In the absence of new COVID-19 restrictions, Asian drug cartels are thriving, warns UN report

(CNN) — The synthetic drug trade in Asia is reaching “extreme levels” with criminal groups establishing new drug trafficking routes to evade a crackdown by authorities and methamphetamine prices are hitting new lows, according to a new report released on Friday.

Research by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has revealed methamphetamine seizures in East and Southeast Asia, which have reached record levels during the pandemic as cartels were moving to larger and riskier bulk shipments, they reverted to pre-covid-19 pandemic numbers last year.

But other key indicators such as arrests, street availability, purity, as well as low wholesale and street prices, “indicate that supply has remained very high or unchanged,” the report said. the UN agency.

And as pandemic border closures and travel restrictions began to be lifted, international criminal organizations began to reconnect, with “late 2022 and early 2023 patterns beginning to resemble those of 2019,” he said. -he declares. Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

There are other signs that the drug trade is picking up. Japanese customs officials have seen an increase in methamphetamine smuggling from air passengers in the second half of 2022, after the country’s borders reopened. Trafficking networks from West Africa to East and Southeast Asia, which “virtually disappeared” during the pandemic, have now resumed operations, according to the report.

“The most powerful regional traffic networks can operate with a high degree of certainty that they can and will not be shut down and, therefore, can dictate market terms and conditions,” the report warned.

Some countries have stepped up their anti-trafficking efforts in recent years. Stricter law enforcement in southwest China’s Yunnan Province and along Thailand’s border with Myanmar has led to a significant drop in methamphetamine seizures in China and a slight drop in Thailand.

But, in turn, traffickers have adapted to “try to circumvent what governments are doing,” Douglas said.

Andaman Traffic News

Asian drug cartels generate billions of dollars from the global narcotics trade while attracting a fraction of the attention of their Latin and Central American counterparts, in part because they maintain a much higher profile. low and are less susceptible to episodes of internal warfare.

For years, most regional methamphetamine production has taken place in the jungles of the Golden Triangle, a remote region where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet that has long been one of the major global narcotics hubs.

The tightly guarded area still sees large volumes of drugs smuggling through, but criminal groups are increasingly turning to western shipping lanes, diverting supplies through central Myanmar to the Andaman Sea, “where it seems few were watching,” Douglas said.

From Myanmar, methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs then travel to the rest of the world, with shipments previously found as far away as Japan, New Zealand and Australia. South Asia is also getting more into this market, with methamphetamine being shipped in “large volumes” from Myanmar to Bangladesh and northeast India, according to the report.

Despite government crackdowns and rising seizures, wholesale and street prices of methamphetamine fell to record lows across the region in 2022, a sign that large numbers continued to arrive, the report says. uninterrupted drug supply. He also pointed to the high number of drug-related arrests and admissions to drug treatment centers, as further evidence of a large trade.

Other UNODC findings in recent years have painted a picture of a booming drug industry in Asia despite the pandemic, with some drug cartels taking advantage of distracted governments struggling to contain the virus and enforce measures. of public health.

Organized crime groups have also taken advantage of political instability, such as the 2021 military coup in Myanmar and the country’s ongoing conflict, which has transformed the country’s already lawless border regions into a center of production and even more perfect contraband.

increase in ketamine

Along with methamphetamine, the production and trafficking of ketamine is also rapidly increasing in the region, with authorities seizing 27.4 tonnes of the powerful dissociative anesthetic often used as a party drug.

This figure is 167% higher than the previous year, according to the UNODC report. Almost all countries and territories in the region reported an increase in seizures, except for Japan and Hong Kong.

“The ketamine situation in the region in many ways reflects the supply-side approach used to expand the methamphetamine market in the mid-2010s,” said Inshik Sim, UNODC Regional Coordinator for synthetic drugs, in a press release.

“That said, information on the use of ketamine is limited and it is unclear how widespread it is; research is urgent.

Cambodia, long a transportation hub, has also begun to emerge as a hotspot for drug manufacturing as authorities uncovered a string of secret industrial-scale ketamine labs, storage facilities and warehouses. treatment.

The chemicals and equipment found in these labs point to a sprawling international network, originating in or transiting from at least 12 different countries and provinces, according to the report. For example, chemicals made in France have been found with Vietnamese writing on the packaging; other substances came from Poland, India, Indonesia and South Korea.

The large number of chemicals found also indicates a boom in ketamine production. Cambodian authorities seized 518 tons of chemicals in 2022, up from just 5 tons in 2020, alarming international and regional leaders.

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