Long Luong, a remote commune in Vietnam's northern mountainous province of Son La, was suddenly in the national limelight after hundreds of police officers and scores of gangsters got into a long shootout in the last days of June.

At the end of all the firing, the major news that came out was that the culmination of years of preparations by the police left two drug lords dead.

However, these two were not the first, and possibly not the last, major drug dealers to set up their base in the commune, which lies just 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the Laos border and had at one point been nicknamed Vietnam's "drug supermarket."

Homegrown kingpin

The first major drug lord to rise to power in the Long Luong valley was a H'Mong man called Trang A Tang, said Giang A Chong, deputy chief of Long Luong police and Tang's former neighbor.

Born to the chief of the commune's Lung Xa Village in 1982, Tang grew up in one of the drug hotspots of Son La Province. He dropped out of school after ninth grade to work as a smuggler for local drug dealers.

After gaining experience for many years, Tang set up his own network to traffic drugs from the infamous Golden Triangle area of northwestern Laos, northeastern Myanmar and northern Thailand, and distribute them in Vietnam or traffic them further to China.

Tang's drug ring quickly proved successful and grew undetected, thanks to the deployment of discreet directing methods, relying only on trusted partners and the use of cars specially designed with hidden compartments for drug trafficking.

However, unlike many drug lords who choose to hide their riches, Tang soon became famous across Son La for his wealth and extravagant lifestyle.

In the middle of a neighborhood full of one-story houses in Son La's Moc Chau Town, Tang's large three-story house stood out with fancy decorations, high-tech equipment, security cameras, expensive furniture and a garage housing expensive cars like Lexus and BMW.

Tang also built a massive seven-story house along National Highway 6 passing through the town with plans to turn it into the greatest hotel in the entire province, and used $10,000 to build a football field in the area.

During the H'Mong people's New Year celebration in 2013, Tang threw a three-day feast for the entire Lung Xa Village with hundreds of cooks preparing traditional dishes, and invited well-known singers and musicians to entertain the villagers.

Once, he spent nearly VND80 million ($3,500) to pay the electricity bills of all residents of neighboring Ta De Village, according to the village's chief Song A Tong.

Police began watching Tang in 2008 after he became rich in a very short time despite being a farmer, and rumors about a major "player" in Son La started circulating between drug users.

By disguising themselves as backpackers visiting Long Luong, police managed to confirm their suspicions, but plans to raid Tang's hideout were scrapped as many village officials were his relatives and the area was protected by well-armed bodyguards.

Tang was eventually arrested in July 2013 as he was carrying over 90 kilograms (200 pounds) of heroin on a car traveling from Hanoi to the neighboring Bac Ninh Province. His wife and henchmen were with him.

In September 2016, a court in Bac Ninh sentenced Tang and eight of his henchmen to death, while another three, including his wife and father, got life sentences.

Fugitives strike terror

The year 2013, when Tang's drug ring in Long Luong was busted, also saw the arrival of two other wanted drug lords, taking shelter there after the police had busted a case involving more than 891 kilograms of heroin that they were part of in 2012.

Nguyen Thanh Tuan, 34, and Nguyen Van Thuan, 35, both chose Ta De Village to be their new headquarters and recruited and armed other wanted criminals to be their henchmen.

According to the police, with the help of these armed henchmen, Tuan and Thuan managed to "neutralize local authorities" and establish multiple transnational drug rings. Their houses in the village were both fortified with three-meter (10-feet) high walls, bunkers, tunnels, security cameras and stacked with guns, grenades and ammunition.

In five years of living in Ta De Village, the two drug lords managed to strike fear into the villagers without even showing themselves most of the time, said Tong, the village chief.

Every time an outsider, such as a villager's relative, visited, they would be checked and threatened by groups of men armed with AK rifles working for Tuan and Thuan. The armed men also frequently bullied and harassed villagers.

Around two years ago, the drug lords' men started terrorizing the villagers every day with the sound of gunfire, mixed with the roaring sounds of their motorbike engines, according to Tong.

Tuan and Thuan were killed in a massive police raid on their hideouts last month. The four-day (June 26-29) raid, which involved more than 300 officers and at least 7 armored vehicles, was launched after multiple attempts by the police to persuade them to surrender ended in failure.

Despite resisting with guns, grenades and explosives, both drug lords and two of their bodyguards were shot down while another three surrendered. The police suffered no casualty in the operation.

Another 10 of Tuan's henchmen have also voluntarily turned themselves in, and police are now looking for the remaining 31 who are believed to have fled into the local forest.

Soldier-turned-drug dealer

Despite Tuan and Thuan being taken down, Long Luong is still home to at least one more drug lord in Song A Lau, according to the commune's deputy police chief Chong.

Lau, 41, was a former soldier and at one point, was even voted to be the commander of the commune's military unit. However, he turned to drug dealing and quickly became a rich drug lord with many violent henchmen under his command.

While police in Quang Ninh Province at China border issued an arrest warrant against Lau for drug crimes nearly 20 years ago, he has been living freely in the commune, and many villagers in Ta De and Lung Xa still report seeing him frequently.

Following the deaths of Tuan and Thuan, Lau has reportedly disappeared from the area.

By Pham Du & Bao Ha - VnExpress.net - July 16, 2018