CHIANG RAI – As night falls on the Mekong River in Northern Thailand, a nightly dance begins between Thai border security and Laos drug gangs now using drones, scouts and a pool of poor fishermen to shift record amounts of meth into Thailand.
Landlocked, secretive and with ungovernable borders, Laos has become a sluice for transporting Made-In-Myanmar meth to the drug-hungry markets of Southeast Asia and Australia, where billion-dollar seizures are now being made.
Whisked over the remote mountains of Laos one of the world’s last surviving communist countries shipments are regularly slipping into Thailand, the region’s drug superhighway.
“It’s coming in from over there,” Thai navy captain Sumnuan Kamdee said, gesturing across the wide Mekong, which bisects Thailand and Laos. “Drugs have become a national threat.”
Thailand Flooded with Methamphetamine.
Armed with M4 rifles and night vision goggles, his Mekong River Unit scours the water in speedboats in Nakhon Phanom, one of Thailand’s poorest border provinces in the northeast. But the border is long and cannot be fully policed.
Once inside the kingdom, tonnes of highly addictive crystal meth, known as “ice”, and hundreds of millions of yaba pills caffeine-laced methamphetamine tablets guzzled by everyone from laborers to ravers are consumed or warehoused before being smuggled onwards.
A months-long Thai military-led crackdown in the northern jungles of the kingdom’s section of Chiang Rai’s notorious “Golden Triangle” has blocked the quickest drug route south. But with big money to be made, the narco gangs have carved new routes west and east through Laos and across the Mekong.
In the fading light, as the limestone karst scenery of Laos elbows into the night sky, black-clad Thai military rangers wait in mosquito-infested bushes for suspicious crossings. But the drug gangs are also quick to adapt.
On smaller runs, Laos fishermen will cut their engines and drift close to the Thai bank before lobbing wax-covered parcels of 2-3,000 yaba pills towards the shore, where Thai couriers scamper out to claim them. But bigger, multi-million-dollar shipments are becoming more frequent. Experts say the Golden Triangle region is now likely to be the biggest meth production hub in the world. Yet without the ultra-violence of the Latin American cartels, it captures fewer headlines.
It was a fraction of the near three tonnes of “ice” seized by Thailand between just May 31 and June 4 on top of nearly five million yaba tablets.
Despite the intense anti-drug operations, meth is still getting through to more lucrative overseas markets. Australian border authorities announced a record 1.6 tonnes haul of ice in Melbourne last Friday with an estimated street value of US $840 million wrapped in packets of Chinese-branded tea and hidden in a shipment of stereo speakers shipped from Thailand. At that price, losses are easily absorbed by the drug networks.
“If just one out of ten shipments gets through, they still get their money,” a senior Thai drug official told AFP, requesting anonymity. Inside Thailand, street prices are plunging evidence of a huge oversupply from the meth lords who have slashed costs by using cheaper precursor chemicals.
The tiny pink yaba pills now go for as little as 30 baht (less than a dollar) in some border zones, drug officials say as little as a bottle of Thai beer. A kilo of ice is down to around $11,000 in Bangkok and just $4,800 in Laos. “Meth is destroying lives, families and communities,” police major-general Pornchai Charoenwong, deputy commissioner of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau, said.
Laos Pressured to Act
Under pressure, Laos is co-operating with neighboring law enforcement. “But frankly Laos really needs to up their game when it comes to tackling organized crime, drug trafficking, and border control,” said Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Inshik Sim, analyst at the UNDOC SEAsia-Pacific, highlighted another major yaba meth seizure pouring drugs into Chiang Rai, Mekong and the Golden Triangle through the route of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
The high profile 2017 arrest of Laos drug lord Xaysana Keophimpa at Bangkok’s main airport was hailed as a new era of intelligence sharing. But with scant details from Laos, it is not clear which of Xaysana’s alleged associates has been prosecuted. Meanwhile, meth continues to cascade across the Mekong region.
Vietnam has made record seizures this year, including 700 kilos of ice hidden in tea packets in Nghe An province, which borders Laos. Cambodia is also reporting a spike in drug movements over its Laos border. “Myanmar to Laos, then through Cambodia… this is now one of the main drug routes from the Golden Triangle,” Cambodia’s Deputy National Police Chief Mok Chito said.
The falling drug prices are curdling a public health and crime crisis in local communities riddled with addiction and petty drug dealing.
Inshik Sim, analyst at the UNDOC SEAsia-Pacific, highlighted another major yaba meth seizure pouring drugs into Chiang Rai, Mekong and the Golden Triangle through the route of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Sim added that effective ASEAN border management and drug policies are essential to combat such organized criminal activities.
Sim further tweeted that throughout 2019, the trafficking of yaba meth “remains at very high levels” while the street supply of these drugs is “constant” and “high”.
By GVS News