Southeast Asian police collaborate on string of drug busts

Southeast Asian police collaborate on string of drug busts

Tom Abke

Intelligence-gathering and law enforcement coordination helped lay the groundwork for large-scale drug busts in the Indo-Pacific area known as the Golden Triangle. The arrests and seizures included the largest drug bust in Indo-Pacific history, authorities said.

Police in the Laotian province of Bokeo stopped a truck carrying what appeared to be containers of beer on October 28, 2021. The crates, however, contained a cargo of powerful stimulants: 55 million tablets of methamphetamine and 1.7 tons of crystal methamphetamine. The haul had an estimated value of U.S. $200 million, The Washington Post newspaper reported.

The Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand intersect, is a production and distribution hub for illegal drugs.

A 2020 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned police in the region to expect a surge in methamphetamine production. In late August 2020, narcotics officials from the three countries, along with their counterparts from other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), met online to discuss drug trafficking. The officials agreed to “streamline strategic coordination” among their offices.

ASEANAPOL, headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is the association of ASEAN member national police forces. Following the UNODC report, ASEANAPOL reported a record-setting string of drug busts involving variants of methamphetamine in and around the Golden Triangle from July 2020 through October 2021, leading up to the beer truck bust.

These included: the July 19, 2020, seizure of U.S. $1.7 million worth of methamphetamine in Myanmar; seizures in January and February 2021 in Malaysia worth U.S. $1.04 million and U.S. $900,000, respectively; the March 2021 arrest in Malaysia of alleged ringleaders linked to five drug syndicates; and the October 4, 2021, seizure of over 1 ton of methamphetamine and other drugs in Myanmar worth U.S. $9 million. (Pictured: Thai police display U.S. $37 million worth of confiscated drugs from February 2017 busts.)

UNODC works with local law enforcement “to identify and address drug and precursor trafficking transnationally,” its Southeast Asia and Pacific office in Bangkok, Thailand, reported. The office aids in intelligence gathering, investigation, case preparation and prosecution, along with information sharing and cross-border cooperation.

In addition to seizing street-ready drugs, police in Laos confiscated about 200 tons of compounds used to produce methamphetamine and other illicit substances, destined for Golden Triangle drug factories, Voice of America reported in May 2021. The cache included 72 tons of propionyl chloride made in the People’s Republic of China.

The manufacture of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine has brought a “profound change” to the illicit drug market in Southeast Asia, stated UNODC, adding that “seizures of the drug are being made in quantities unimaginable a decade ago.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.