Drug trafficking

As governments turn to the virus, Southeast Asia’s narcotics trade booms

Southeast Asia's booming narcotics industry has only been given a helping hand in recent months as governments turn their attention to combating Covid-19. With prices dropping and potency rising, the drug trade could be set to hit the region harder than ever

Written By:
May 21, 2020
As governments turn to the virus, Southeast Asia’s narcotics trade booms
Seized drugs, laboratory accessories and precursor chemicals are displayed in Kawnghka in Myanmar's Shan State in March. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

The Covid-19 pandemic may have put a damper on most businesses but the trade in illicit narcotics is seemingly booming.

Earlier this week, Myanmar drug authorities announced the largest single seizure in Asian history of synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine, and the supplies used to manufacture them in secretive labs. The raid in Shan State, a major hub for regional drug production, netted about 193 million tablets of meth, according to Reuters, which came out to nearly 17.5 tonnes. 

Police also recovered more than 3,700 litres of methylfentanyl – an analog, or a chemical very similar, to the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl – pointing to a new, potentially dangerous turn in the market in the region.

As massive as the bust was, it’s only the latest milestone for a hot regional narcotics industry. The production of illicit drugs, especially meth, and trafficking in Southeast Asia was already on the rise but now, with national governments and law enforcement agencies turning their attention to the public health battle of the novel coronavirus, the industry is having a banner year.

“It is hard to imagine that organised crime have again managed to expand the drug market, but they have,” stated Jeremy Douglas, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a Friday release. “While the world has shifted its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, all indications are that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels in the region.”

Those are some of the findings in a new UNODC report released just days before Myanmar announced the outcome of the raid near the far northern village of Loikan in Shan State. Part of this large state is in the Golden Triangle, a zone with a nickname penned by the American CIA to refer to the meeting-point of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar – a region that was once the global epicentre of the heroin trade.

Heroin is still produced in the area, but the biggest ‘cash crop’ is now cooked in labs. 

Myanmar police are still running forensics on the recent seizure of methylfentanyl to determine where it came from, whether that be a local manufacturer in Shan State or someone further afield.

Douglas told the Globe that the rising prevalence of synthetic drugs could have devastating results for users in the region, pointing to the death toll of fentanyl in North America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 31,000 people in the US died from synthetic opioid overdoses in 2018, with the rate of deaths from this drug category increasing by 10% between 2017-18.

Though fentanyl and its analogs are most commonly used to boost the potency of other opiates, like heroin, Douglas said dealers have also used them as additives in drugs like meth and cocaine.

“The drug market in the region is changing really fast and some synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous,” he said of Southeast Asia. “The region is not ready.”

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are a relatively new market for Golden Triangle drug producers, who are now believed to be picking up business from China after the government there cracked down on producers. 

Earlier this year in Bangkok, the Globe reported that drug safety advocate Pascal Tanguay used chemical testing to discover fentanyl in batches of heroin circulating through the Thai capital following a string of overdoses among addicts. The results of that test “terrified” the long-time harm reduction worker.

“This was kind of a first,” he said, pointing to the appearance of the powerful synthetic opioid in neighbouring regions as a red flag that “it was eventually going to get here”.

While heroin was a traditional product of the Golden Triangle, the bulk of the modern drug market in Myanmar and elsewhere in the region is made up of meth, both in crystal form and in tablets known as yaba.

The UNODC estimates the annual meth market in East and Southeast Asia could be as great as $61.4 billion. Much of that is coming out of the Golden Triangle, which the UNODC describes as a key producer thanks to “limited government control” there. 

In the first three months of 2020, before the massive raid in Shan State, the Burmese government dismantled meth production and storage sites that held more than 143 million tablets of the drug, a quantity UNODC stated is “more than the entire amount seized in the country in 2019”. They also seized more than 440kg of crystal meth and a trove of chemicals and lab equipment.

“The case demonstrates the sheer scale of methamphetamine manufacturing capacity in the Golden Triangle,” the drug office stated.

Other parts of the Lower Mekong region have also seen an increase in production of meth and other synthetic drugs like MDMA.

Drug officials in Vietnam broke up the “largest ever” meth production centre in Kon Tum province on the country’s northeast border, netting tonnes of chemicals used to produce narcotics. And in the spring of 2019, Cambodian authorities raided a synthetic drug operation in Phnom Penh, seizing 18kg of meth, 80kg of MDMA and more than 50kg of ketamine. The refinery operation was the first of its kind seized in Cambodia since 2015, according to the UNODC.

Organized crime groups are in a position to provide better quality methamphetamine at much cheaper prices compared to a decade ago, increasing affordability and harm at the same time

Inshik Sim, UNODC illicit drugs analyst

UNODC also reported that last year at least 63 tonnes of crystal meth were recovered in Southeast Asia, an increase of more than 50% from the year prior. The increase in meth production is tied to a sharp reduction in price across the region, where, in some countries, costs have halved over the past year. But even where consumers are getting discounts, meth purity levels today seem to be equal or even greater to that seized in the past. 

Inshik Sim, UNODC illicit drugs analyst, said meth prices have been falling over the past decade as dualing organised crime groups ramp up supply in competition for market share.

“We’re seeing these big syndicates, their business modality is small margins, big returns”, he told the Globe. “They can put a lot of drugs into the market to lower the price, but they’ll get the return out of it.”

With more product ready to move, traffickers are also finding new opportunities in the disruption of the coronavirus era. Even though borders are largely shut to casual travel, some national law enforcement agencies have been preoccupied with fighting outbreaks and small-scale dealing can seem a lucrative supplement for people caught in the global economic decline.

Besides the headline-grabbing busts of major shipments, Inshik added, the growing tide of drug production will have downstream impacts for law and order. One specific issue he’s watching is the question for domestic authorities in distinguishing between users and traffickers, especially as incomes rise in Southeast Asia and consumers have more access to supply.

“Now people can afford more drugs, have more on them when they’re caught. That can be a big challenge when countries are looking at [criminal charges]”, he said, pointing to legal threshholds that police use to separate users from more high-priority trafficking suspects. “Some countries have a sophisticated way of looking at it … but this is not the case in many other countries.”

The global ‘war on drugs’ has manifest in different ways across the region. In the Philippines, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has pushed a no-holds-barred campaign against drug dealers, users and addicts that has led to the deaths of as many as 27,000 people through a mix of state and vigilante violence. Last week, human rights organisation Amnesty International slammed the Cambodian government for abuses in its own drugs crackdown, which has led to a spike in national incarceration rates. A spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Justice rejected the Amnesty assessment, arguing the growing prison population “proves the success of the campaign, not a failure” in light of increasing drug crime.

Though Covid-19 can’t explain the decade-long rise in drug production, the authors of the UNODC report do believe that pandemic-related changes in border control, healthcare priorities and restrictions on work, movement and social gatherings may affect the drug ecosystem from everything to manufacturing, street-level dealing and even drug treatment and rehabilitation.

Douglas said that Asian crime syndicates may even get a boost on foreign competitors in other narcotics hotspots – potentially even expanding into territory as far away as North America – thanks to their position in the global supply chain.

“They have historically strong connections to chemical and pharmaceutical industries and have the benefit of proximity, while syndicates overseas do not have the same connections and are dependent on distant supply chains – advantage Asian organised crime,” Douglas told the Globe

“The expansion of production in, and trafficking from, the Mekong has been phenomenal in recent years, and we are concerned it will continue and the syndicates involved will make a push to other lucrative markets.”

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