Meth production surges in East and Southeast Asia as economy comes to grinding halt

Asia’s drug cartels adapted quickly to the pandemic in 2020, flooding markets with synthetic narcotics worth tens of billions of dollars even as the global economy ground to a halt, a UN report has said.

Methamphetamine seizures in East and Southeast Asia surged 19% from 2019 to a new record-high, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report found. The organization did not put a dollar figure on the meth trade’s value in 2020, but it was believed to be worth between $30 billion and $61 billion in 2019, according to the UNODC.

“While the pandemic has caused the global economy to slow down, criminal syndicates that dominate the region have quickly adapted and capitalized. They have continued to aggressively push supply in a conscious effort to build the market and demand,” Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.

The report found the cartels thrived through a global public health emergency by reacting quickly to the changing situation on the ground. These groups started using lesser-regulated chemicals to produce illicit drugs, manufactured narcotics in new locations that were hard for law enforcement to reach shipped their products through new, surprising routes and even found new customers.

The growth was largely driven by countries in the Lower Mekong region — Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, the report said. Organized criminal groups took advantage of regional authorities’ prioritization of containing Covid-19’s spread and enforcing public health measures.

The UNODC found that several large-scale meth manufacturers appeared to have set up shop in Cambodia in addition to Myanmar’s Shan State. Authorities in Cambodia dismantled five synthetic labs in 2020, four of which produced meth. It was the first time clandestine meth labs were found in Cambodia since 2014.

Traffickers also appeared to be using new routes to move illicit narcotics and the precursor chemicals used to make them. Laos appeared to be one focal point, as seizures of both meth and precursor chemicals spiked. Hong Kong was increasingly used as a transportation hub, according to the report.

Meth seizures in the semi autonomous Chinese city increased tenfold from 2019 to 2020, including one 500-kilogram shipment sent from Mexico that was destined for Australia.

Things do not appear to be getting better in 2021. Traffickers seem to be taking advantage of the months of political instability and violence in Myanmar, where the armed forces ousted the country’s democratically elected government in a February coup.