Asian drug lords likely producing precursor chemicals in Golden Triangle

BANGKOK (Reuters) -Crime syndicates in Asia’s drug-producing Golden Triangle region have likely begun producing ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine, enabling them to avoid restrictions on importing precursors such as pseudoephedrine and ephedrine.

The development shows a new level of sophistication by drug syndicates as “pre-precursors” such as propionyl chloride are far less tightly regulated and easier to obtain.

“It is increasingly clear organised crime are using pre-precursors and have particularly impressive capacities in place to produce their own precursors - something nobody understood until recently,” said Jeremy Douglas, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regional representative for Southeast Asia.

The Golden Triangle – an area that centres on northeast Myanmar but includes parts of Thailand and Laos – was for years a main opium-growing region, with Asian crime groups forming alliances with ethnic minority militias who control parts of the area, especially in Myanmar.

But more recently production has boomed in amphetamine-type stimulants, especially methamphetamine, or meth as it is known, with the amount coming out of the Golden Triangle rising rapidly for a decade.

Authorities in Asia seizing a record 139 tonnes of meth in 2019, up from 127 tonnes in 2018 and 82.5 tonnes in 2017, UNODC data showed.

While final seizure data from last year is not available, the UNODC said the meth surge was not interrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19.

In contrast to the significant rise in meth seizures, interceptions of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine have fallen in Myanmar and surrounding countries.

The seizure of pseudoephedrine in Myanmar dropped from more than 10 million tablets in 2016 to none in 2019, while seizure of ephedrine there dropped from 534 kg in 2016 to 402 kg in 2019, UNODC data showed.

Meanwhile, intelligence suggests some militia groups in Myanmar are importing chemicals used to make pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, even though there are no known legitimate industries in the region that require them.

Reflecting growing concern about the trend, the issue was discussed at a meeting of the Thai government, the UNODC and other international agencies last week.

Douglas said that governments and law enforcement agencies in Asia will need to work closely together to better regulate and control the flow of chemicals, including some that are not controlled.

Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Tom AllardEditing by Robert Birsel