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Drug Cartels Flourish In Southeast Asia Amid The Pandemic

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The drug cartels in Southeast Asia have weathered the pandemic in part because of good planning. And business is booming despite border closures that have stymied legitimate commerce, as Michael Sullivan reports from Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Myanmar's largely lawless Shan State that borders China has been a go-to location for the drug business for decades. In the '60s and '70s, it was heroin. Today it's synthetics - crystal meth, fentanyl.

RICHARD HORSEY: It's got everything. It's got the instability they need to set up their labs away from prying eyes. It's conveniently close to massive chemical supplies that they need in China, and it's got some fairly easy export routes to their markets. It's a dream location.

SULLIVAN: That's Richard Horsey, an independent analyst and author of a recent International Crisis Group report on the synthetic drug trade in the region - a business the U.N. estimates is worth $60 billion a year in Asia and one that hasn't been affected by COVID at all or by record seizures this year, including five tons of crystal meth confiscated by Myanmar just a few weeks ago.

JEREMY DOUGLAS: I mean, that's a huge volume of drugs, five tons. The production levels are as high as they've ever been.

SULLIVAN: That's Jeremy Douglas, who heads the United Nations Regional Office on Drug and Crime, who says the proof is in the fact the street price for drugs in the region has actually gone down during the pandemic. Part of that, Richard Horsey says, is just good planning. He compares the cartel's success during the pandemic to that of a more reputable outfit - Amazon.

DOUGLAS: These guys are just extremely experienced and extremely good at navigating a complex regional supply chain. But also, they've invested an awful lot of money in preparing, you know, Plan B, Plan C to keep these high-profit drugs moving.

SULLIVAN: For example, the cartels have now adapted to a crackdown on traditional transit routes through northern Thailand by shifting routes to neighboring Laos. The U.N.'s Jeremy Douglas.

DOUGLAS: It is definitely now a major transshipment point that it was not only a few years ago. Everything just seems to sail straight on through, which indicates either no one's looking for it or arrangements are made to get it out.

SULLIVAN: And that's no accident either because the cartels were doing their homework even before COVID and saw an opportunity in Laos - a debt-ridden, cash-strapped, notoriously corrupt one-party state.

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN: This is the Kings Romans Casino in Laos' Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone on the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. The casino attracts a mostly Chinese clientele, runs on Beijing time, has its own police force and a 99-year, no-questions-asked lease from the Lao government.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIGER GROWLING)

SULLIVAN: And that means endangered species like these tigers are farmed in the zone and appear on the menu in restaurants here, animals prized for their alleged medicinal value. And then there's the allegations of human trafficking and drug running - Jeremy Douglas.

DOUGLAS: We've seen several reports, including of ice and meth traffic through that zone. And because it shares a border with the two other countries, you've got the opportunity to move across the borders very, very easily.

SULLIVAN: The man in charge of the special economic zone is a Chinese national, Zhao Wei, who used to run casinos in Myanmar's Shan State. He vehemently denied any wrongdoing in a rare interview with NPR in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ZHAO WEI: (Through interpreter) People think that anyone investing in this place must be connected to drugs, otherwise investors would not have chosen to come to the Golden Triangle. I want to develop the local economy to replace the drugs.

SULLIVAN: The U.S. government isn't buying it. Two years ago, it designated Zhao Wei's group a transnational criminal organization engaged in, quote, "horrendous illicit activities," including child prostitution, money laundering and drug trafficking throughout the region. But Zhao Wei is undeterred. Earlier this month, he presided over the groundbreaking for a new $50 million port in the special economic zone. A high-ranking Lao official was in attendance. The UNODC's Jeremy Douglas.

DOUGLAS: We need to make sure that countries aren't essentially becoming narco-states or rental states for organized crime. And Laos shows all the signs that it's falling into that trap.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in the Golden Triangle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.