From the air, I could see the mighty Mekong snaking through the jungle, its light-brown waters contrasting with the green canopy of the mountains that come almost to the river’s edge. Even from a helicopter hundreds of feet above the ground, it was impossible not to be awed by the river, and I feel lucky to have seen it during the height of the rainy season. While the river’s flow is still below average for this time of year, it has recovered from previous months when it was a shadow of its former self, drought thrust upon it by the control of up-river dams. This week, I was privileged to travel to the Golden Triangle with Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB) Commissioner Lieutenant General Chinnapat Sarasin and our close partners from the Royal Thai Government, visiting the Doi Chang Moob army outpost and other viewing areas, where I was able to look across the river into Myanmar and Laos.
Unfortunately, the beauty of this region is often overshadowed by news and reports of the trafficking of humans, wildlife, and especially drugs. What is less well-known is the tremendous cooperation between U.S. and Thai law enforcement, and the progress we are making to protect the citizens of our two countries. Despite the challenges, together we have countered criminal organizations through joint investigations and enforcement operations. In recent years, Thailand has seized more methamphetamine than any other country in East and Southeast Asia, confiscating 116 tons in 2018 and 2019. Seizures of methamphetamine tablets (yaba) tripled over a five-year period from 113 million in 2014 to 381 million in 2019, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). During that same time-period, seizures of crystal meth increased dramatically from 1,017 kg in 2014 to 17,077 in 2019. I am proud of the assistance the United States has provided our Thai allies to help them achieve these milestones. Yet the job is far from done.
In its May 2020 Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia report, UNODC noted that methamphetamine remains the primary drug of concern in Thailand. Law enforcement made record tablet and crystal meth seizures across the Mekong in recent years and estimates value the regional market at $61 billion per year, which is nearly as much as the entire GDP of Myanmar. However, increased seizures are a sign not only of more effective policing but also of rising production. We see evidence of this in the value of drugs. The street price of methamphetamine in Thailand actually decreased by two-thirds from 2010 to 2020, despite the dramatic increase in seizures, while the purity of the pills remains as high as ever and, in some cases, has even increased. Synthetic (man-made) drugs such as methamphetamine are cheaper and less labor-intensive than tending and harvesting fields for plant-based drugs, thus increasing the production capacity, profitability, and appeal for drug trafficking organizations.
And it is not only the drugs themselves that present a problem but also the precursor chemicals that make the drugs possible. To put it simply, there would be no methamphetamine tablets without the precursor chemicals used to make them. Thai authorities seized 5,550 kg of sodium cyanide in 2014, a vital precursor for the production of methamphetamine; by 2019, that volume had increased to 99,750 kg. This is only the tip of the iceberg. We know many other precursor chemicals are slipping through, coming from beyond Southeast Asia. Transnational criminals are exploiting the border areas that Myanmar and Laos share with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to traffic chemicals for drug production – chemicals primarily originating in the PRC.
Looking across the Mekong River toward the Kings Romans Casino in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, the influence of the PRC’s One Belt One Road Initiative was evident as I witnessed new construction occurring despite the impact of COVID-19. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Kings Romans Casino because the casino laundered money and trafficked drugs, among other serious crimes. Casinos are often linked to national banking institutions, which can then be used by nefarious actors to infiltrate regional banking systems in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Illegal enterprises, such as money laundering and drug trafficking, destabilize border security, strain public health services, undermine legitimate business, and increase the opportunities for corruption as the rule of law breaks down. And there is, of course, a very human side to this tragedy. In 2019 alone, more than 210,000 Thais were admitted to hospitals for drug treatment.
Close international law enforcement partnerships are the proven method to successfully combat transnational crime, and the U.S. government is in it for the long-haul. There is a phrase in the United States – you must put your money where your mouth is – which means you can’t just talk about a problem, you also have to act. And the United States has been acting! The United States has had a federal drug law enforcement presence in Bangkok since 1963 and in Chiang Mai since 1971. Since 1998, the DEA has been supporting and working alongside our Thai law enforcement counterparts through the Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU) – the DEA’s flagship overseas program that demonstrates the level of commitment the U.S. government maintains for Thailand. Thailand is one of just 15 countries worldwide and the only country in Asia with an established SIU. DEA agents and intelligence analysts are embedded in the unit and act as agent advisors to provide investigative support, operational funding, intelligence sharing, and technical assistance to our Thai partners. The SIUs are successful because U.S. and Thai law enforcement officers work side-by-side to develop and share intelligence in order to make arrests and disrupt and dismantle major international drug-trafficking organizations.
A recent example of our commitment to this effort was February’s opening ceremony for a multi-million dollar all-weather training facility at the Royal Thai Police Central Police Tactical Training Center in Nong Sarai. The project was jointly funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense and serves as a police training center for law enforcement agencies throughout ASEAN. The U.S. government will help Thailand open a second training facility in Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, on a Royal Thai Border Patrol Police base this autumn, in addition to providing a counter-narcotics training and equipment program. Concurrently, the U.S. Government has donated more than $600,000 worth of equipment to Thai law enforcement agencies, including motorcycles, trucks, cameras, and investigative tools through the U.S. Mekong Fund. In the coming weeks and months, we will be donating additional surveillance equipment, tactical clothing, trucks, and boats and trailers, for a combined total donation of $1.1 million, to help the Royal Thai Police fight transnational crime and drug trafficking. These numbers are impressive, but not nearly as important as the impact they have on people’s lives. Every dollar spent, every yaba pill seized, helps keep communities safe.
The United States and Thailand are bound not only as Treaty Allies but also as friends. As I visited the Golden Triangle, I was struck by the vast terrain of the Mekong border area and the challenges our Thai law enforcement partners face in combatting the regional drug trade. As your ally, I say to my Thai friends that the commitment of the U.S. Government to support you in this fight is steadfast and enduring.
(This Op-Ed was originally published in ThaiPublica and Chiang Rai Report websites. The Thai version of this Op-Ed was originally published in ThaiPublica, Chiang Mai News and Chiang Rai Report websites on August 3, 2020.)