Methamphetamine production soared in Asia as economy shook from COVID-19, report says

(CNN) – Drug cartels in Asia quickly adapted to the 2020 pandemic, flooding markets with synthetic narcotics worth tens of billions of dollars, even as the global economy stalled, according to a new United Nations report. .

Methamphetamine seizures in East and Southeast Asia increased 19% from 2019 to a new record, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report. ). The organization did not put a dollar figure on the scale of the methamphetamine trade in 2020, but it was believed to be worth between $ 30 billion and $ 61 billion, in 2019, according to the UNODC.

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

Thrive amid the covid-19 pandemic

The report concludes that the cartels have thrived amid a global public health emergency by reacting quickly to the changing situation on the ground. These groups began using less regulated chemicals to produce illicit drugs, manufactured narcotics in new places difficult for law enforcement to access, shipped their products through surprising new routes, and even found new customers.

An armed customs officer protects a record seizure of more than 500 kilograms of methamphetamine during a press conference in Hong Kong in November.

According to the report, growth was largely driven by countries in the Lower Mekong region: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. Criminal organizations took advantage of the fact that regional authorities gave priority to containing the spread of COVID-19 and the application of public health measures.

The massive supply of cheap methamphetamine, which has kept prices low, “contributes to increasing demand and consumption in the region,” the report notes.

UNODC found that a number of large-scale methamphetamine manufacturers appeared to have also established themselves in Cambodia, as well as Myanmar’s Shan State, an area ruled by militias and warlords long accused of financing themselves with drug dealing. Cambodian authorities dismantled five synthetic drug laboratories in 2020, four of which produced methamphetamine. It was the first time clandestine methamphetamine laboratories had been found in Cambodia since 2014.

Traffickers also appear to be using nNew routes to move illicit narcotics and the chemical precursors used to make them. Laos appears to be a focal point, as seizures of both methamphetamine and precursor chemicals skyrocketed there. According to the report, Hong Kong is increasingly used as a transportation hub. Methamphetamine seizures in the semi-autonomous Chinese city increased tenfold between 2019 and 2020, including a 500-kilo shipment from Mexico destined for Australia.

Bankers can now evade quarantine in Hong Kong 0:51

The role of political instability

“Organized crime has been able to continue the expansion of the regional trade in synthetic drugs – in particular in the Upper Mekong and Shan State of Myanmar – by maintaining a constant supply of chemicals in production areas despite border restrictions that have been imposed. affected legitimate cross-border trade, ”said Douglas.

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

Douglas and other experts worry that drug traffickers may take advantage of the unstable situation in Myanmar.

“When economies break down, illicit economies tend to rise and become more powerful; it is exactly this scenario that we fear and anticipate now, “he said.

“Criminals are looking for conditions they can use, and the distraction of law enforcement and the breach of security we are witnessing provides the right environment for them: they thrive in the chaos from which legitimate businesses flee.”

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