The Mekong countries in Southeast Asia are working closely with China to strike at the heart of transnational synthetic drug trade as the region targets top-level drug traffickers instead of street dealers. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
Mekong countries in Southeast Asia and China have agreed on a new action plan to target border choke points to address the deteriorating synthetic drug trafficking situation.
Ministers and senior officials from countries of the Mekong Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Drug Control – Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam – and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have concluded two days of discussions in November.
The production of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine (meth), ketamine and fentanyl, take place primarily in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state. But much of the precursor chemicals needed to produce them flow across the borders from China.
Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia, said that law enforcement agencies have long focused on busting low-level dealers and users on the streets. However, this plan was not effective when faced with the shifting trafficking routes used by transnational drug trafficking syndicates.
China’s deputy commissioner of the National Narcotics Control Commission, Andy Tsang, said they are working in a joint operation to take down “Sam Gor”, believed to be the biggest drug syndicate in Asia.
“They are one of the major threats,” said Tsang.
“The region as a whole, China included, will do our best to hit it where it hurts the most.”
Targeting the heart of drug trade
Going forward, the authorities from the six countries will share intelligence to target traffickers working at border choke points where illegal drugs and precursor chemicals flow are rampant.
Douglas said: “The continuing scale-up of synthetic drug trafficking in the Mekong is not simply a crisis for the region itself, but it is now an international problem.
“The organized crime syndicates behind the trade have demonstrated they can maintain production even if labs are seized, and that new precursors can be used when others are unavailable.
“We are concerned that they will diversify further to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
“With all its capacity, North America was not ready, and Asia certainly is not.
“Governments have for years focused on reducing supply, often targeting street sales while organized crime got a pass, and we see now that continuing this approach has little to no impact.”
Therefore, the regional governments decided the time has come to rethink, moving forward, how they are going to deal with the problem. Taking into account all available information and from various perspectives, they decided to emphasize dampening market demand through better border management by increasing cross-border operations. Moreover, the authorities recognize that transnational drug trafficking is not a law enforcement problem alone.
Other programs in the action plan include
- Support to impoverished workers in the Golden Triangle to move away from the illegal drug trade
- Preventive drug education addressing health, harms and social consequences
- Joint training among Mekong countries
Long arm of the law
Realizing the increasing seriousness of the problem, regional authorities have stepped up enforcement effort. The biggest seizures of pill and crystal meth were made across the Mekong in 2018.
A record 120 tons were seized by law enforcement. Now, with the new Mekong MOU on Drug Control action plan, there will be better intelligence sharing, coordination and enforcement efforts, thus more seizures are expected in the coming years.
A lawless region
The porous lawless border areas of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos have for decades been a hub for heroin production. But the Golden Triangle drug trade is reinventing itself and is now pumping unprecedented quantities of synthetic drugs into the global markets.
According to the United Nations, transnational crime groups are trafficking vast quantities of meth made in Southeast Asia. Within Asia Pacific, meth produced in Southeast Asia is trafficked to as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
A dangerous and unscrupulous trade
The explosion in the meth trade, from an estimated $15 billion in 2013, comes as powerful syndicates exploit endemic corruption, weak law enforcement and lax border controls.
According to a new report by UNODC, “In many parts of Southeast Asia, the systematic payment of bribes at borders is as regulated as the payment of fees in official bureaucratic systems.”
The drug trafficking cartels, based in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Thailand, produce most of the meth in northern Myanmar in industrial-scale labs and distribute it as far away as Japan and New Zealand.
“The Asia Pacific meth market is now the biggest in the world,” Douglas said.
“Of all the organized crime types, meth trafficking is the most dangerous and the most profitable. It underpins the growing power of these transnational crime groups.”
There are more than 12 million meth users in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand and in total they consumed about 320 tons in 2018. This proliferation is due, in part, to the extreme availability of meth and the resulting drop in prices to levels last seen 20 years ago.
The value of the Asia Pacific meth market is worth around US$61.4 billion. UNODC estimated that the most valuable markets are in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. They account for $20 billion, or a third of the high-end estimate of the trade.
Money laundering on the rise
The surge in synthetic drug production and trafficking has also resulted in an increase in the amount of money to be laundered. Recent estimates have valued the regional meth market at up to $61.4 billion per year and the heroin market at up to $10.3 billion.
The transnational crime syndicates have been seeking and using new and innovative ways to launder increasing profits, including through the growing regional casino industry.
“We have not prioritized the laundering of drug money in the past, and organized crime have exploited gaps in our ability to investigate and respond,” said Thailand’s Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin.
“Thailand’s law enforcement agencies have had some success in recent years, but national efforts alone are clearly not enough,” said Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam.
“Organized crime take advantage of gaps and vulnerabilities that result because of uneven law enforcement capacity and coordination problems.
“The Mekong MOU helps by providing a framework through which we can deliver a more coherent regional approach.”