ASIAN DRUG LORDS SHAKEN OUT
Massive crackdowns bring to light masterminds of illicit trade
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.
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.