Vientiane, Lao PDR (25 June 2021) - As the world prepares to mark the International Day Against Drugs on 26 June, a man dressed in a purple silk shirt is inspecting a truck about to leave Huapanh, a North Eastern province of Lao PDR. The truck is departing an area infamous for the cultivation of opium poppies, where this illegal crop has been a dominant source of income for generations. In four days the truck will cross the Friendship Bridge between Lao PDR and Thailand before continuing its journey onto a container ship towards its final destination: Europe.
According to the new World Drug Report, the shipment fits a typical label. Larger shipments and increased use of land and waterway routes are one of the ways organized criminal networks adapted to international travel restrictions following COVID-19. In this context, customs and police authorities at the Friendship Bridge have a particularly daunting task. Located at the centre of one of the biggest drug economies in the world, Lao PDR is not just a major producer of opium but also an important transit country for synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals. The Friendship Bridge in Vientiane is a favourite spot for organized crime groups to move drugs through Lao PDR into neighbouring Thailand.
However, as Mr. Savaythong Khounsavanh observes the green truck moving slowly down the dirt road for its long journey from the mountains of Huapanh, he is not worried about what the customs officers might find at the border. “This is a big day for us”, he explains. “We have been working for this since we planted our first seedlings four years ago”.
On 26 June, the World Drug Report is launched. “The report describes how fragile communities in opium-cultivating areas have become even more vulnerable as the pandemic affected their livelihods”, commented Erlend Audunson Falch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Lao PDR. “We have seen the same in Laos, with border closures and increasingly difficult market access for legal products. Since illegal trade channels are less impacted, there is a clear risk that opium becomes the only option for many communities. That is why successes like this are so important. The Vanmai farmers are really leading by example”.