From the air, I could see the mighty Mekong snaking through the jungle, its light-brown waters contrasting with the green canopy of the mountains that come almost to the river’s edge. Even from a helicopter hundreds of feet above the ground, it was impossible not to be awed by the river, and I feel lucky to have seen it during the height of the rainy season. While the river’s flow is still below average for this time of year, it has recovered from previous months when it was a shadow of its former self, drought thrust upon it by the control of up-river dams. This week, I was privileged to travel to the Golden Triangle with Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB) Commissioner Lieutenant General Chinnapat Sarasin and our close partners from the Royal Thai Government, visiting the Doi Chang Moob army outpost and other viewing areas, where I was able to look across the river into Myanmar and Laos.
Unfortunately, the beauty of this region is often overshadowed by news and reports of the trafficking of humans, wildlife, and especially drugs. What is less well-known is the tremendous cooperation between U.S. and Thai law enforcement, and the progress we are making to protect the citizens of our two countries. Despite the challenges, together we have countered criminal organizations through joint investigations and enforcement operations. In recent years, Thailand has seized more methamphetamine than any other country in East and Southeast Asia, confiscating 116 tons in 2018 and 2019. Seizures of methamphetamine tablets (yaba) tripled over a five-year period from 113 million in 2014 to 381 million in 2019, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). During that same time-period, seizures of crystal meth increased dramatically from 1,017 kg in 2014 to 17,077 in 2019. I am proud of the assistance the United States has provided our Thai allies to help them achieve these milestones. Yet the job is far from done.
In its May 2020 Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia report, UNODC noted that methamphetamine remains the primary drug of concern in Thailand. Law enforcement made record tablet and crystal meth seizures across the Mekong in recent years and estimates value the regional market at $61 billion per year, which is nearly as much as the entire GDP of Myanmar. However, increased seizures are a sign not only of more effective policing but also of rising production. We see evidence of this in the value of drugs. The street price of methamphetamine in Thailand actually decreased by two-thirds from 2010 to 2020, despite the dramatic increase in seizures, while the purity of the pills remains as high as ever and, in some cases, has even increased. Synthetic (man-made) drugs such as methamphetamine are cheaper and less labor-intensive than tending and harvesting fields for plant-based drugs, thus increasing the production capacity, profitability, and appeal for drug trafficking organizations.
And it is not only the drugs themselves that present a problem but also the precursor chemicals that make the drugs possible. To put it simply, there would be no methamphetamine tablets without the precursor chemicals used to make them. Thai authorities seized 5,550 kg of sodium cyanide in 2014, a vital precursor for the production of methamphetamine; by 2019, that volume had increased to 99,750 kg. This is only the tip of the iceberg. We know many other precursor chemicals are slipping through, coming from beyond Southeast Asia. Transnational criminals are exploiting the border areas that Myanmar and Laos share with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to traffic chemicals for drug production – chemicals primarily originating in the PRC.
Looking across the Mekong River toward the Kings Romans Casino in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, the influence of the PRC’s One Belt One Road Initiative was evident as I witnessed new construction occurring despite…