BANGKOK — The jungle-covered hills of Shan State in Myanmar might seem an unlikely outpost along global trade routes. But it is the remote region, wracked by ethnic conflict and undisturbed by normal policing, where much of the world’s synthetic drug trade originates.
Now, two months of counternarcotics operations in Shan State, which the United Nations says resulted in the largest synthetic drug haul on record in Southeast Asia, show that regional lockdowns imposed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic have done little to stem an illicit global trade.
Forty-four raids conducted by the Myanmar military and police between Feb. 20 and April 9 netted nearly 200 million tablets of methamphetamine, 1,120 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, 630 pounds of heroin, almost 300 pounds of raw opium, 640 pounds of opium poppy and 990 gallons of methyl fentanyl, the Myanmar authorities said.
“This operation resulted in the seizure of the biggest amount of drugs ever,” said U Win Thein Shan, the spokesman for the Shan State police. “We will make more efforts in the future.”
The value of the drugs, which were churned out in far-flung labs often hidden in forested areas of Kutkai Township, exceeded $200 million, Myanmar officials said and would be far more if measured by street value in the West.
“The drug trade in Shan State operates more freely amid Covid-19 because police are busy with other things,” said U Tin Maung Thein, the district president of the Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association in the town of Kyaukme in northern Shan State. “The price of all kinds of drugs has dropped, and it shows the trade is easier because of Covid-19.”
The discovery of vats of methyl fentanyl, which is related to the synthetic opioid that has caused a crisis of overdoses in the United States, is particularly worrisome to counternarcotics officials, who say this is the first time such mass production has been found in Myanmar. A few years ago, experts in organized crime watched as Southeast Asian crime syndicates began to dominate the methamphetamine trade.
The Golden Triangle, where Myanmar abuts Laos and Thailand, is now believed to be the world’s largest producer of methamphetamine after China cracked down on pharmaceutical ingredients being diverted for the illicit production of the synthetic stimulant.
Fentanyl, which has been blamed for tens of thousands of overdose deaths in the United States, is far deadlier than methamphetamine. Narcotics experts believe that Chinese manufacturers have been responsible for many of the precursor materials needed to synthesize the drug. In late 2018, President Trump brought up the drug in discussions with President Xi Jinping of China.
As fentanyl began to play a part in American trade talks, the Chinese started to curb the trade, much as they had done for methamphetamine in the face of global pressure, drug experts said. Last year, Beijing declared all forms of fentanyl controlled substances.
But the crackdown in China has simply created opportunities for others, narcotics analysts say.
“Organized crime and drug syndicates look for business environments where there’s government dysfunction or limited government control, as well as easy access to the chemicals,” said Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Southeast Asia. “Shan State hits every mark.”
The counternarcotics operations in Myanmar this year uncovered precursor ingredients from China, India, Thailand, and Vietnam, Mr. Douglas said, showing the international diversity of chemicals that were being used in Shan labs and hinting at the involvement of transnational crime syndicates.