BANGKOK - Recent clampdowns by China have pushed transnational narcotics networks into the lower Mekong region like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, flooding the area with methamphetamine that have remained cheap despite record seizures by regional authorities.
Amid growing concern that drug syndicates will diversify to fentanyl - a deadly synthetic opioid - ministers and anti-drug officials from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam met in Bangkok this week to map out a strategy to increase cross-border investigations and operations through border liaison officers.
"Thailand's law enforcement agencies have had some success in recent years, but national efforts alone are clearly not enough," said Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam in statement released on Friday (Nov 15).
"Organised crime take advantage of gaps and vulnerabilities that result because of uneven law enforcement capacity and coordination problems."
Regional cooperation would help create a more coherent approach, he added.
Criminal networks have been deft in adjusting their tactics according to policing strategies, causing methamphetamine prices to plunge to levels last seen 20 years ago, "indicating extremely high levels of availability", said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which co-chaired the meeting with the Thai government.
"The continuing scale-up of synthetic drug trafficking in the Mekong is not simply a crisis for the region itself, but it is now an international problem," said Mr Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative.
"We are concerned that they will diversify further to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. With all its capacity, North America was not ready, and Asia certainly is not."
This week, for example, Thai police seized 176kg of crystal methamphetamine hidden inside the frames of electric treadmills that were bound for Japan.
Thailand alone last year seized 17 times the number of meth tablets found in the entire Mekong region a decade ago.
In May, enforcement authorities seized 10 tonnes of suspected meth precursor chemicals in the Mekong river, en route from China to Myanmar, according to a UNDOC statement.
The borderlands in Myanmar's northern Shan state, where armed groups limit the reach of enforcement authorities, has been identified as the epicentre of the meth trade.
Efforts by Thai authorities to suppress illicit activity in the Golden Triangle - the part of the Mekong river where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet - only resulted in rerouting of shipments from Myanmar to Thailand via the latter's western border, or via the Andaman Sea.
Preliminary data for this year indicate that the region has already seized more crystal meth than it did last year, said the UNDOC in its statement.
The criminal networks have been able to keep production going and use new precursors to replace others when their laboratories are raided.
With the regional meth market estimated to be worth US$61.4 billion ($83.5 billion) per year, the crime syndicates are seeking new ways to launder their profits, including through South-east Asian casinos.
Governments in the past have made limited impact by targeting street sales of drugs, noted Mr Douglas.
"We are pleased Mekong countries are today agreeing to emphasise dampening market demand through preventive education and addressing health, harms and social consequences, by increasing cross-border operations, joint training and justice cooperation, and continuing to support impoverished opium farmers in Myanmar and Laos to transition away from the drug economy," he said.