Editor’s Note: Jeremy Douglas is the Regional Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He can be followed on Twitter @jdouglasSEA. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The recent arrest of Tse Chi Lop, the alleged leader of the Sam Gor drug syndicate and one of the world’s most-wanted suspected criminals, is a remarkable victory for the coalition of governments and police forces that pursued him.
He was the target of a massive, multiyear operation that required significant political and operational investment from as many as 20 different agencies in a dozen countries.
No one should underestimate how hard it was to take him down. Tse is by far the most high-profile alleged trafficker arrested in decades in Asia, where major criminals tend to lay low and beyond the reach of police.
Transnational organized crime groups have become incredibly wealthy and powerful in recent years on the back of the synthetic drug trade, which thrives in poorly governed swathes of territory where cartels set up industrial-scale clandestine drug labs. Many of them are found in portions of the Golden Triangle, the border region between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.
With Tse out of the picture, the hierarchy and structure of the Sam Gor syndicate has been shaken loose. His alleged operation will certainly change, and the network may even break apart entirely.
Extensive information about how, where and with whom he and the Sam Gor network allegedly did business is expected to become public, unless a decision is taken to limit the case presented in Tse’s eventual trial to the charges most likely to secure a conviction. Tse was arrested last month in the Netherlands, and Australian authorities are seeking his extradition.
Some of the evidence and testimony that will be presented may well be problematic for governments in Southeast Asia, which was home to the heart of Sam Gor’s operation. Tse’s trial could expose his allegedly massive operation – estimated to be worth between $8 billion and $17.7 billion a year as of 2018 – including who he, and Sam Gor, purportedly did business with.
But it is necessary that the facts are laid bare. The region needs it to happen to fully appreciate how expansive the Sam Gor network was.
It’s time to get serious
Sadly, Tse’s arrest is unlikely to impact the drug business in Asia unless governments change the way they think about – and deal with – organized crime and the drug trade.
Leaders of drug syndicates are replaceable. So are the syndicates themselves.
For now, rivals will likely slip further into the shadows, doing what they can to avoid the same fate. But there’s still a market for synthetic drugs, and meeting regional demand is too good an opportunity for major traffickers to pass up, whether that is Sam Gor or a new player.
If governments in the region are serious about taking on organized crime and slowing the drug trade, they need to tackle demand as well as supply, which means investing in prevention and rehabilitation efforts.
They need to make sure that the failings that allowed Sam Gor to corner so much of the market are confronted and fixed.
That means they need to get serious about better governing portions of the Golden Triangle where industrial-scale drug production takes place, especially the special regions of Myanmar, where militias are believed to profit off the trade.
They need to limit access to the chemicals used to make drugs, police the special economic zones dotted across the Mekong that provide cover for drug dealers, and close down avenues used to launder money.
Law enforcement should celebrate Tse’s arrest. But they must also examine how he and the Sam Gor syndicate created their alleged empire and make sure it never happens again.
If they don’t, the next Tse Chi Lop will likely be smarter and even harder to catch.