Of drones, money and drugs

Patrolling the border: Thai military rangers conducting a foot patrol along the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Laos in Ban Paeng, Nakhon Phanom province. — AFP

Patrolling the border: Thai military rangers conducting a foot patrol along the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Laos in Ban Paeng, Nakhon Phanom province. — AFP

Nakhon Phanom: As dusk falls along the Mekong River, a nightly dance begins between Thai border security and Laos drug gangs now using drones, scouts and a pool of poor fishermen to shift record amounts of meth into Thailand.

Landlocked, secretive and with ungovernable borders, Laos has become a sluice for transporting Made-In-Myanmar meth to the drug hungry markets of South-East Asia and Australia, where billion-dollar seizures are now being made.

Whisked over the remote mountains of Laos – one of the world’s last surviving communist countries – shipments are regularly slipping into Thailand, the region’s drug superhighway.

“It’s coming in from over there,” Thai navy captain Sumnuan Kamdee said, gesturing across the wide Mekong, which bisects Thailand and Laos.

“Drugs have become a national threat.”

Armed with M4 rifles and night vision goggles, his Mekong River Unit scours the water in speedboats in Nakhon Phanom, one of Thailand’s poorest border provinces in the northeast.

But the border is long and cannot be fully policed.

Once inside the kingdom, tonnes of highly addictive crystal meth, known as “ice”, and hundreds of millions of yaba pills – caffeine-laced methamphetamine tablets guzzled by everyone from labourers to ravers – are consumed or warehoused before being smuggled onwards.

A months-long Thai military-led crackdown in the northern jungles of the kingdom’s section of the notorious “Golden Triangle” has blocked the quickest drug route south.

But with big money to be made, the narco gangs have carved new routes west and east – through Laos and across the Mekong.

In the fading light, as the limestone karst scenery of Laos elbows into the night sky, black-clad Thai military rangers wait in mosquito-infested bushes for suspicious crossings.

But the drug gangs are also quick to adapt.

“They have drones (from Laos) searching the river to see if there are any officials,” Phoomsak Kampoo, district chief officer of Tha Utain district of Nakhon Phanom, said.

“And they have scouts watching for checkpoints on this (Thai) side.”

On smaller runs, Laos fishermen will cut their engines and drift close to the Thai bank before lobbing wax-covered parcels of yaba pills towards the shore, where Thai couriers scamper out to claim them.

But bigger, multi-million-dollar shipments are becoming more frequent.

Experts say the Golden Triangle region is now likely to be the biggest meth production hub in the world.

Yet without the ultraviolence of the Latin American cartels, it captures fewer headlines.

Under pressure, Laos is co-operating with neighbouring law enforcement.

“But frankly Laos really needs to up their game when it comes to tackling organised crime, drug trafficking and border control,” said Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In a remote Thai village near the Laos border, a recovering addict explained how his life slowly unravelled after being introduced to yaba aged 15.

“I lost money, friends and my health,” Nat – not his real name – said.

“It took away ten years of my life. I am trying to get it back.” — AFP