Deep in the jungle in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province, a unit of armed border officers were on duty late last month when they stumbled on a cave stuffed with drugs.
The stash was huge. Inside were more than 5 million methamphetamine pills — known locally as yaba or “madness drug” — and 145 kilograms (about 320 pounds) of crystal methamphetamine wrapped in large plastic bags.
Even by conservative estimates, the haul was worth tens of millions of dollars, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It was the biggest stash Police Lt. Col. Dilok Arinpeng, who commands the unit, said he had ever seen — and, incredibly, he found it unguarded.
But these types of record-breaking busts have become the new normal in Southeast Asia, which is facing one of the world’s most intense drug crises. A UNODC report published Thursday found the methamphetamine trade is now worth between $30 billion and $61 billion per year in East and Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh.
That’s up from $15 billion a year in 2010, the last time the UNODC estimated the value of the meth trade in the region.
Meth is being sold at rock-bottom prices, seizures appear to be doing little to dent the operations of drug traffickers, and crystal meth from the region is feeding demand as far away as New Zealand.
Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the UNODC’s Southeast Asia and Pacific operations, called on governments globally to “get their heads around the scale and significance” of the problem.
If they don’t, he warned, the situation will only worsen. “The region is being used and abused by organized crime to do business,” Douglas said. “It is no stretch to say parts of it have become their playground.”
Armed Thai navy personnel in a boat during a patrol along the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Laos on May 23. A perfect storm Experts say the boom in southeast Asia’s meth industry is the result of a perfect storm of factors, which have seen Myanmar’s lawless Shan State emerge as the region’s meth factory. Many of the warlords, militias and rebel groups who gave up their separatist struggles in exchange for greater autonomy in recent decades, have used that freedom to fund themselves through the drug trade.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, they typically sold opium and heroin, but subsequently shifted to synthetic drugs after realizing how much easier they were to produce and more profitable they could be, Douglas said.
Lax regulation in Shan State, coupled with its porous borders, have enabled meth makers to easily import the required chemicals to make meth. Poorly enforced money laundering controls allow kingpins to easily clean their millions.
“The drugs problem escalated with the increased production of psychotropic stimulant tablets, ice (a nickname for crystal meth), and precursor chemicals have been trafficked illegally from the borders of neighboring countries,” Myanmar President U Win Myint said in a speech June 27, according to Burmese state media.
“The menace of drugs is slowly eroding our society, ruining the lives of our youth and destroying the dignity and future of our country,” he said.
In recent years, another factor has driven business. Significant investment has been made in new highways and bridges in southeast Asia, built to move products like food and clothing. But these new roads are also being used by smugglers to import chemicals and export their finished products, said John Coyne, a former head of strategic intelligence with the Australian Federal Police.
The R3A highway, for example, opened in 2011, connecting portions of Thailand to China via Laos. While it’s used to bring Chinese produce to markets in the south, since 2015 authorities have also expressed concern that drug traffickers use it to move meth.
All of that combined is creating what the UNODC calls “the world’s largest and most dynamic” methamphetamine market, which has led to drug seizures reaching levels “unimaginable a decade ago.”
In 2018, authorities seized a record-breaking 120 tons of crystal and pill methamphetamine in the Asia-Pacific region. More than half of those busts took place in Thailand, where authorities confiscated more than 515 million meth pills, according to UNODC.