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Asian methamphetamine cartels from China to Myanmar use creative chemistry to beat police, experts say



The documents showed that they were filled with 72-ton blue jugs filled with propionyl chloride, a relatively obscure chemical, and destined for an area in northern Myanmar known for producing synthetic drugs on an industrial scale.

The cargo was procured by a broker based in territory controlled by the United States Army, a militia that has been accused for years of being funded by drug sales.

Nor has there been an obvious attempt to hide the cargo, albeit with a wave the shipping container took an unusual route thousands of miles through Asia, not by land through China.

The propionyl chloride left the coastal Chinese province of Jiangsu, north of Shanghai, on a ship bound for the Thai port city of Laem Chabang near Bangkok. From there, the chemicals are transported north by land until they reach Lao̵

7;s Huai district, right across the Mekong River from Thailand.

Laotian authorities decided to call Jeremy Douglas for advice. Douglas is a regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and his job is to help governments across East Asia and the Pacific fight transnational crime. In the lower Mekong, this often means drug trafficking.

The container contained 72 tons of propionyl chloride when seized in Laos.
Douglas was amazed. He called on Laotians to seize the chemicals because he knew propionyl chloride could be used to make fentanyl, a powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid that has ravaged the United States in recent years, and ephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine. Propionyl chloride is not on the INCB list as it has many legitimate uses, such as the production of agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals. However, the INCB recommends that nations subject it to “special surveillance”.

The news of the seizure was hidden until April this year, when authorities in Douglas and Thailand presented it at a virtual drug conference organized by the UN Global Commission on Drugs.

Authorities in Laos have stumbled upon a smoking gun – a large body of evidence that probably explains how the royal masters behind Asia’s multibillion-dollar synthetic drug industry have outnumbered the Mekong’s security forces. They used ingenious chemical engineering, using various unregulated chemicals to produce synthetic drugs.

“These are very creative people,” Douglas told a UN conference.

“In general, they are innovators. They are crucial problems.”

Working theory

Authorities seized a record 175 tonnes of meth in 2020 across East Asia and Southeast Asia, a new record despite the Covid-19 pandemic, according to preliminary UNODC data. Drug prices continued to fall, meaning that these major failures did not have a significant impact on the overall supply of medicines in the region.

But seizures of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenyl-2-propanone (P2P) – the most common chemicals used to produce meth – are largely drying up. Douglas said authorities seized only 600 kilograms of ephedrine and 10 million pseudoephedrine tablets, a “small amount” compared to the level of metabolism seized by the authorities.

Is China's alleged drug king investing millions in a port in Laos?

This left the experts with a puzzling question: How was meth made?

If illicit drugs were seized in record numbers, authorities also had to find more chemicals to produce them.

Experts have spread the theory that cartels import chemicals such as propionyl chloride and hire world-class chemists to produce their own ingredients to produce meth – like buying flour to make a pie crust instead of just buying pre-made.

The law enforcement community often calls these chemicals “precursors” or “unforeseen precursors.” They are produced and sold legally, but are diverted for illegal use at some point in the supply chain.

Some precursors, such as propionyl chloride, have legal chemical uses in addition to illicit drug production. Other so-called. “Designer precursors” are synthesized so that they are chemically isolated enough to avoid government oversight, but serve no purpose other than to make drugs.

Trying to regulate these chemicals often resembles a punch. At a time when one government has gone through the bureaucratic or legal process of regulating one, another new one has emerged.

Despite the seemingly endless stream of newly developed predecessors, the transformation of precursors into synthetic drug ingredients is a technically complex process that involves expert chemistry.

Douglas said his cabinet was aware that various precursors were being confiscated through the Mekong, but the staggering amount of propionyl chloride seized in Laos confirmed their suspicions that illegal drug manufacturers were using the process.

“In a sense, the seizure has confirmed what we and others have suspected over the past few years: that precursors play an important role in regional drug trafficking,” Douglas said.

“Organized crime effectively manages the control of traditional precursors.”

To combat drug and precursor trafficking across their common borders, Thailand, China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have launched a joint intelligence-sharing initiative in late 2019 called Operation Golden Triangle 1511.

The five countries hoped to “boost co-operation” to close trafficking hotspots in much of the Mekong.

From December 2019 to December 2020, agents arrested more than 16,000 people and seized nearly 450 million meth pills, more than 34,000 kilograms of crystal metam and more than 1 million kilograms of precursors, Thai authorities told a UN panel.

Authorities in the region see it as a success so far, although the operation has been partially derailed by the pandemic.

“From our statistics, Operation 1511 managed to capture a lot,” said Paisit Sangkahapong, deputy secretary general of the Thai office of the Drug Control Council (ONCB).

“However, there are still some other chemical precursors that pass through our checkpoints in the Golden Triangle area. This is something we need to work on,” Paisit said.

Predecessors are a global problem. Cornelis de Joncheere, president of INCB, called the growing use of precursors “a critical challenge to the international drug control system” in the UN-sponsored commission.

These issues are more acute in Asia as illegal drug centers in the Golden Triangle operate. next to two of the world’s largest manufacturers of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, China and India, offering ready-made access to authorized chemicals that can be used for illegal means.

“The symbiotic link between the chemical and synthetic drug business here in Asia is undeniable,” Douglas said.

“The influx of meth has led to an influx of chemicals.”

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated how much operation 1511 was seized from crystal meth from December 2019 to December 2020.


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