Drones, big money and cheap drugs

This photo taken on 23 May, 2019 shows Thai military rangers conducting a foot patrol along the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Lao in Ban Paeng, Nakhon Phanom province. (Aidan Jones / AFP Photo)

As dusk falls along the Mekong River, a nightly dance begins between Thai border security and Lao drug gangs now using drones, scouts and a pool of poor fishermen to shift record amounts of meth into Thailand.

Landlocked, secretive and with ungovernable borders, Lao has become a sluice for transporting Made-In-Myanmar meth to the drug hungry markets of Southeast Asia and Australia, where billion-dollar seizures are now being made.

Whisked over the remote mountains of Lao – one of the world's last surviving communist countries – shipments are regularly slipping into Thailand, the region's drug superhighway.

"It's coming in from over there," Thai navy captain Sumnuan Kamdee said, gesturing across the wide Mekong, which bisects Thailand and Lao.  

"Drugs have become a national threat." 

Armed with M4 rifles and night vision goggles, his Mekong River Unit scours the water in speedboats in Nakhon Phanom, one of Thailand's poorest border provinces in the northeast.

But the border is long and cannot be fully policed.

Once inside the kingdom, tonnes of highly addictive crystal meth, known as "ice", and hundreds of millions of yaba pills – caffeine-laced methamphetamine tablets guzzled by everyone from labourers to ravers – are consumed or warehoused before being smuggled onwards.

A months-long Thai military-led crackdown in the northern jungles of the kingdom's section of the notorious "Golden Triangle" has blocked the quickest drug route south.

But with big money to be made, the narco gangs have carved new routes west and east – through Lao and across the Mekong.

In the fading light, as the limestone karst scenery of Lao elbows into the night sky, black-clad Thai military rangers wait in mosquito-
infested bushes for suspicious crossings.

But the drug gangs are also quick to adapt.

"They have drones (from Lao) searching the river to see if there are any officials," Phoomsak Kampoo, district chief officer of Tha Utain district of Nakhon Phanom, said. 

"And they have scouts watching for checkpoints on this (Thai) side."

Cheap as a beer

On smaller runs, Lao fishermen will cut their engines and drift close to the Thai bank before lobbing wax-covered parcels of two to three thousand yaba pills towards the shore, where Thai couriers scamper out to claim them.

But bigger, multi-million-dollar shipments are becoming more frequent. 

Experts say the Golden Triangle region is now likely to be the biggest meth production hub in the world. Yet without the ultraviolence of the Latin American cartels, it captures fewer headlines. 

On 31 May the Mekong River Unit received a tip off that led to a 133-kilo haul of crystal meth a few kilometres down river in Mukdahan province. 

It was a fraction of the near three tonnes of "ice" seized by Thailand between just 31 May and 4 June – on top of nearly five million yaba tablets. 

Despite the intense anti-drug operations, meth is still getting through to more lucrative overseas markets.

Australian border authorities announced a record 1.6 tonnes haul of ice in Melbourne last Friday – with an estimated street value of US$840 million – wrapped in packets of Chinese-branded tea and hidden in a shipment of stereo speakers shipped from Thailand.

At that price, losses are easily absorbed by the drug networks. 

"If just one out of 10 shipments gets through, they still get their money," a senior Thai drug official said, requesting anonymity.

Inside Thailand, street prices are plunging – evidence of a huge oversupply from the meth lords who have slashed costs by using cheaper precursor chemicals.

The tiny pink or green vanilla-scented yaba pills now go for as little as 30-baht (less than US$1) dollar) in some border zones, drug officials said – as little as a bottle of Thai beer.  

A kilo of ice is down to around US$11,000 in Bangkok – and just US$4,800 in Lao.

"Meth is destroying lives, families and communities," police major-general Pornchai Charoenwong, deputy commissioner of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau, said. 

Spotlight on Lao

Under pressure, Lao is co-operating with neighbouring law enforcement.

"But frankly Lao really needs to up their game when it comes to tackling organised crime, drug trafficking and border control," said Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The high profile 2017 arrest of Lao drug lord Xaysana Keophimpa at Bangkok's main airport was hailed as a new era of intelligence sharing.

But with scant details from Lao it is not clear which of Xaysana's alleged associates has been prosecuted.

Meanwhile, meth continues to cascade across the Mekong region.

Vietnam has made record seizures this year, including 700 kilos of ice hidden in tea packets in Nghe An province, which borders Lao.

Cambodia is also reporting a spike in drug movements over its Lao border.

"Myanmar to Lao, then through Cambodia... this is now one of the main drug routes from the Golden Triangle," Cambodia's Deputy National Police Chief Mok Chito said. 

The falling drug prices are curdling a public health and crime crisis in local communities riddled with addiction and petty drug dealing. 

In a remote Thai village near the Lao border, a recovering addict explained how his life slowly unravelled after being introduced to yaba at 15.

"I lost money, friends and my health," Nat – not his real name – said.

"It took away 10 years of my life. I am trying to get it back." - AFP