‘Tip of the spear’: Battling the Golden Triangle’s drug lords

A low-intensity but bloody battle is being fought to contain the flow of drugs from the Southeast Asian region known as the ‘Golden Triangle’.

A Thai soldier takes part in training at the port of Chiang Saen on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle at the border between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar on the Mekong river March 3, 2016. Patrols on the Mekong River by the Laotian army and Myanmar police have subdued pirates who once robbed cargo ships with impunity. But drug production and trafficking in the region, known as the Golden Triangle, is booming - despite the presence of Chinese gunboats and Chinese armed police. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Southeast Asia's trade in heroin and methamphetamine was worth $31 billion in 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Silva SEARCH "SILVA MEKONG" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A Thai soldier takes part in training at the port of Chiang Saen on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle in 2016 [File: Jorge Silva/Reuters]

Chiang Rai, Thailand – In the far north of Thailand, a deadly conflict is playing out between drug syndicates and Thai security forces working to stop a flood of narcotics from the region known as the Golden Triangle.

Drug shipment sizes are staggering and the body count rising in this low-intensity battle against increasingly sophisticated drug producers and traffickers. It is made all the more difficult due to the heavily-militarised and largely-lawless territory the producers and traffickers operate from in the Golden Triangle – located at the meeting point of the jungled borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

Methamphetamine pill seizures from the Golden Triangle are now regularly counted in the millions, while crystal methamphetamine, heroin and ketamine shipments are calculated in the hundreds of kilograms. Meanwhile, the death toll from gun battles involving Thai forces and cross-border smugglers adds up in dozens.

An officer with Thailand’s elite anti-narcotics Pha Muang Task Force army unit, based in Chiang Mai city, described the enormity of the challenge in securing hundreds of kilometres of border territory with neighbouring Myanmar, which has been under military rule since 2021, and Laos.

“If we reinforce in Chiang Rai, they move to Chiang Mai. They monitor where we deploy and change their routes,” the officer told Al Jazeera.

The officer was not authorised to speak with the media, so he could give few details, but the Task Force’s numbers speak for themselves.

In a nine-month period up to June last year, the force launched more than 260 operations that resulted in the seizure of 54 million methamphetamine pills, 177kg (390 pounds) of the tranquilliser ketamine, 120kg (264 pounds) of the crystal meth known as “ice” and 12kg (26 pounds) of heroin, according to the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS). Those operations led to the arrest of 320 suspects and the killing of 27 others.

Seizures and shoot-outs so far this year involving the Task Force – which one source familiar with the unit describes as the “tip of the spear” in Thailand’s operations to contain drugs from the Golden Triangle – appear to signal that 2023 will be another bloody chapter in the undeclared battle on the borders of the drug-producing region.

Task force members, some in camouflage uniforms and others in grey, wearing black face masks trudge through a thick forest. Some hold long sticks to help them with the walk. They're wearing army caps.
Members of the Royal Thai Army’s Pha Muang Task Force walk through a forested area of Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand after a clash with suspected drug traffickers, during which five suspects were killed in January [Pha Muang Task Force/AFP]

In early January, the task force in Chiang Rai recovered 500,000 meth pills and killed five smugglers following a firefight that lasted several minutes.

A week earlier, the force intercepted smugglers hauling hundreds of kilograms of ketamine after crossing from Myanmar into Thailand’s Chiang Mai province. Six smugglers were killed in that clash.

The previous month, in December, 15 people were killed among a group of about 30 smugglers hauling backpacks filled with methamphetamine in Chiang Mai’s Fang district. The task force recovered a gun and a grenade along with backpacks filled with drugs.

Two weeks ago, the force recovered 6.4 million meth pills, brought in from Myanmar by boat, in Thailand’s Chiang Saen district. The boat had dropped its huge cargo at the port on the Thai side of the Mekong River for later collection by smugglers.

The size of the Chiang Saen seizure led Inshik Sim, a coordinator with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok, to tweet that the “area may be biggest global meth trafficking spot”.

Ever since, Sim’s Twitter has been a rolling litany of huge drug seizures in the vicinity of the Golden Triangle and beyond: 6.5 million yaba pills and rifles seized in Mong Hsat in Myanmar’s Shan State; 1.1 million meth pills in Thailand’s northern Nan province and 3.2 million in neighbouring Bueng Kan province; 800,000 meth pills and 30kg (66 pounds) of crystal meth in Thailand’s southern Songkhla province with a “clear” Golden Triangle source.

While the production of synthetic drugs has been booming in the Golden Triangle for years, the UN warned last month that opium poppy cultivation had surged in the triangle since February 2021, when the military seized power in Myanmar. The increased production of opium, which is mostly processed into heroin, will add to a regional trade for the drug estimated to be worth a staggering $10bn.

Drones and drugs

Golden Triangle smugglers are deploying drones to surveil their planned routes and ensure their path is clear as they trek out of the triangle to rendezvous points along the border, a source familiar with anti-drug operations in northern Thailand told Al Jazeera.

Getting their product past the Task Force and across the Thai border is just the first stage in moving the drugs south for consumption domestically, as well as onwards to shipping ports for transport to regional and international markets.

With the UNODC reporting that 1 billion meth pills were seized in Southeast and East Asia in 2021, policing and interdiction alone are not going to deter the Golden Triangle’s mega producers, according to police and policy experts.

“You cannot seize your way out of this, particularly with synthetic drugs, which are practically infinite,” Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told Al Jazeera in a recent interview.

“It’s been decades of trying to seize more drugs and it’s more drugs every year,” Douglas said, adding that a one-dimensional policing approach had not worked and a policy shift is needed.

The Golden Triangle’s entire business model needs to be targeted – from drug demand reduction to stopping the diversion and trafficking of the chemicals and other materials needed to make the drugs. Monitoring drug-profit laundering through businesses and working with regional banks to ensure they are not involved with moving the proceeds of crime is also necessary, Douglas explained.

“Prevent the growth in use and demand, and address the health and societal impacts. But also make significant adjustments to law enforcement strategy to go after those behind the drug trade,” he said.

Echoing the policy experts, a Task Force commander admitted that with such huge profits involved, “even if suspected drug traffickers are killed or captured, the rewards from the illicit trade are worth the risks”.

Major-General Narit told Thai PBS last year that cross-border trafficking would probably increase despite growing seizures and that addressing demand was key to reducing the supplies being smuggled.

The number of countries now touched by the Golden Triangle’s growing export industry demonstrates its considerable reach.

South Asia is now a market for Golden Triangle drugs, according to the UN, while Malaysia has “been used extensively for transit and trafficking” of drugs to nearby Indonesia, the Philippines and further afield to Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Even Laos – a sparsely-populated, landlocked Communist country with a watchful state apparatus – has become a “major transhipment point” for drug traffickers moving their product into Thailand, the wider Mekong region and further afield in the Asia Pacific, the UN said.

Bags of methamphetamine pills are pictured during the 50th Destruction of Confiscated Narcotics ceremony in Ayutthaya province, Thailand, June 26, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Bags of methamphetamine pills during a “destruction of confiscated narcotics” ceremony in Ayutthaya province, Thailand in 2020 [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

A whopping 143 million meth tablets were seized in Laos in 2021 after entering the country from the Shan State of neighbouring Myanmar. In the first month of 2022, Laos authorities seized 36 million pills and almost 600kg (1,322 pounds) of crystal meth.

“These large seizures point towards organised crime groups increasingly diverting their trafficking operations through Lao PDR,” the UN said, using the country’s official name, The Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Communist Laos’s casino city

So, how has a tightly-controlled, one-party state become an increasingly favoured location for drug syndicates?

Some point to the Laos government’s tolerance of an alter ego in the form of the opulent and free-wheeling capitalist spirit of the Kings Romans casino complex in the country’s northwestern Bokeo province. In this rural corner of the country, a Chinese-owned gambling city is expanding along the Mekong River, in what is the geographic heart of the Golden Triangle.

It is about 9:30pm and the intermittent trade at a 7-Eleven convenience store amounts to the nightlife in Chiang Saen district’s Sop Ruak village, located on the Thai side of the Mekong River in far northern Thailand. Traffic is sparse on the darkened roads and the small businesses that survive on the day-trip tourism to the “Golden Triangle Park” – which is mostly a section of the Mekong riverfront allowing views of the three countries’ borders – have long since closed.

Lively during the day, the town reverts to a sleepy rural backwater at night – except for the pounding Chinese electronic dance music that wafts across the river from Laos.

On the other side of a few hundred metres of the Mekong’s watery expanse, a frenetic light show joins the blaring techno beats to bathe the Kings Romans casino complex and the surrounding countryside in the glow of colourful neon and deep bass.

A view of the Kings Romans casino in Laos, as seen from Thailand's Sop Ruak village in Chiang Saen district on February 2, 2023 [Kevin Doyle/Al Jazeera]
The bright lights of the Kings Romans casino in Laos as seen from Thailand’s Sop Ruak village in Chiang Saen district, February 2023 [Kevin Doyle/Al Jazeera]

During the day, bright-red hammer-and-sickle flags flutter along the tree-lined road that leads from the riverbank frontier border post to the Greco-Roman statues that adorn the exteriors of the complex’s various casinos and clubs. Maseratis and Ranger Rovers drive under bunting that carries messages in Chinese and Lao language, while heavy trucks transport building materials and excavate foundations for luxury, multi-storey condominiums being built in the grid-patterned casino city.

Kings Romans casino broke ground 15 years ago in what is the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The growing gambling complex is operated under a lengthy lease bestowed by the Laos government to Zhao Wei, a 70-year-old Chinese businessman.

People manoeuvre a small boat along the Mekong river in front of the Kings Roman casino opposite Sop Ruak in the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet January 15, 2012. The murder of 13 Chinese sailors last October on the Mekong was the deadliest attack on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times and highlights the growing presence of China in the Golden Triangle, the opium-growing region straddling Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Picture taken January 15, 2012. To match Special Report MEKONG-CHINA/MURDERS REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang (THAILAND - Tags: CIVIL UNREST MARITIME TRAVEL BUSINESS POLITICS)
A small boat along the Mekong river in front of the Kings Roman casino in 2012 [File: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters]

In 2018, the United States Treasury Department described Zhao and his enterprises as a “transnational criminal organisation” that had engaged “in an array of horrendous illicit activities”. The Treasury said the designation was closely coordinated with the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Since 2014, Thai, Lao, and Chinese authorities have seized large narcotics shipments that have been traced to the Kings Romans Casino,” the Treasury said.

The Treasury also alleged that the “Zhao Wei crime network” engaged in child prostitution, human trafficking and trafficking of endangered as well as vulnerable wildlife.

In a news conference held in response to the US designation, Zhao denied the accusations, saying they were “groundless”. He also said the US’s announced sanctions were “unreasonable and ridiculous”.

“We would like all of you to uphold the reality and not to believe the rumour,” he said.

Vehicles stop at the entrance to the Kings Romans casino, part of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone run by Chinese company Jin Mu Mian, in Laos along the Mekong river opposite Sop Ruak in the Golden Triangle region bordering Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
Vehicles stop at the entrance to the Kings Romans casino, part of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos [File: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters]

Disrupting the Golden Triangle’s ‘business model’

Kings Romans has been mired in controversy from its very beginning.

When Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay in 2011 interviewed Zhao – who is often described as a former timber trader who got his start in Macau’s gambling scene before opening a casino in the rebel-held Mong La area of Myanmar – the Kings Romans owner said his complex was a “drug-free zone”. Shortly after the Al Jazeera TV team’s visit, police discovered 20 sacks of methamphetamine pills on the grounds of the SEZ valued at $1.6m, Hay reported at the time.

Many years on and Kings Romans’s reputation has not improved.

“It has long been implicated in human trafficking and drug smuggling, and caters to a predominantly Chinese high roller clientele seeking out bear-paw soup and tiger-bone wine to go with their rounds of baccarat and call girls,” the South China Morning Post wrote of Kings Romans in October.

“Laos treats the area like an autonomous state, subject to its own rules,” it added.

A Laotian security officer based at the Golden Triangle SEZ described to Al Jazeera how Zhao’s people controlled law and order in the casino city. The Laotian army has a presence of fewer than 30 soldiers to protect the economic zone, which was to cover an area of 3,000 hectares (11.6 square miles) when first given the go-ahead. What happens in the SEZ, though, is a matter for Kings Romans security, the source said.

With such power and resources, Kings Romans planners appear to be in a hurry to expand. Building work is going on in earnest and countless palm trees have been planted along the city’s roadsides, probably in the hope of turning this baking-hot corner of Laos into a tree-lined Macau-style retreat for wealthy gamblers. They mostly come from China, although some come from Thailand, too.

Chinese is the first language spoken and China’s yuan the preferred currency in the enclave where an iced coffee at the small Starbucks franchise costs close to $10, assuming you have the Chinese language skills to place an order in the first place.

Kings Romans is physically in Laos but everything else is very much in a Chinese orbit.

Al Jazeera has seen satellite imagery that shows a new airport under construction at the site. Media reports say the casino’s operators want the airport to facilitate the arrival of international gamblers but fear the opening of a private airfield at the casino complex could pump prime potential criminality.

In October, the Laos government presented Zhao with a medal for bravery, according to local media, owing to his support for public security and national defence in his casino city.

Construction on a marina-like development in the Kings Romans casino city in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos in February 2023 [Kevin Doyle/Al Jazeera]
Construction is under way on a marina-like development in the Kings Romans casino complex in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos in February 2023 [Kevin Doyle/Al Jazeera]

Anti-narcotics experts have long warned of the links between organised crime, border casinos located in the Mekong region and the Golden Triangle drug trade.

Casinos, they explain, are favoured businesses for the laundering of drug profits because they deal in cash and do not require a large number of gamblers to justify large cash flows.

The UNODC’s Jeremy Douglas said that “casinos have played a special role” in laundering drug money as have other cash-based businesses associated with gambling, such as hotels and entertainment venues. The regional banking sector, too, needs to be aware of the dangers of drug profits laundered through the businesses they work with, he said.

Banks associated with casinos “have to be aware that much or some of the money going through them is associated with the drug trade and it ends up in the regional banking system”, Douglas said.

Taking on the Golden Triangle drug syndicates effectively requires an approach involving domestic and regional interconnections – from the region’s banking sector all the way down to policing – coupled with efforts to reduce what drives the demand for drugs.

“You have to dismantle the business model of organised crime,” Douglas said.

“Disrupt their banking, disrupt their chemical trade, disrupt the facilitators of their business, their lawyers, their money launderers. They have to be dealt with,” he added.

“The problem is the region continues to chase the drug supply and make seizures, and measure their success by seizures. Clearly, that’s not working.”

Additional reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth.

Source: Al Jazeera