BANGKOK – Chinese drug police are working with Mekong countries to strike at the heart of a mega-rich meth syndicate as the region targets top-level drug traffickers instead of street dealers.
The porous and lawless border areas of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos have for decades been a hub for heroin production, but the so-called Golden Triangle is now pumping unprecedented quantities of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine into the global markets, fueling a $61 billion drug trade.
In large part responsible for the dramatic shift to synthetic drugs is a mega-cartel known as Sam Gor, which U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime believes is Asia’s biggest crime syndicate. It is led by a Chinese-born Canadian citizen named Tse Chi Lop.
China is now stepping up efforts with Mekong countries — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — to take down Sam Gor in a joint operation, said an official from China’s National Narcotics Control Commission.
“They are one of the major threats,” said deputy commissioner Andy Tsang on the sidelines of a meeting to stamp out a regional plan on Friday.
“The region as a whole, China included, will do our best to hit it where it hurts the most,” he said.
The production of methamphetamine — either in tablet “yaba” form or the highly potent crystallized “ice” version — takes place primarily in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state along with ketamine and fentanyl, but much of the precursor chemicals needed to cook them flows across the border from China.
Law enforcement has long focused on busting low-level dealers and users on the streets, a plan that has proved “static” when faced with the shifting trafficking routes used by Sam Gor, said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia.
Now drug police from the six countries will share intelligence to target traffickers working at border “choke points” where the flow of drugs and precursor chemicals is rampant, he said.
“You can’t engineer the surge of methamphetamine without the surge of chemicals,” Douglas said, adding that the chemicals come from not only from China, but from Thailand, Vietnam and India as well.
Sam Gor is also believed to launder its billions in drug money through businesses springing up along the Mekong — including casinos, hotels and real estate.
Thailand in 2018 netted more than 515 million yaba tablets, 17 times the amount for the entire Mekong region a decade ago — and seizures this year have already outpaced that amount, said the UNODC.
Drug hauls feature in headlines on a nearly daily basis in the region, with police finding pills packed in Chinese tea sachets — though traffickers are finding more creative ways to ship their products.
On Thursday, Thailand’s narcotics police raided a Bangkok warehouse and found 36 kg (79 pounds) of ice hidden in the metal frames of treadmills that were about to be shipped to Japan, while another 122 kg were stored in cardboard boxes.