Asia's meth boom
Updated 8:57 PM ET, Mon November 5, 2018
Hong Kong (CNN)From the jungles of Myanmar to the streets of Hong Kong, police throughout Asia are fighting a war against methamphetamine.
By many indications, they're losing.
Demand for both crystal meth and yaba, tablets that typically contain a mixture of meth and caffeine, is skyrocketing. Production is increasing at an unprecedented clip, and so is the body count. Leaders in places like Bangladesh and the Philippines are waging deadly drug wars that have cost thousands of lives.
But this isn't "Breaking Bad" -- meth isn't just used by the poor and the downtrodden.
Meth no longer discriminates in Asia; it has become the dominant drug of choice across the region, irrespective of class, age or gender, according to Jeremy Douglas, who is in charge of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) southeast Asia operations.
In a career spanning 16 years, Douglas said he's never seen demand like this.
"No situation is exactly comparable, but this is off the charts," he said.
Experts say the boom is due to a serendipitous combination of domestic and geopolitical issues that have aligned to the benefit of the region's drug gangs.
The majority of meth production is happening deep inside the jungles of the Golden Triangle, a lawless area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. Experts say it's easy to conceal drug production there and move it on at short notice.
Drug runners, meanwhile, are exploiting new roads and infrastructure being built as part of an ambitious, trillion-dollar Chinese initiative to connect markets across the globe, using the flow of people and licit goods to mask drug trafficking.
And the profits, likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are being laundered via intricate international schemes, often using front companies in countries where lax oversight makes it easy to hide money.
"It's a perfect storm in terms of the production of methamphetamine," says John Coyne, a former head of strategic intelligence at the Australian Federal Police who now works on border security issues at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute.
"It's pushing Southeast Asia into what could be in time a methamphetamine epidemic."
A large portion of meth seized throughout the Asia Pacific region has been traced to Myanmar's northern Shan State, where militias and warlords reign supreme.
Perhaps the most prominent is the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its political wing, the United Wa State Party (UWSP).
The two have waged a years-long struggle for autonomy for the ethnic Wa population, people who share a common language as well as cultural and historic ties with their neighbors in China's southern Yunnan province.
Shan State boasts a compelling combination of a good poppy-growing climate and a dearth of law enforcement. For years, the Golden Triangle was the source of the majority of the world's illegal heroin and opium.
Authorities in the West have long accused the UWSA and UWSP of funding their armed struggle against the Myanmar central government with the profits from drug production. The UWSA is believed to boast around 30,000 fighters.
Verifying either claim is incredibly difficult. Northern Shan State is one of the hardest places in the world to access; some joke it's easier to get into North Korea. The UWSA granted journalists a rare visit to the region in 2016, during which time they denied allegations of narcotics trafficking.
Official numbers appeared to lend credence to the claim that the UWSA is no longer producing heroin, at least at first glance. Golden Triangle heroin production and distribution has been on the decline, according to numbers from the United Nations.
Authorities warn that's likely because the big players have ditched heroin in favor of a new, cheaper to produce alternative: methamphetamine.
"There's a lot of evidence coming together from across the region pointing back to the same groups, pointing back to the same locations," said Douglas with the UNODC.