Mekong governments and UNODC conclude negotiations on regional drug plan

Bangkok (Thailand), 15 November 2019
- Ministers and senior officials from Mekong MOU countries - Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam - and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have concluded two days of discussions and negotiations on a new political agreement and plan to address the deteriorating drug situation.

The meeting was arranged following recurring reports of significant increases in the production, trafficking and use of illicit drugs and precursor chemicals across the Mekong, and confirmation major transnational organized crime syndicates have migrated operations into the Golden Triangle. The borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos have been associated with drug production and trafficking for several decades, but the levels of synthetic drugs, in particular of methamphetamine (meth), being traced back to the area, are unprecedented.

Record tablet and crystal meth seizures were made across the Mekong in 2018 while prices declined to levels last seen 20 years ago, indicating extremely high levels of availability. Thailand alone seized 515 million meth tablets in 2018 - 17 times the total amount for the Mekong region a decade ago. At the same time, Thailand also seized more than 18 tons of crystal meth, more than the East and Southeast Asia regional total of five years ago. In response, Thai authorities announced an intense suppression campaign along borders in the Golden Triangle, resulting in the rerouting of shipments south through Myanmar to enter Thailand along its western border or out via the Andaman Sea, and overland to Laos and Viet Nam where seizures in the first half of 2019 have already surpassed 2018 totals. Preliminary data for 2019 indicate that the region has already seized more crystal meth than in 2018.

"The continuing scale-up of synthetic drug trafficking in the Mekong is not simply a crisis for the region itself, but it is now an international problem. Production is known to be centred in areas of limited access where protection is provided - the epicentre is North Shan in Myanmar, with active supply routes in and out. And the organized crime syndicates behind the trade have demonstrated they can maintain production even if labs are seized, and that new precursors can be used when others are unavailable", noted UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas. "We are concerned that they will diversify further to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. With all its capacity North America was not ready, and Asia certainly is not." He added, "Governments have for years focused on reducing supply, often targeting street sales while organized crime got a pass, and we see now that continuing this approach has little to no impact. The region has desperately needed to rethink how it is dealing with the problem, and we are pleased Mekong countries are today agreeing to emphasize dampening market demand through preventive education and addressing health, harms and social consequences, by increasing cross-border operations, joint training and justice cooperation, and continuing to support impoverished opium farmers in Myanmar and Laos to transition away from the drug economy."

The surge in synthetic drug production and trafficking has also resulted in an increase in the amount of money to be laundered. Recent estimates have valued the regional meth market at up to $US 61.4 billion per year and the heroin market at up to $US 10.3 billion, and organized crime syndicates have been seeking and using new and innovative ways to launder increasing profits, including through the growing regional casino industry. "We have not prioritised the laundering of drug money in the past, and organized crime have exploited gaps in our ability to investigate and respond", said Thailand's Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin. "We have had a good candid discussion about proceeds of drug trafficking and how to address the problem, and are looking to UNODC to examine how and where the money is going."

"Thailand's law enforcement agencies have had some success in recent years, but national efforts alone are clearly not enough," said Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam. "Organized crime take advantage of gaps and vulnerabilities that result because of uneven law enforcement capacity and coordination problems. The Mekong MOU helps by providing a framework through which we can deliver a more coherent regional approach." He added, "At the same time we have to prioritise the fact more and more people are using drugs, and the health of our communities and countries are being badly impacted."

A preparatory meeting of intelligence and border law enforcement officials was held prior to Mekong MOU negotiations to formulate a strategy to increase cross-border investigations and operations through border liaison offices (BLOs). Ministers approved the strategy, agreeing to report results in mid-2020. "Today's endorsement is a signal that the BLO network is a key strategic support for improved border management in the region," emphasized Regional Representative Douglas. "BLOs are one of the best tools governments of the region have available in the near to medium term for cooperation at and along borders, and we are pleased ministers have signed-off and the work can begin."

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