Entrepreneurial spirit, heavily-armed militia, and a conducive environment. This is the deadly combination of unique competitive advantages that makes the Golden Triangle, 950,000 km2 of wild mountainous area which borders Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, the biggest production and smuggling hub for synthetic drugs in Asia. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
Drug production and trafficking has long been a problem in the Golden Triangle, where there is a perennial lack of governance and enforcement. In the past decades, the drugs of choice were mainly heroin and opium but in recent years, the plant-based drug trade is replaced by synthetic drugs because of high profitability, in particular methamphetamine, which dominates the illicit drug market in East and Southeast Asia, the region with the fastest growing meth market in the world.
Last year, seizures of meth in East and Southeast Asia reached 140 tons and this year, in spite of the world being in lockdown because of the pandemic, seizures have reached an alarming rate for just a period of three months from June to August.
This is only the tip of the iceberg because even with these record seizures, the price of meth is in fact lower while the quality remains high. One can only speculate how much of the drug has escaped detection and ended up on the streets, ruining countless lives and driving up crimes.
Global reach, local knowledge
The exponential growth in meth production and trafficking, and the resulting massive profits, have reached unprecedented and dangerous levels in the past few years, driven primarily by an evolution in business model that manages to keep up with the changing times.
For example, transnational organized crime syndicates have partnered with local ethnic armed groups and rebel soldiers, bringing in technology to synthesize the drug market and ramp up production.
At the same time, a new breed of drug kingpins, more often thinking and acting like global CEOs, has injected innovation and advanced management practice into the business model, making them more resilient to law enforcement efforts. They are also savvy enough to leverage improved regional connectivity and legitimate supply chains to illicitly transport their goods.
The different gangs know of the high stakes involved and are seldom in violent confrontation with each other, thus maintaining a relative calm and stability in the region, which is vital for growth and prosperity. They act more like a cooperative than business rivals.
In the Golden Triangle, there is also a confluence of other favorable factors for the drug trade to thrive: hundreds of lightly regulated casinos for money laundering; a steady supply of chemical ingredients from surrounding countries like China and India; a deep-rooted culture of corruption; a rough forested terrain that is suitable for hiding and evasion with little semblance of a working law enforcement framework; and a lack of governmental policies that address social ills that are feeding the drug trade.
A ticking time bomb
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that the drug trade in the region last year generated profits of around US$71 billion, with meth accounting for $61 billion, four times what it was six years ago.
Today, meth has become the financial backbone of the Asian cartels. Drugs originating from the Golden Triangle are not only being smuggled and sold within the region but further afield to East Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. On the whole, the drug trade in the Golden Triangle is growing despite the pandemic. The professionalism and ability of the cartels to evolve has made this trend possible.
Recently, some reports indicated that Mexican cartels are impacted by the pandemic and couldn’t get their hands on precursor chemicals, a vital ingredient to produce meth, and thus cannot meet the North American demand. It is speculated that a certain Asian competitor known as Sam Gor stepped in and used this opportunity to increase their market share.
Sam Gor, also known simply as The Company, has drug labs and factories in the Golden Triangle and is one of the biggest, if not the biggest global drug cartel. Authorities estimated that it generated between $8 billion and $17.7 billion in revenue from meth in 2018. Also, it is alleged that The Company is responsible for leading the shift away from plant-based to synthetic drugs.
Given the scope of the problem, urgent and concerted efforts from affected regional governments are needed. Some leaders have to acknowledge the fact that a drug crisis in their own backyard is affecting the wider region. Most importantly, political will is needed to dismantle this time bomb that is about to go off.
If left unchallenged any longer, the illicit drug trade will be so deeply ingrained and integrated into the local social and economic ecosystems that the drug cartels become too big to fail.
Image credit: Nicholas Ganz / Shutterstock.com