ASIAN DRUG LORDS SHAKEN OUT

Mas­sive crack­downs bring to light mas­ter­minds of il­licit trade

New Straits Times - - World -

COM­PARED with their ul­tra-vi­o­lent Cen­tral and Latin Amer­i­can cousins, the drug deal­ers of South­east Asia’s Golden Tri­an­gle use their low-pro­file to re­main be­yond the long arm of the law.

But they con­trol the world’s sec­ond largest drug-pro­duc­ing re­gion, man­u­fac­tur­ing and mov­ing meth and heroin out off hid­den labs in a re­mote, moun­tain­ous wedge of land that cuts across Myan­mar, Laos, Thai­land and China.

If po­lice are right, their os­ten­ta­tion in one of Asia’s poor­est coun­tries was funded by smug­gling highly-ad­dic­tive caf­feine-laced metham­phetamine pills — bet­ter known as “yaba”, or crazy medicine — and crys­tal meth (ice).

At US$8 (RM35) a pop in Thai­land, the best yaba pills rise in price the fur­ther they move from source, bring­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary re­wards to the traf­fick­ers.

Stamped with a dis­tinc­tive “WY”, the pink and green pills of the Myan­mar drug labs are su­per­charg­ing ev­ery­one, from Malaysian plan­ta­tion work­ers to Bangkok’s “Hi-So” (high so­ci­ety) party crowd.

Each year, re­gional seizures break records, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tion’s crime agency. That point to bet­ter law en­force­ment, they say, but it also show that the car­tels can ramp up pro­duc­tion at will, to cover losses.

The high­est qual­ity pills (15-20 per cent meth pu­rity) come from the fac­to­ries of the North and South Wa — armed eth­nic groups mar­shalling a self-gov­ern­ing state on the Myan­mar-China bor­der — and by the Lahu hill tribe.

A se­ries of re­cent ar­rests in Thai­land and Laos have shone a rare spot­light on some of the key mid­dle­men push­ing prod­uct from the Golden Tri­an­gle across Asia.

Here are a few of them.

The flurry of po­lice ac­tion started with the ar­rest of 50year-old Lao­tian named Khon­pa­song in early Jan­uary.

He was picked up on the way back from a wed­ding in Laos, near the cap­i­tal Vi­en­tiane, as a drag­net closed in on drug run­ners and their as­so­ci­ates.

Laos au­thor­i­ties swiftly seized ho­tels, cash and cars be­long­ing to a man ac­cused of get­ting rich on the pro­ceeds of meth, sex venues and il­le­gal casinos.

Since his ar­rest, three net­works shut­tling drugs from Myan­mar through Laos, Thai­land and onto Malaysia have been hit by raids and ar­rests.

Heav­ily built and tat­tooed, Xaysana Keophim­pha — dubbed “Mr X” by law en­force­ment of­fi­cials — was de­tained on Jan 19, while tran­sit­ing through Bangkok’s main air­port on his way back home to Laos. Thai po­lice ar­rested him in front of TV cam­eras and stunned trav­ellers.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors in Bangkok ac­cuse Xaysana of run­ning a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar drug trans­port net­work, fer­ry­ing meth, ice and ec­stasy pills from the Golden Tri­an­gle, through Thai­land, to Malaysia and be­yond.

His so­cial me­dia posts pointed to a life of lux­ury and con­nec­tions — pho­tographed along­side Thai “hi-so” (high so­ci­ety) celebri­ties, at a wed­ding at­tended by the daugh­ter of Laos’ for­mer prime min­is­ter and next to a bevy of su­per­cars.

Fond of rid­ing thor­ough­bred horses at his sta­bles on the out­skirts of the Laos cap­i­tal Vi­en­tiane, Sisouk Dao­heoung has an un­likely pro­file for a man ac­cused of large-scale drug run­ning.

He is a lo­cal Laos celebrity and a friend of Xaysana, well-known on the party scene who con­ducted sev­eral tele­vi­sion in­ter­views on his love of horses — in­clud­ing one he bought from the United States for US$25,000.

He was ar­rested early last month af­ter cops linked him to Xaysana, partly through his ac­tive so­cial me­dia life.

A Thai na­tional born in the king­dom’s “deep south”, Us­man Salameang is one of the re­gion’s most wanted drug men.

He is ac­cused of be­ing a key player in the drug chain from Laos to Malaysia.

He has achieved no­to­ri­ety among drug cops for his in­ge­nu­ity in avoid­ing jail, sup­pos­edly even fak­ing his own death.

A 2005 raid on a Bangkok house be­long­ing to him saw an SUV im­pounded. Four years later, po­lice who had been us­ing his ve­hi­cle found 10 mil­lion baht (RM1.3 mil­lion) stashed in the rear pan­els.

Re­cent oper­a­tions may have shaken him from his ap­par­ent hide­out in Laos, with au­thor­i­ties hint­ing he could now be in Cambodia, Malaysia or at large in Thai­land.

A year ago, Thai cops seized nearly 300kg of crys­tal meth in the far south. Even­tu­ally, it led them to Thai-based Malaysian Tun Hung Seong, who al­legedly headed a net­work run­ning ice and turn­ing huge drug prof­its into le­git­i­mate busi­nesses.

He was ar­rested on April 19 this year at Hat Yai air­port in the Thai south, where he is ac­cused of act­ing as a gate­keeper to the Malaysian drug mar­ket.

The drug money was laun­dered through a se­ries of busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to Thai cops, in­clud­ing karaoke bars, restau­rants, ho­tels and bars, which cir­cu­lated up to 1 bil­lion baht in narco-prof­its at any one time.

AFP PIC

Xaysana Keophimpa, or ‘Mr X’, is ac­cused of spin­ning mil­lions of dol­lars from drugs be­fore a very public down­fall which has ex­posed the role of his se­cre­tive, com­mu­nist coun­try in show­er­ing pills across South­east Asia.

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