The whole picture of the Golden Triangle narcotics trade will never be known — all we have are incomplete pictures.
Do you hear the rumble?
The barren of mules that plod up and over mountainous borders, rusted out old Japanese pickup trucks hauling sacks labeled fertilizer into the lowlands, the baying of cargo barges set off from Khlong Toei Port — all this rumble is the overture for the symphony’s rising climax: the crackling billions of tiny red pills sparked up by fiends from Bangkok’s grimy sois to Loei’s languid hills.
Put your ear to the ground.
Tough, loosely-bound syndicates cast a dragnet across quiet Burmese farmland for the lucre: yaba, ice, ketamine, opium, heroin that’s pumped out from unseen narcotics factories that pepper Shan State. Ka-chings! echo out from smoky borderland casinos that launder the soiled coin pulled in from the chemical harvest.
Two salueng — or half a baht — is the cost to manufacture a yaba tab in Myanmar. By the time its lugged across the border and sold in Chiang Mai or Chonburi, the price is 50 baht a pop — a near 10,000% markup.
Factor in the cost of doing business:
- Pay off the foreign chemists, the Chinese Walter Whites, the brains in the labs;
- Pay off the patchwork of rebel groups, and the Tatmadaw itself, to protect the labs and trafficking routes;
- Pay off the barren of mules to get the stuff from Point A to Point B and beyond;
- Pay off border guards to look the other way — no, I’m not suggesting on the Thai side, that unequivocally never happens — and allow for safe passage;
- Deduct the product losses from seizures and busts;
- And, of course, the cut that middlemen take every step of the way.
Finally, you have the profit — a princely sum that’s allowed crime lords to carve out lawless fiefdoms in the Golden Triangle.
This is the subject of an article in yesterday’s The Sunday Times, titled Myanmar coup unleashes crystal meth bonus for cartels.
It’s a very fine look at what the chaos of post-coup Myanmar is doing to the drug business in the region.
The result? As expected, chaos on the ground equals opportunity and profit for narcotics cartels.
But even top-tier reporting found in The Sunday Times article linked here struggles to paint the full picture of the Golden Triangle narcotics trade: it’s like a skilled painter who stands on the pier and puts his vision of the sea on the canvas, but the vast depth and expanse of the watery mass eludes him — the strange creatures that lurk and feed below, the unseen nooks of the ocean’s dark floor.
The article notes that the Sam Gor cartel’s operations were unaffected by the takedown of two of its top members: Tse Chi Lop and Lee Chung Chak, the character I invoked in Crime Pill #14.
Those arrests leave a question in their wake: who’s running Sam Gor on the outside?
Mr. Chak can call shots from his cage, but you need operators on the ground for the day-to-day decisions that come up in the normal course of running an international drug trafficking empire.
Those names and faces may be known to law enforcement, but they’re absent from the hungry pens of journos who cover these beats — just like the strange marine life lurking in the ocean deep that the painter can never know.
There are other ways to gather intel, of course.
Some books have done a fine job of collecting facts on the ground in the Golden Triangle.
The gold-standard: Merchants of Madness by Bertil Lintner, which is a must-read for anybody interested in the subject. In reading Lintner, you come to learn that meth has been cooking up in Burma since the 1990s — a fact that’s left out of The Sunday Times report. Infrastructure, human capital, and logistics for the Golden Triangle drug biz was built by infamous legends like Khun Sa, whose home one can still visit up in Baan Hin Taek, Chiang Rai.
Sources who are involved in the illicit affair of drug trafficking pop up from time to time, too. But let’s be real: The Bangkok Post or The Sunday Times would be hesitant to print them.
This is all to say that we may never really know how much drugs are being produced right now in Shan State. It’s a lot. Like the article in The Sunday Times aptly points out, drug seizures in Thailand and Asia on the whole have multiplied several times over the past few years.
It’s a trend that’s not waning any time soon.
The article references a couple recent busts in Thailand, where 5 million yaba tabs were picked up around the Thai-Myanmar border. I covered that story a few weeks back on my main website here: 5 million yaba tabs intercepted in Chiang Rai; part of 2 year investigation into drug smuggling network.
In fact, over the past six months, I’ve written about 62 cases of narcotics busts in Thailand. You can see them all on my main website, when you sort by the “Narcotics” category.
The funny thing is that if I covered every bust reported in the Thai press, it’d be my full-time job — and I’m wont to remind you all that I don’t get paid a shiny dime for the work I do. That is to say, there’s a great deal of drug activity that never makes it to the English language press.
The Bangkok Post and other rags out there only cover a slim portion of it all. I tried to pick up the slack, but I’ve found a Leviathan on the other end. There’s simply no way to cover it all.
And then there’s the problem of losing the thread in certain plotlines that dominate the news cycle. Case in point: remember that historic ketamine bust down in Chachoengsao province last November?
It turned out to be a dud, right? That 11.5 tons of ket was just laundry detergent.
Not so fast.
While every two-bit barstool warrior that floods ThaiVisa and Facebook mocked the Royal Thai Police over the reported flub, they weren’t paying attention to the massive ketamine seizures that followed in Nonthaburi, which I covered here and here.
Add that to the 300 tons of K they found in Taiwan, which was used to tip authorities off to that warehouse, and you’ll start to get the hint that there was a massive shit-ton of ketamine at that Chachoengsao bust: it’s just that the cops were too late that time.
But solid info does have a way of rising to the top, like cream on milk.
Slick reports get published by the UNODC that give estimated figures on production, smuggling, profits — but they remain estimates. In nearly every English-language press report on the subject, you’ll find that Jeremy Douglas from the UNODC is quoted as a primary source.
But I’d reckon that even the big players in the game — Zhao Wei, Mr. Chak, Mr. Tse, all of them — don’t even know the numbers. They count their stacks, expand their operations (a new port’s being built in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone that overlooks his Kings Romans Casino), and hide the true power of their addled empire from the truth.
It’s curious to note that one thing you don’t stumble upon in the Golden Triangle narcotics game is a human head — not like you do down in Juarez, Mexico.
So there’s that, at least.
It seems that the confederacy of cartels, syndicates, and street-level goons that push yaba and the rest of it don’t yet have a penchant for that sort of torture.
Will we ever see that? I’m not sure. I think the business model of the cartels in Asia is fundamentally different than their counterparts in Latin America (one person to follow regarding Latin American cartel activity is Ioan Grillo).
Until then, there is one dark cloud that swirls on the horizon, which is oddly left out of nearly every press report on Golden Triangle narcotics.
Of course, I’m talking about fentanyl.
If the meth and yaba production in Shan State is a plague on Southeast Asia and beyond, then fentanyl will be the actual Apocalypse.
And while I am a generational millennial, I’m no millenarian: I don’t buy the “end is nigh” line no matter how it’s packaged and sold.
But I am acutely aware of dangers, and fentanyl brewing in Shan State is one that shouldn’t be ignored.
I really hate to be wrong, but here I’d prefer it — because the alternative is death for untold numbers of users that haven’t had a taste of fentanyl’s poison.
It’s a slow process, but I am preparing a book on the subject of Golden Triangle narcotics. It will expand upon the coming fentanyl threat, which I hope adds to the conversation on the issue.
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