The the United Nations Office of narcotics and Crime UNODC in Thailand reports the massive traffic in methamphetamine and other illegal narcotics emanating from the Golden Triangle shows no signs abating.
“High volumes of methamphetamine continue to be produced and trafficked in and out of the region, while ketamine and other synthetic drug production has increased,” according to the agency’s 2023 report, Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia — the first since the borders reopened following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The analysis demonstrates a pattern of criminal gangs reestablishing themselves to pre-pandemic levels and dramatically altering trafficking routes.
The Golden Triangle, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand intersect, produces the lion’s share of methamphetamine in the form of pills and crystal meth. Opium and heroin manufacture used to thrive there, owing to the lawlessness in Myanmar’s distant eastern Shan State. The territory, much of which is rainforest, remains the domain of several ethnic minority militias, some of which are drug traffickers.
“Methamphetamine remains the most commonly used drug in East and Southeast Asia, and its use has increased over the last decade,” according to the research.
It’s also less labor-intensive to produce on a large scale than the labor-intensive cultivation of opium, from which heroin is produced. The medicine is then disseminated throughout Asia and the Pacific by land, sea, and air.
According to the research, large organised criminal organisations’ dominance over areas “has allowed them to massively increase and diversify supply for the purposes of market expansion and domination.”
“The most powerful regional trafficking networks are able to operate with a high degree of certainty that they cannot and will not be stopped, and they are able to dictate the terms and conditions of the market as a result,” the report stated.
For the past decade, East and Southeast Asia has seen record methamphetamine seizures virtually every year, but the most recent figures predict that total drugs collected would fall to 151 tonnes in 2022, according to the research.
The research states that “other indicators — arrests, street availability, purity, record low wholesale and street prices, and treatment admissions — indicate the supply has remained very high or unchanged.”
Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said at a news conference Friday in Bangkok that the situation in Myanmar’s Shan State was “quite concerning” due to an unprecedented drop in drug seizures there over the past year, despite being “the epicentre of production for Asia Pacific,” which he said was directly related to the region’s conflicts and instability.
According to the report, the overall decline in seizures is due to traffickers shifting their smuggling methods from land to marine in order to avoid police, noting that shipments are transported by sea from Myanmar’s coastal districts.
Thailand recently made two big seizures of crystal meth, which was expected to be carried by sea to a third country. Nearly a tonne of the drugs were found off the coast of Thailand’s Gulf of Thailand on Tuesday, which Thai authorities feared were en route to be loaded onto a larger ship in international seas. Thai authorities have stated that drugs recovered in recent raids were allegedly destined for Australia.
“Traffickers were a little more successful last year than the previous year, and they were able to connect to market primarily through maritime routes that people did not notice throughout the year,” Douglas added.
The UN office was particularly concerned that Cambodia had become “a key transit and, to some extent, production point for the regional drug trade.”
It shows that, while synthetic drug production has consolidated in the Golden Triangle, this growth may reflect “some diversification of production and ‘hedging’ by organised crime.”
Industrial-scale ketamine labs and facilities for processing and storing the chemical have been discovered throughout Cambodia, generating severe concerns throughout the region, according to the report.
“Organized crime groups have adopted a supply-driven market expansion modality similar to the approach taken to expand the region’s methamphetamine market, which began in 2015,” cautions the research regarding the ketamine trade, which has legal usage as an anaesthetic.
Landlocked Laos is another weak link in the war against the drug trade, and “intelligence officials have come to the conclusion that supply is transiting the country with little resistance,” according to the report.
According to the research, meth tablet production has been identified in Myanmar in recent years, in addition to being an increasingly crucial route for drugs transported out of the country.
It claims that meth and other drugs produced in Shan State laboratories typically enter Laos by crossing the Mekong river from ports “under the control or influence of major non-state armed groups,” naming some of them as ethnic militias such as the United Wa State Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the National Democratic Alliance Army, “and their allies who work in partnership with transnational organised crime syndicates in the Golden Triangle”
The case of Laos also demonstrates the challenges in preventing the components required to manufacture narcotics from reaching clandestine labs.
According to the research, Laos in the Golden Triangle is becoming an increasingly crucial route for chemicals allegedly used in drug manufacture in Myanmar, with chemicals entering the nation via Vietnam, Thailand, and China.
“Efforts to disrupt chemical flows into Myanmar’s drug-producing areas continue to be hampered by slow and bureaucratic inter-agency coordination, insufficient resources and personnel, and limited cross-border cooperation,” the report says, adding that traffickers are finding alternative sources of supply.
Because the principal compounds used to produce methamphetamine are normally subject to strict international controls, clandestine laboratories have shifted in recent years to employing chemicals that are not as strictly monitored. According to the report, online ordering has also facilitated the logistics of getting such compounds, particularly from vendors prepared to conceal the nature of the transactions.