“As the pandemic caused the global economy to slow down, the crime syndicates that dominate the region quickly adapted and capitalized. They continued to aggressively push supply in a conscious effort to build market and demand,” Jeremy Douglas , the UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement provided to CNN.
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 to contain the spread of Covid-19 and apply public health measures.
The massive supply of low-cost methamphetamines, which has kept prices low, “helps to increase demand and utilization in the region,” the report said.
UNODC found that several large-scale methamphetamine producers appeared to have opened stores in Cambodia as well as 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 methamphetamines. It was the first time since 2014 that clandestine methamphetamine laboratories were found in Cambodia.
It also appeared that the traffickers were using new routes to move illicit narcotics and the chemical precursors used to produce them. Laos appeared to be a focal point, as seizures of methamphetamines and chemical precursors increased. Hong Kong has increasingly been used as a transportation hub, according to the report. Seizures of methamphetamine in the semi-autonomous Chinese city increased tenfold from 2019 to 2020, including a 500-kilogram shipment sent from Mexico to Australia.
“Organized crime groups have been able to continue expanding regional trade in synthetic drugs – particularly in the upper Mekong and Shan state of Myanmar – by maintaining a steady supply of chemicals in manufacturing areas, despite restrictions on frontiers that impacted legitimate cross-border trade, “Douglas said.
Douglas and other experts fear that drug traffickers may take advantage of the unstable situation in Myanmar.
“When economies collapse, illicit economies typically rise and become more powerful – it is exactly this scenario that we fear and anticipate now,” he said.
“Criminals seek conditions they can use, and the distraction of law enforcement and security failures we are witnessing provide them with the right environment – they thrive in the chaos that legitimate companies flee from.”