From Myanmar to Mexico, transnational criminal groups are trafficking more drugs than before: UN

UN Office on Drugs and Crime regional representative Jeremy Douglas said the surge in synthetic drugs is "is like nothing we have ever seen before".
UN Office on Drugs and Crime regional representative Jeremy Douglas said the surge in synthetic drugs is "is like nothing we have ever seen before".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - High-level delegations from government ministries and agencies across Asia are meeting on Wednesday (Nov 7) in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw to discuss a new strategy to combat synthetic drugs: focus on the chemicals needed to make them.

The crisis in the region has been growing, with methamphetamine production and trafficking reaching alarming levels.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said seizures this year to date already exceed records set in 2017.

Drugs pumped out of the notorious Golden Triangle - roughly where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet - are not limited to the region, where supply vastly exceeds market demand in the surrounding Mekong region and South-east Asia, said the UNODC.

The drugs reach shores farther afield, as far away as Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

In a report last year, UNODC said opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle has levelled off after tripling over the last decade, with production mainly concentrated in Shan state in northern Myanmar. But methamphetamine production and trafficking continues on an upward trajectory.

Also, powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl are being produced, diverted and trafficked in and from the region, to North America and recently Australia, where they are mixed into the opiate and heroin markets to maximise profits.

South-east Asia's meth crisis is mirrored by the United States' opioid crisis in two respects - both are getting worse, and in both cases the majority of the supply of drugs comes from grey border zones within sovereign countries.

This is where cartels and armed groups - sometimes plainly criminal and sometimes political, or a mix of both - in parts of northern Mexico and in parts of northern Myanmar control a parallel, illicit economy which, in some respects, is the only significant economy in those areas.

In the United States, deaths from drug poisoning have reached the highest level ever recorded, according to the 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA) released last week.

The opioid threat - controlled prescription drugs, synthetic opioids, and heroin - has reached epidemic levels. Some 174 people died every day from drug poisoning in 2016, the NDTA said - more than those who died by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicides and homicides.

The NDTA report mentions Asia-based transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) specialising in international money laundering by "transferring funds to and from China and Hong Kong through the use of front companies and other money laundering methods".

"Asian TCOs... remain the 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy) source of supply in US markets by trafficking MDMA from clandestine laboratories in Canada into the United States," it said.

In South-east Asia, the focus is shifting to stopping precursor chemicals to disrupt meth production.

"The surge in synthetic drugs, particularly meth... is like nothing we have ever seen before, and it has required a matching surge in precursor chemicals," UNODC regional representative Jeremy Douglas said.

"At this point the trade is worth billions of dollars to the larger transnational organised crime groups as they have consolidated production into safe havens and started trafficking to increasingly distant markets," he warned.

"The levels of production we're now seeing would simply not be possible without a steady and rising supply of precursor chemicals of one type or another.

"But at the same time governments are reporting little if any seizure of chemicals and pharmaceuticals that can be used to make synthetic drugs, indicating traffickers source them easily and move them freely across borders."

Hence the need to interdict the flow of precursor chemicals, mostly from China and India.

National Narcotics Control Commission of China's deputy secretary-general Min Tianshi, in a statement on the Naypyitaw meeting, said: "The need to coordinate on a strategy and programme with UNODC has become obvious."

"The issue has come up again and again at regional forums," he said. "There is growing momentum to address cross-border precursor diversion and trafficking, and we see the talks here this week as a step forward."

A key prerequisite is for governments, and agencies within governments, to share information quickly. Health authorities for instance, may be aware sooner than law enforcement agencies of a particular drug problem.

"After what we have seen in North America with fentanyl and related powerful opioids, we hope everyone appreciates rapid sharing of information can save lives," UNODC synthetic drug analyst Inshik Sim said.