Methamphetamine seizures across East and Southeast Asia hit yet another record high in 2021, proof of the “staggering” scale and reach the region’s drug gangs have gained after a decade of steady growth that looks set to continue, the United Nations says in a new report.
In Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: Latest Development and Challenges, issued Monday in Bangkok, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says seizures of meth tablets topped 1 billion for the first time last year. While crystal meth, or ice, seizures dipped slightly to 79 metric tons, it says, total meth seizures by weight were a record 171.5 metric tons in 2021, nearly eight times the total seizures a decade ago.
Combined with stable or falling street and wholesale prices across the region, the UNODC says the spiraling drug hauls are evidence of soaring production more than stepped-up law enforcement.
“It is fair to say the region is struggling badly to address meth, and frankly to deal with other synthetic drugs as well,” Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VOA.
“There needs to be a radical policy shift and rebalancing if the region wants to get to a point of managing the meth problem or making some headway,” he added.
With fewer and fewer busts of meth labs across the region, the UNODC says production continues to concentrate in the notorious Golden Triangle, a rugged and remote domain of warlords, drug gangs and gunrunners where the corners of eastern Myanmar, western Laos and northern Thailand meet.
Within that triangle, it says meth production is concentrating further still in eastern Myanmar, where militias backed by the country’s brutal military and rebel armies set against it vie for territory — and a cut of the drug trade.
Most of the meth made there continues to pour into northern Thailand, from where it cascades across the rest of the country, Southeast Asia and as far away as Australia and Japan.
However, beefed-up security by Thai police along the country’s northern border has been pushing a growing share of the traffic through Laos instead. From there, drug gangs can bypass the north of Thailand and push their product into the country across its less-guarded border in the northeast Isaan region, most of which tracks the Mekong River.
Of all the ice and meth tablets interdicted in Thailand’s top 10 provinces for seizures last year, northeast provinces accounted for 49% and 39%, respectively.
Lt. Gen. Pornchai Charoenwong, an assistant to the Thai police force’s narcotics suppression division, confirmed the trend.
“We can point to a couple of factors,” he told VOA. “First is the increased suppression by the government, police and the military in the northern region. With that increased suppression, we’ve seen a change in trafficking routes from the northern part of Thailand to the Isaan region along the Mekong River.”
He said COVID-driven border controls have played a part as well.
To help Thai authorities plug the gaps, the U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Office has donated some $670,000 worth of equipment to local police in the northeast this year.
Mark Snyder, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting head of mission in Thailand, said that represents an increase in U.S. crime-fighting aid to that part of the country, reflecting its growing role in the region’s drug trade.
“Thai law enforcement has been doing a lot of work on the northern border,” he said, and “when you have increased law enforcement presence in one area, the criminal organizations will adapt to that.”
He declined to say what the equipment consists of. Pornchai said the U.S. donations typically include vehicles, communications gear and drones.
From Thailand, much of the meth flows south to, and through, Malaysia, which the UNODC report highlights as an increasingly important springboard to the rest of Southeast Asia and beyond for Golden Triangle drug gangs.
Laos, Thailand and Malaysia all saw record seizures of meth tablets in 2021.
The UNODC says the trade is also getting harder to stop, for a few reasons.
Most producers “brand” their packages with distinct codes that help the gangs keep track of them down the line. Variations on “999” and “Y1” are the most common, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Last year, though, the share of meth seized from a host of smaller producers using other codes shot up from 2.8% to 13%.
Douglas said the “unprecedented” surge in smaller producers, who buy meth powder from larger groups but press the tablets themselves, is likely adding to the overall rise in supply. He said more producers also means more trafficking networks, which means more players for the authorities to try and uncover, infiltrate and stop.
Blocking the flow of the chemicals the larger groups use to make their meth is getting tougher too, the U.N. agency says.
Seizures of the most common meth precursors, burdened by import and export controls that force drug gangs to get their hands on much of what they need on the black market, have crashed across Southeast Asia in recent years. The UNODC suspects that means the groups have switched to making those precursors themselves from other chemicals, or pre-precursors, that are not controlled.
The new report says authorities in the region seized a number of these other chemicals last year and into 2022 either at or on the way to suspected lab sites.
Douglas said pre-precursors “make an already complex situation more difficult.”
The U.N. and others are working with local authorities to highlight the problem and help them share intelligence on where and when those chemicals are moving, he added, while talks at the global level on controlling their shipment are also underway.
The report also notes the spread of meth from Myanmar westward into northern India, Middle Eastern drug gangs now using Malaysia as a steppingstone for amphetamine shipments, and illicit ketamine producers setting up shop in Cambodia.
Douglas said Southeast Asia’s drug gangs “have all the ingredients in place that they need to continue to grow,” and will do so unless local authorities themselves adapt.
“The scale and reach of the methamphetamine and synthetic drug trade in East and Southeast Asia is staggering,” he said, “and yet it can continue to expand if the region does not change approach and address the root causes that have allowed it to get to this point, including governance in the Golden Triangle and market demand.”