Earlier this week, authorities in Laos announced the seizure of a record haul of methamphetamine, the latest indication of the massive amounts of illegal narcotics now flowing through the lower Mekong region.
As per the state-run Vientiane Times, an official at the Public Security Office reported that police stopped a truck in the capital Vientiane and discovered that it was carrying a shipment of 85 bags of methamphetamine containing a colossal 16,976,000 tablets – the largest seizure on record, and close to the total amount seized in Laos in the whole of 2020.
The alarming thing about the seizure, apart from its sheer size, is the fact that it was not particularly out of the ordinary. Large-scale drug seizures are currently occurring on an almost daily basis in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, signaling the recent sharp increase in drug production in the lower Mekong region.
Last month the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual report on the Asian synthetic drug market, which found that production, particularly of methamphetamine, reached an all-time high in Asia in 2020.
According to UNODC, Asian anti-drug authorities confiscated a record of almost 170 tons of meth last year, up 19 percent from 2019, and more than double the 82.5 tons seized in 2017. The lion’s share of this production took place in Shan State in eastern Myanmar, whose overlapping conflict zones have long offered fertile conditions for the growth of illicit drug production.
Most strikingly, the increase came despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led the region’s governments to tighten border controls and introduce other movement restrictions, and the chaos prompted by the military coup in February. UNODC said that this demonstrated “the flexibility of organized crime groups to adapt to change and take advantage of porous borders in the region.”
UNODC also found that the efforts of Myanmar-based drug trafficking syndicates to dodge COVID-19 movement restrictions pushed them to diversify their transport routes. In particular, it noted increased shipments of drugs through Laos, a nation that has relatively weak law enforcement capacity and borders the easternmost reaches of Shan State.
According to the UNODC report, Laos seized 18.6 million methamphetamine tablets and 5.5 tons of crystal meth in 2020, up from 17.7 million and 5.1 tons in 2019, respectively. UNODC also reported that since 2018, “seizures of chemicals suspected to be destined for the illicit manufacture of drugs in the Golden Triangle area have increased exponentially, reaching more than 125 tons in 2020, or more than fivefold the combined amount seized in the preceding five years.”
The Vientiane Times report noted anecdotally that Lao police have made numerous arrests and seized large quantities of narcotics so far this year. It noted that on an unspecified date earlier this year in Udomxai province, police and soldiers uncovered a drug production base, arresting eight people and seizing over 1,000 kilograms of amphetamine and crystal methamphetamine. If this week’s massive drug bust is anything to go by, drug production and trafficking is set to surge upward once again in 2021.