Chapter Four: The Golden Triangle


Law enforcement agencies across South-East Asia are reporting record seizures of meth, including the yaba pills pictured here after an August 2018 drug bust by Malaysian police.

Drug syndicates operating in the Mekong Valley are flooding Asia with record levels of methamphetamines. Here’s how Malaysians are involved. 

OVER 2,000km north of Kuala Lumpur lies the idyllic Golden Triangle, a point where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos converge. It is also one of the busiest drug-producing regions in the world, churning out an illegal trade worth tens of billions of dollars annually.

The heart of that booming trade is on the Myanmar side of the Triangle, in Shan State, which was once the world’s largest producer of heroin for decades through its vast opium poppy farms, until Afghanistan surpassed it in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, drug syndicates in the Golden Triangle have continued largely unimpeded, operating amidst the long-running conflict between ethnic militias and the Myanmar army, the Tatmadaw.

And then came a game-changer – methamphetamines, aka meth.

A few years ago, the syndicates started swapping their opium poppy farms for sophisticated synthetic drug labs.

And now, they are flooding the region – often through mules – with record amounts of dangerous meth, creating a drug crisis which authorities seem powerless to stop.

In Malaysia, 4.4 tonnes of meth were seized in 2018 – more than the combined total of the previous four years. We don’t have statistics for 2019 yet, but Malaysian police have already made one record-breaking bust of 2.06 tonnes in March.

Similarly, in Thailand, an International Crisis Group (ICG) report says meth seizures in the first half of 2018 reached 15 tonnes – triple the entire 2017 haul.

While some might see these large seizures as wins for law enforcement, the ICG report cautions otherwise. Despite the massive seizures, street prices for meth have remained stable, which means there’s still plenty of the product out in the market. The seizures have hardly made a dent.

“Street prices have actually been dropping!” added Inshik Shim, a regional drug analyst at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“In many countries, the price for meth and yaba (a pill-based version of meth mixed with caffeine) has been decreasing.”

And it’s not just Malaysia: Myanmar-made meth has been found as far as Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand. Higher street prices in these markets are a huge motivating factor for syndicates to send mules.

But the amount flowing from Malaysia to Hong Kong now is particularly worrying.

R.AGE brought its findings to the Malaysian police’s narcotics division, informing them that 23 drug mules had been arrested in the preceding nine months.

A senior officer, SAC Zulkifli Ali, was shocked. Official police statistics showed only 10 such arrests in Hong Kong over the past five years.

It would turn out to be a major turning point in Father John Wotherspoon’s crusade against the syndicates. Zulkifli tasked his team to immediately look into the matter, and to meet with this drug-busting priest R.AGE had told him about.

“It is very important that we fight this, this war on drugs, to the maximum,” he said.

“When our current Prime Minister (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) first took office in 1981, he regarded drugs as public enemy number one – and it is still the same today. Drugs are still our number one enemy.”

Unfortunately, communications between law enforcement across multiple countries can be difficult. It’s easier if it’s police-to-police, but when it’s between the customs department in Hong Kong (which makes arrests

at the airport) and Malaysian police, for example, information-sharing becomes complicated.

Drug syndicates are all too happy to take advantage of this lack of communication, which often means cases are not followed up on back in the country of origin.

The main problem, however, lies at the source.

“As long as drugs are being produced in the Golden Triangle, we will face challenges,” admitted Zulkifli.

“Malaysia is being used as a transit or hub country because of our proximity to the producing area.

“You stop one syndicate, another will come up. As long as there is (drug) production, trafficking will continue.”

Indeed, Malaysia’s strategic location in the middle of South-East Asia – not to mention its low-cost airline hub – makes it an ideal transit country for the region’s syndicates.

Hong Kong, similarly, is a convenient transit point for much of East Asia.

Airports in the Middle East are also known to be handover points. Packages from South America, for example, are sometimes handed over here to mules from Malaysia, who are then told to carry them on to a second destination in Asia.

That’s exactly what happened with Nades*.

When he was 23, a friend offered him a job. All he had to do was fly to the Middle East, collect a package from someone in the airport, and fly on to Hong Kong. He would be paid US$200.

Everything was coordinated by his friend’s brother, based in Malaysia. All he had to do was follow instructions that would be sent through a chat app.

When he arrived at the first airport (he claims he doesn’t recall exactly where, probably Doha or Dubai), an African man passed him a package, which appeared to contain chocolates.

And when he arrived in Hong Kong, he had that heart-stopping moment all arrested mules go through – when the customs officers stop them. They found 1.35kg of cocaine in the chocolates.

So why did Nades do it?

“It was Christmas, I had just quit my job, and I needed some money for the holidays. I’m not the smartest person,” he admitted.

Like many of the other mules, he was a high-school dropout.

And just as it was with Shirley’s case (read Chapter One), the “friend” that recruited him – and was on the very same flight – made it back safely to Malaysia.

Nades would spend the next two-and-a-half years in prison trying to prove he didn’t know about the drugs in the chocolates.

Back home, his mother’s health was failing. The family did not have money to hire a lawyer. There was no one to investigate his case back in Malaysia, at least not without getting in trouble with the syndicate.

Even though he knew exactly who recruited him and where to find him, it seemed like there was nothing he could do.

Just when all hope seemed lost for Nades, just when it seemed like he would never see his mother alive again, Father John Wotherspoon came into the picture.

* All names have been changed to protect the identity of the families involved. Read the next chapter tomorrow in The Star and at rage.my/drugtrade.

 

PREVIEW CHAPTER FIVE: The Drug Lord

(out tomorrow in The Star)

Father John has spent the past few months connecting the dots between half a dozen Malaysian Indian drug mules.

The cases came from across the country, but when Wotherspoon started asking about the recruiters for each mule, they all seemed to point back to the same person - a drug lord named Shanker.

* Read all previous chapters of The Malaysia Drug Trade at rage.my/drugtrade.

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