Meth trafficking in SE Asia reaching 'alarming levels,' UN warns

This photo, released by the Royal Thai Navy on January 25, 2018, shows meth pills seized by Thai authorities near the border with Laos.

(CNN)The production and trafficking of methamphetamine in the Mekong Delta region of Southeast Asia is rising at "alarming levels," the United Nations has warned.

The area has long been notorious for opium and heroin, especially the so-called "Golden Triangle" of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
"What we've seen is steady, year-on-year increases, but on top of that in the last couple years, we've seen huge cases -- where you see a ton of methamphetamine at a time. And they're being traced back to the same areas in the north of this country (Myanmar)," said Jeremy Douglas, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's representative for Southeast Asia.
    "There's a lot of evidence coming together from the region pointing back to the same groups, pointing back to the same location."
    Experts say organized criminal groups have invested in methamphetamine as a response to market forces and because it's easy to hide and move the laboratories where the drug is made. Their operations have been made easier by the lack of central authority in Myanmar's restive north and the relatively porous borders, Douglas said.
    "It's not like heroin where we know the location of the opium fields. With methamphetamine, groups have migrated operations from one country to another country," he said. "They're using governance gaps in northern Myanmar."
    The warnings about the escalating drug trade came during a meeting of drug and law enforcement officials in Myanmar's capital of Naypyidaw.
    A regional approach is needed to squeeze the supply of materials into the region, Myanmar Deputy Home Minister Maj. Gen. Aung Soe said.
    "A top priority for us (Myanmar) is a regional precursor strategy that will slow the supply of chemicals and pharmaceutical products into drug-producing areas of the Golden Triangle," he said, according to the UN's drug office.
    The regional drug market for both heroin and methamphetamine is estimated to be worth around $40 billion, the office reported.
    While opium and heroin production in the Mekong is on the decline, some countries this year already have performed more seizures of methamphetamine than during all of 2017 combined, the UN office said.
    Methamphetamine from the region has been found and seized in large quantities across the Asia-Pacific, including in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Much of it has been sourced back to the Mekong and northern Myanmar, Douglas said.
    Record-breaking drug busts have also been made this year in Myanmar and Thailand, while authorities in Australia seized a record 1.2-metric tonne shipment of methamphetamine in December. The drugs were initially believed to have originated from China, but further investigation revealed they were from Myanmar, Douglas said.