The Drug Cartels’ Transnational Tentacles

Cocaine warehouse Illegal drug production

In recent years, the illicit drug trade in Southeast Asia is becoming more integrated within the region as well as with the wider Asia Pacific region. With a well-greased supply chain to meet an ever-increasing demand, criminals are turning the regional drug trade into an underground economy that can rival the GDP of some small countries. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

Drugs produced in Myanmar are smuggled into China, Thailand, Lao, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam using overland routes. There are indications that from Rakhine State in western Myanmar, drug shipments are transported using maritime route via the Andaman Sea to central and southern Thailand.

For countries further away like Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, air transport with couriers hiding drugs in carry-ons or checked-in luggage is used by the narcotrafficking groups.

However, given the almost universal restrictions imposed on air traffic because of the pandemic, air transport may be completely disrupted for the traffickers. Be that as it may, the pandemic did not seem to put a dent in the lucrative drug trade, as evidenced by the biggest drug bust in the history of Southeast Asia in Myanmar between February and April 2019 and the ensuing low street prices.

Given the enormity of the drug market profits and far-reaching implications to all the nefarious players, the opportunistic narcotrafficking groups are probably adapting quickly to changing market conditions and finding ways around the disrupted air trafficking. It would not be a surprise if they have already shifted to using more of the other modes of trafficking such as maritime transport and postal system.

Also, for synthetic drugs like meth, as it is relatively easy to produce in a lab and do not depend on land mass and seasonal harvest, if the disruption to the existing supply chain is getting more severe, then there is a possibility that production will move in-country to service the domestic market to avoid cross-border activities.

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