A string of mammoth drug busts and low street prices for methamphetamine across Southeast Asia this year suggest COVID-19 has done little to stem the flood of illegal drugs washing over the region, even as the pandemic seals borders.
If anything, the coronavirus has proven just how resilient the transnational cartels dominating the meth trade out of Myanmar truly are, experts say.
"We think it's business as usual in 2020, which is to say that supply is still surging just as it has been in the last few years," Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and the Pacific chief for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, told VOA.
"If Myanmar, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodia data is any indication — and we think it is — then at least within the Mekong the supply is as high or higher than last year in those countries," he said by phone from Bangkok.
The price is right
Methamphetamine prices across the region last year were already the lowest they had been in a decade, even as the purity of the drugs shot up.
Data compiled by the UNODC during the pandemic show the price of a kilogram of crystal meth, or ice, in Myanmar and Vietnam on par with 2019. In Cambodia, the price of "yaba," a popular mix of meth and caffeine, has actually fallen by roughly half, to less than $1 per pill. The UNODC says Thailand also reported a drop in both ice and yaba prices in late 2019 and early 2020 compared with the same period a year before.
Long a hub of the heroin trade, the Golden Triangle — where the remote and lawless corners of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet — has in recent years seen transnational cartels turn it into one of the world's premier meth laboratories, according to the UNODC. Protected by government-backed militias and ethnic rebel armies in Myanmar's eastern Shan state, the U.N. agency says the cartels’ drugs pour across Southeast Asia and on to more lucrative markets as far off as Australia and Japan. The UNODC now puts the meth market in East and Southeast Asia at some $61.4 billion a year.
Since the pandemic, drug seizures have kept pace with 2019 as well, or even picked up.
In early July, Thai authorities said they intercepted 1.42 tons of crystal meth on its way to Malaysia. In May, authorities in Myanmar announced Asia's largest drug bust in decades, netting 200 million meth pills and 500 kilograms of ice; they also seized 35.5 metric tons and 163,000 liters of precursor chemicals and arrested 33 suspects.
On their own, more seizures can mean either a spike in production or better enforcement. The fact that prices have stayed low argues strongly in favor of the former, said Richard Horsey, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group based in Myanmar.
Given the stable prices for the drugs, "there's every indication that big seizures reflect big production, and not that ... somehow the police are winning this and seizing everything that's being produced," he said.
"So, I think the transnational criminal organizations, the synthetic drug trade in Shan state, has shown itself to be extremely resilient to COVID,” he told VOA by phone from Yangon.
Plan B, and C and D
Horsey likened the cartels to the relatively few big business winners of the pandemic, such as online retail giant Amazon, using their scale, dexterity and deep pockets to adapt quickly to changing market conditions.
"They have supply chains that are very sophisticated but also multiply redundant. And that means that border closures and so on, they can find ways around that. They've got a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D," he said.
"So, they have multiple different routes that they're constantly testing with test shipments and constantly innovating and constantly keeping lots of options open so that if their main preferred channel fails, they've got lots of other options. And that works very well for COVID."
The cartels’ penchant for innovation looks to be paying off.
Since the string of large busts earlier this year, Horsey said the cartels have started shifting more of their shipments out of Myanmar from northern Shan to the state's east and south. He said there were also early signs that they have started shipping much more ice out of Myanmar through the country's far western Rakhine state, taking advantage of its coastline to reach markets via the Bay of Bengal.
The UNODC says seizures of precursor shipments to Myanmar over the past few years also show the cartels tweaking their meth recipes by replacing or supplementing ephedrine and its like with a mix of other chemicals including sodium and benzyl cyanide, yet more proof of their flexibility.
Most of the chemicals come from neighboring China.
On Myanmar's side of the border, experts say a patchwork of militias and warlords in command of virtually autonomous fiefdoms helps make the frontier more sieve than wall.
That, too, helps the cartels evade the worst of the border restrictions brought on by the pandemic, said Tom Kramer, a Myanmar-based researcher for the Transnational Institute who studies the nexus of the country's drug trade and ethnic conflicts.
"These illegal routes are still there, and what the government has been controlling of course is the formal trade routes," he said.
Considering the bulk of some of the shipments, he suspects many of them cross formal checkpoints as well but slip through thanks to rampant corruption.
"There's so much money involved, and people can always find different ways of course of getting stuff into the country. The borders are so porous it would be very hard to control them," he said, even under lockdown.
Douglas, of the UNODC, said the relative ease with which the cartels in Myanmar can continue to access precursors during the pandemic may even help them gain market share over competitors farther afield who source more of their chemicals by sea and air, where supply chains have frayed most.
"They're using the moment in front of them very effectively," he said.
"They never had a problem maintaining production. They had huge chemical stockpiles in place and continuing access to chemicals to ship in to production points in the Triangle, and they kept production at very high levels during the pandemic, and they've essentially just continued pumping that supply out."