say forms part of the campus of a local training school for the navy.

As property values rose over the last decade, Cambodia’s poorer rural and urban communities found themselves locked in land battles with the country’s oligarchy, which claimed rights to prime real estate. By 2014, more than half a million people had been affected by evictions, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion of Defense of Human Rights, a human rights organization known as LICADHO, for its acronym in French.

The scale and violence of evictions at Spean Ches quickly became emblematic of the crisis, drawing the attention of the U.S. Embassy in its 2007 annual report on human rights. And in 2014, the Spean Ches eviction helped form the basis of a private legal action alleging crimes against humanity that was brought before the International Criminal Court.

Yet as the crisis unfolded, Washington intensified its relations with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and police.

Congress, in 1997, had outlawed assistance to foreign security forces known to have committed gross violations of human rights. Yet diplomatic files published by WikiLeaks and compiled by the nonprofit investigative journalism group 100Reporters show that American officials overlooked such violations in vetting Cambodian police and military personnel for their eligibility to receive U.S.-funded training—in some cases apparently in violation of the law.

Two years after the violence at Spean Ches, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh recommended Colonel Seng Phok, a deputy commander in the Royal Gendarmerie, for U.S. training, the same man a human rights worker said was among the commanding officers during the eviction.

100Reporters also found that the United States provided training in investigative techniques to senior members of Cambodia’s National Police Commissariat who at the time were the subject of detailed murder and kidnapping allegations.

Those allegations were contained in court records and United Nations’ files that would have been easily accessible to the U.S. Embassy, which submitted their names to Washington for approval.

In a data-driven investigation carried out over more than a year using the “cablegate” cache of American diplomatic records, 100Reporters developed a navigable database of nearly 60,000 individuals from 129 countries selected for training by nearly 140 U.S. federal agencies.

Suspected narcotraffickers, killers, torturers, and foreign units involved in systematic extrajudicial killings were all found in the database. Many managed to pass through American vetting and receive training.

Ny Chakriya, chief monitor at the U.S.-funded Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), which began assisting the U.S. Embassy in screening Cambodian officials several years ago, said he was concerned by the failure to weed out questionable applicants. “When you see that a person who has violated human rights gets training, it seems he is given encouragement, and this is not a good thing,” he said. “It fuels him to violate human rights even more.”

At the time of the 2007 evictions in the seaside province, U.S. officials had already suspected that human rights vetting of local security forces was a problem. In January of that year, a team from the U.S. State Department Inspector General’s office visited the Phnom Penh Embassy and later reported the screening process had been “cursory and uneven.”

In practice, the Congressional vetting requirement, known as the Leahy law after its principal sponsor Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, has meant that background checks are required for all trainees. But the State Department report found the embassy kept no records of its local checks and used out-of-date guidance. Other agencies involved in the training didn’t understand the process and failed to submit the names of trainees for investigation, it said.

The State Department said it could not comment on individual cases. “We take our obligations under the Leahy vetting process seriously,” Julia Straker, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “Consistent with U.S. law and policy, the Department of State vets its assistance to foreign security forces, as well as certain Department of Defense security assistance programs.”

Cambodian officials would not discuss the human rights records of those trained by the United States. Attempts to speak with spokespersons for the Interior and Defense ministries were unsuccessful. Senior military officers referred questions to General Meas Sophea, the infantry commander. Through an assistant, Gen. Sophea declined to comment.

Lork Kheng, a member of the governing Cambodian People’s Party and of a National Assembly panel on human rights, defended her country’s security forces. “Generally speaking, I believe all commanders carry out their duties in compliance with the law,” she said in an interview.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, a civilian policymaking body, said that in Cambodia anyone complaining of abuse by the military could seek legal redress.

“We are a member of the United Nations and have our own rule of law,” he said. “We do have lawyers; we do have a court system. Whoever is abused can file to the court. That’s the way the rule of law is.”

  • SUBSCRIBE

More From the Series

More From the Series

Fitah, 32, Somalia
Fitah has been a refugee for ten years but has only been in Brazil for a few months. After leaving his home country in 2007 due to the civil war, he went to South Africa, where he stayed until March 2017. Paying $4,000 USD to smugglers in Johannesburg, he managed to enter Brazil posing as a South African refugee. He wanted to travel on to the United States, but the “travel package” offered by his smugglers only gave him two options, Turkey or Brazil. He chose the latter.

Afonso, 28, Congo
Upstairs in one of the big bedrooms of the Scalabrinian Mission Afonso, a 28-year-old migrant from Congo, explained how he came from Kinshasa in 2015 by boat, escaping from the violent conflicts raging in his own country. He hired the service of smugglers and came on a cargo ship with a number of others. He paid for part of the trip by working on the ship. He was left in the coast of Santos, a city 55km away from Sao Paulo. He is now searching for a job.

“K.”, 39, Sierra Leone
At Caritas, a non-profit providing support to refugees and migrants, we met “K” (who asked not to reveal his full name), who had left Sierra Leone three months ago. His grandfather was a chief priest of a secret society for whom it is a tradition to initiate the oldest son of the family when the former elder dies. A Christian and a graduate in Information Technology, “K” refused to take part in the ritual and says he was then targeted. He fled to stay with family in the interior of the country, but was kidnapped and held captive in the forest. One night he managed to escape to the city and met a woman from a Christian organization which provided airplane tickets so he could leave immediately for Brazil.

Jorge, 25, Guinea-Bissau
Jorge is a trained engineer who came to Brazil two years ago, who is now selling counterfeit and smuggled clothes in a local market. His Brazilian girlfriend is now pregnant and he is waiting for a work permit in order to get a job as mason. He said that when Federal Police went to his home address to confirm he was living there - an essential step in the process of issuing a work visa to a migrant - his house mates thought they wanted to arrest him and denied he lived there. It delayed his chance of getting a permit that would allow him a legal and better-remunerated job. The lack of trust in Brazilian law enforcement is a huge issue among refugees and migrants, many say that they rarely provide help or support, but instead only make their lives more difficult.

Abu, 37, Senegal
In República Square in the downtown Centro neighbourhood, African migrants sell clothes - some of them counterfeit designer wear,, some not - and handicrafts. Abu, 37, from Thiès in western Senegal, came to Brazil in 2010 with the hope that World Cup would make Brazil a prosperous country and offer him a new life. He says migrants should be respected for having the courage to leave everything behind and restart from nothing. Discrimination and lack of jobs are an issue for Abu, so he says his plan now is to save money and go to Europe as soon as possible. When he first arrived, he had money to stay in a hotel for seven days. After that, he met people who got him a job as a street vendor for contraband and traditional Senegalese clothes sewn in Brazil with African fabrics. Every time the police come and seize the goods he sells, it can take up to five months to recover the money lost.

Ibrahim, 41, Senegal
Members of the Senegalese community gather in República Square every week for a party, mounting up their own sound system, bringing drums and singing. On the night we visit around 50 people were dancing and chanting traditional Senegalese songs. Later they take a seat and discuss issues important to the community. Ibrahim, one of the group, has a talent for sewing fake Nike and Adidas logos to clothing in an improvised atelier nearby. Although he is a professional tailor and prefers to dedicate his time to his own original work, he says financial pressures meant he was forced to join the market of counterfeit designer-label clothing.

Guaianazes street, downtown Sao Paulo

On Rua Guaianazes there is a run-down mosque on the second floor of an old and degraded building, which is frequented by many African migrants. Outside, the smell of marijuana and cheap crack is inebriating. Crowds gather on the streets in front of the packed bars, while different people ask us if we want cheap marihuana. We enter one bar that has literally no chairs or tables: there is a poster of Cameroon’s most famous footballer Samuel Eto’o on the wall, and a big snooker table in the centre while all around customers gamble, argue and smoke. The bar tender tells us it is a Nigerian bar, but that it is frequented by Africans of all nationalities. Among the offers of cheap marijuana, crack and cocaine, laughs, music and loud chat, you can barely hear to the imam's call. Rua Guaianazes is considered to be the heart of Cracolandia, a territory controlled by organized crime for more than a decade and now reportedly home to some African-led drug trafficking gangs.

Santa Efigenia neighbourhood
Santa Efigenia is an area of around ten street blocks in the heart of the Centro area where locals says you “won't find anything original product or any product that entered the country legally”. There are dozens of galleries with local merchants, migrants and hawkers selling their wares, and crowds shouting and grabbing to sell counterfeit and contraband electronics late in the night. When we visited, a homeless old man was setting a campfire out of trash to heat himself on the corner, the people passing by aggressively yelling at him due to the black smoke his improvised urban survival mechanism was generating.

“H”, 42, Angola
“H” is an Angolan woman now living in a house rented from the Baptist church. The area outside the house is a “boca de fumo” - an open drug dealing spot managed by armed guards. “H’s” house is annexed to the church building itself, and is very rustic and simple. She arrived a year ago with two of her children, and also pregnant. She says that after the family of the Angolan president took over the market of smuggled goods in her country, her small import business started to crumble. Her husband and two more daughters are still there. She is currently unemployed, but happy that her young son is studying, although often he comes home complaining about racism at school. “H” does not want him to play with the neighbourhood children, she is afraid he will be drawn to narco-trafficking if he gets in with the wrong crowd. In the long run, she wants to go back to Angola, but only under “a different political situation.”

Lalingé restaurant, Sao Paulo
Arami, the owner of the bustling restaurant Lalingé – which means “The Princess” in her language – has been in Brazil for seven years. She opened the restaurant a year ago so that the African community in the Centro neighbourhood has a place to gather and eat food from their continent. It’s the kind of place people arrive at any time of the night or day, order their food and chat.

Scalabrinian Mission, Canindé neighbourhood
The Scalabrinian Mission in the neighborhood of Canindé provides philanthropic aid to migrants. Soror Eva Souza, the director, says they have helped people from Africa (Angola, Congo, Guinea, Togo, Nigeria, South Africa, Mali, British Guyana, Somalia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Uganda), North Africa and the Middle East (Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt), Asia (Cambodia, South Korea, the Philippines, Bangladesh), Europe (The Netherlands, Russia, France) and Latin America and the Caribbean (Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Cuba). The Mission provides housing, food, clothing, medication and facilities for migrants. They only receive a small amount of financial support from local government, but work to help migrants find a job so they can live independently. Souza says many of those who arrive at the house are ill: some are seriously injured, others sick from the journey or the conditions they were living in before arriving in Sao Paulo. Since 2015, she says she has seen  human trafficking and slavery victims, drug mules, political refugees, and people who have lost their families en route. When we visit 40-year-old Mohamed Ali, from Morocco, was trying to find a job with the support of the Mission.

Clement Kamano, 24, Guinea-Conakry
Kamano was studying Social Sciences at Université Général Lansana Conté when he took part in the protests of September 28th, 2009, which ended up in a massacre with more than 150 people killed. Afterwards, he was repeatedly harassed because of his involvement in social movements. Fearing he might be killed, his father bought him a ticket to Brazil. Now he is a political refugee, who is almost fluent in Portuguese, and who enjoys talking about the sociologist-philosophers Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, even Leibniz and Nietzsche. He is currently applying to join a federal university in Sao Paulo.

What’s “cereza” in Arabic?
In a bright classroom in the centre of Quito, a group of students sit around a whiteboard. “Yo veo la televisión con mis amigos en la tarde,” they repeat after the teacher, “I watch television with my friends in the afternoon.” “Yo tomo el bus par ir al trabajo,” “I take the bus to go to work.”

Around the table are two Syrians who fled the war, one Cameroonian who says he wanted to escape the Anglo-French conflict in his homeland, two Afghans, one a former top-ranking police officer, an Egyptian and a Sri Lankan who wanted to go anywhere where he could make enough money to help his family. Migrants who arrive in Ecuador from Africa, Asia and the Middle East face a steep learning curve: it might be relatively easy to enter the country, thanks to Ecuador’s liberal open-border policy, but finding work here and learning Spanish can be difficult. Today their teacher is translating between Arabic, Spanish and English. “Market”? asks one. “Souk” replies another member of the group, while a fellow student does a quick translation into Pashtu.

Experts say some of those who come through language centres like these are planning on continuing their journey north, others on staying in Ecuador.

A little piece of Nigeria, in Quito
As the night closes in, Grace, a 25-year-old law graduate from Cameroon, dashes between a barbeque out on the street and the kitchen in the small Nigerian restaurant where she is working the night shift, as a television showing an African football league plays in the background. She wears a dark top, and her hair pulled back, as she fans the tilapia grilling on the coals. When she was denied a Canadian visa, despite having a scholarship, she decided she still wanted to leave Cameroon, where she complains of a lack of jobs and opportunities for the country’s English-speaking minority. With three friends, she bought a ticket heading west for Ecuador where she heard she could enter with her invitation to study at a language school. She soon converted to a missionary visa, and now works here and sings in the choir at a church up the hill, teaching Sunday school at the weekends. Like many of her customers, she also wants to travel north to the US or Canada, but only with the correct papers. “If you go without papers and through the jungle, you might be lost. Then my family is lost as well.”

The Afghan police officer
Asadullah, a former police officer, spent 31 years training new recruits and fighting terrorist groups in his country. Among the documents he smuggled out with him is a photograph of him with Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defence, paperwork from a training programme at the National Defence University in Washington DC, and training certificate from the George C Marshall centre in Europe, signed by the German defence minister.

His career had been high-profile and illustrious, but while that brought recognition from the Americans and their allies, it also brought him the unwelcome attention of the Taliban and other extremist groups.

For three years before he fled, he says terrorists were calling him saying he needed to end his work with the police. “Come and work with us,” they’d coax. When he refused, someone tried to throw acid on his child at school – that was when he decided to leave.

Today the family are renting a spacious flat in central Quito, with a big beige sofa and swept wood floors. A big TV is mounted on the wall behind him, and one of his children brings in sweet tea and fruits. His wife and six of his children are with him, awaiting a decision from the migration authorities on their asylum case. For the sake of his children – who all speak English – Asadullah wants to go to the US.

“I want to go to America, but it’s a process: it will take a lot of time,” he says. “We have been waiting to get an answer. I only came here because the bad people wanted to kill us. I’m just here so I’m safe.” He considered going to Europe, but considered the route there more dangerous. “Many Afghan people wanted to go to Europe, to Turkey, but many people died in the sea.”

The Artist
Mughni Sief’s paintings once made him a well-known artist in his native Syria: he taught fine art in a top university, and was invited to Lebanon to show his work. But since the war, and his decision to flee, his paintings have taken on a darker tone. One , “Even The Sea Had A Share Of Our Lives, It Was Tough” touches on the horrors so many Syrians have seen as they try to flee to safety.

“This painting is about Syrians crossing the sea to go to Europe from Turkey. I put this fish head and cut the head off to show the culture of ISIS. This here is the boat people,” he explains in his spartan apartment in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. “Syria was empty of people, and there are so many people dying in the sea.”

From the windows of his bedroom-come-studio, you can see the mountains, washing hanging in the sunshine on a neighbours balcony, beige tiles. Behind him the bed sheets – which came with the house – are adorned with images of teddy bears and the phrase “happy day.”

In the corner is a small, rolling suitcase in which he brought his wood carving tools, crayons, and charcoals from Syria: everything from his old life that he dared bring without alerting attention that he was leaving the country. In a small backpack he bought a Frederick Nietshce paperback, a birthday present from a friend, and a book he bought in Syria: “Learn Spanish in 5 days”. He didn’t bring any photos, in case his bag was searched.

Frustrated by restrictions he faced as a Syrian in Lebanon, he started to research other places where he might make a new start. He read that Ecuador was “one of the few countries that don't ask for a visa from Syrians. I had problems leaving Lebanon, and in El Dorado in Colombia but at Quito I came in no problem. The only question was: why are you coming to Ecuador, do you have money? I said nothing about asking for asylum so they just gave me a tourist visa.”

Soon after he made his asylum application, and today, he paints while he waits for a decision. “Before the war I was focused just on humans, on women, but when the war started that changed, and I began focusing on the miserable life that we live in Syria,” he says as he arranges three paintings on the bed. In one, he explains, is a woman who can’ face something in her life, so prefers to stop speaking.

Tricked
Although many of the migrants that make their way to Ecuador are able to travel more independently than those making the journey across the Mediterranean, examples abound of exploitation of some who arrive here. Mohammad, for example. He’s  a 24-year-old from Sri Lanka who first tried his luck in Malaysia, but was cheated by a travel fixer who took his money while promising him a work visa that never materialized. When he was arrested for working without the proper documents, a friend had to come and pay the police to get him out. Travelling west, to Ecuador, after religious violence broke out in his hometown, he says he paid someone he knows to help sort out his travel, unsure of how much he took as a cut. When he flew in, alongside a Sri Lankan family, the agent arranged for him to be picked up by an unknown woman who charged each of them again to take them to a hostel. He is now renting a room from a man he met at the mosque. Every day continues to be a struggle, he said.

“At home, I saw so many troubles each day. I decided to come here thinking maybe things will be good. But I did one week working in a restaurant, they treated me like a slave. For three months I was searching for work. They are good people here but I have no opportunities here. Seven months I have nothing, I’m wasting my time.”

You have Successfully Subscribed!