“While the pandemic has slowed the global economy, criminal syndicates dominating the region have rapidly adapted and capitalized. They have continued to aggressively push supply in a conscious effort to build market and demand,” Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement to CNN.
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 the regional authorities’ priority of containing Covid-19’s dissemination and enforcement of public health measures.
The huge supply of cheap meth, which has kept prices low, “contributes to increasing demand and use in the region,” the report said.
UNODC found that several major meth producers had apparently set up shop in Cambodia in addition to Myanmar’s Shan state – an area ruled by militias and warlords who have long been accused of financing themselves through drug trafficking. Authorities in Cambodia dismantled five synthetic laboratories in 2020, four of which produced met. It was the first time secret meth laboratories were found in Cambodia since 2014.
Traffickers also appeared to be using new routes to move illegal drugs and the precursor chemicals used to manufacture them. Laos seemed to be a focal point as seizures of both meth and precursor chemicals peaked. According to the report, Hong Kong was increasingly used as a transportation hub. Meth seizures in the semi-autonomous Chinese city increased tenfold from 2019 to 2020, including a 500kg shipment shipped from Mexico destined for Australia.
“Organized criminal groups have been able to continue the expansion of regional trade in synthetic drugs – especially in the upper Mekong and Shan regions of Myanmar – by maintaining a constant supply of chemicals to production areas despite border restrictions that has affected legitimate cross-border trade, ”Douglas said.
Douglas and other experts are concerned that drug trafficking could benefit from the volatile situation in Myanmar.
“When economies break down illegal economies typically rise up and become more powerful – it is precisely this scenario that we fear and expect now,” he said.
“Criminals look for conditions they can use, and the distraction of law enforcement and security distribution that we are witnessing gives them the right environment – they thrive on the chaos that legitimate businesses run from.”