A motorbike taxi driver holds a methamphetamine pill in January in Bangkok.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Asia’s drug cartels adapted quickly to the pandemic in 2020, flooding markets with synthetic narcotics worth tens of billions of dollars even as the global economy ground to a halt, according to a new United Nations report.

Methamphetamine seizures in East and Southeast Asia surged 19% from 2019 to a new record-high, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report found. The organization did not put a dollar figure on the meth trade’s value in 2020, but it was believed to be worth between $30 billion and $61 billion in 2019, according to the UNODC.

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

The report found the cartels thrived through a global public health emergency by reacting quickly to the changing situation on the ground. These groups started using lesser-regulated chemicals to produce illicit drugs, manufactured narcotics in new locations that were hard for law enforcement to reach shipped their products through new, surprising routes and even found new customers.

The 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 regional authorities’ prioritization of containing Covid-19’s spread and enforcing public health measures.

The massive supply of cheap meth, which has kept prices low, “contributes to increasing demand and use in the region,” the report said.

The UNODC found that several large-scale meth manufacturers appeared to have set up shop in Cambodia in addition to Myanmar’s Shan State – an area governed by militias and warlords that have long been accused of funding themselves through the drug trade. Authorities in Cambodia dismantled five synthetic labs in 2020, four of which produced meth. It was the first time clandestine meth labs were found in Cambodia since 2014.

Traffickers also appeared to be using new routes to move illicit narcotics and the precursor chemicals used to make them. Laos appeared to be one focal point, as seizures of both meth and precursor chemicals spiked. Hong Kong was increasingly used as a transportation hub, according to the report. Meth seizures in the semi autonomous Chinese city increased tenfold from 2019 to 2020, including one 500-kilogram shipment sent from Mexico that was destined for Australia.

“Organized crime groups have been able to continue the expansion of the regional synthetic drug trade – in particular in the upper Mekong and Shan state of Myanmar – by maintaining a steady supply of chemicals into production areas despite border restrictions that have impacted legitimate cross-border trade,” Douglas said.

An armed customs officer guards a record seizure of over 500 kilograms of methamphetamine during a news conference in Hong Kong in November.

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

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

“When economies break down illicit economies typically ascend and become more powerful – it is exactly this scenario that we fear and anticipate now,” he said.

“Criminals look for conditions that they can use, and the distraction of law enforcement and breakdown of security that we are witnessing provide them with the right environment – they thrive on the chaos that legitimate businesses run from.”