Paperwork showed it was packed with 72 tonnes of blue vats filled with propionyl chloride, a relatively obscure chemical, and bound for an area in northern Myanmar known for the industrial-scale manufacture of synthetic drugs. .
The cargo had been bought by a broker based in territory controlled by the United State Army, a militia that for years has been accused of paying for itself through the sale of drugs.
There had also been no apparent attempt to conceal the cargo through the corrugated cardboard. the sea container had taken an unusual route thousands of miles around Asia, rather than overland through China.
The Laotian authorities decided to call Jeremy Douglas for advice. Douglas is the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and it is his job to help governments across East Asia and the Pacific to tackle the activities transnational criminals. In the lower Mekong, this often means drug trafficking.
Douglas was amazed. He urged Laotians to seize the chemicals because he knew propionyl chloride could be used to make fentanyl, a potent and dangerous synthetic opioid that has ravaged the United States in recent years, and ephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine. Propionyl chloride is not on the INCB list because it has many legitimate uses, such as the production of agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals. However, INCB recommends that countries put it under “special surveillance”.
News of the seizure was kept under wraps until April of this year, when Douglas and Thai authorities presented it at a virtual drug conference hosted by the United Nations World Drugs Commission.
Laotian authorities had stumbled upon a smoking gun, a major piece of evidence that likely explained how the mainstays of Asia’s multibillion-dollar synthetic drug industry had outmaneuvered Mekong security forces. They used ingenuous chemical engineering, using a variety of unregulated chemicals, to make synthetic narcotics.
“They are very creative people,” Douglas said at the United Nations conference.
“Basically, they are innovators. They solve problems. “
The theory of work
Authorities seized a record 175 tonnes of methamphetamine in 2020 across East and Southeast Asia, a new record despite the Covid-19 pandemic, according to preliminary data from UNODC. Drug prices have continued to fall, meaning that these major collapses are not having a significant impact on the overall supply of drugs in the region.
But seizures of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenyl-2-propanone (P2P) – the chemicals most commonly used to make methamphetamine – have essentially dried up. Douglas said authorities only seized 600 kilograms of ephedrine and 10 million pseudoephedrine tablets, a “small amount” compared to the level of meth caught by authorities.
This left the experts with a puzzling question: how was meth made?
If illicit drugs were seized in record numbers, authorities would have had to find a higher volume of chemicals to manufacture them as well.
Experts put forward the theory that the cartels imported chemicals like propionyl chloride and employed world-class chemists to produce their own ingredients to make methamphetamine – like buying flour to make a pie crust instead. to simply buy a prefabricated one.
The law enforcement community often calls these chemicals “pre-precursors” or “unlisted precursors”. They are made and sold legally, but diverted for illicit use at some point in the supply chain.
Some pre-precursors like propionyl chloride have legitimate chemical uses in addition to the manufacture of illicit drugs. Other so-called “designer precursors” are synthesized so that they are chemically distinct enough to avoid government oversight, but are not used for anything other than the manufacture of narcotics.
Trying to regulate these chemicals often feels like a mole game. As one government went through the bureaucratic or legal process to regulate one, another new one arose.
However, despite the seemingly endless flow of newly developed pre-precursors, the conversion of pre-precursors into ingredients for synthetic drugs is a technically complex process that involves expert chemistry.
Douglas said his office knew various pre-precursors were being confiscated across the Mekong, but the staggering volume of propionyl chloride seized in Laos virtually confirmed their suspicions that the makers of illicit narcotics were using the process.
“In a sense, the seizure confirmed what we and others have suspected in recent years: that pre-precursors play a major role in the regional drug trade,” said Douglas.
“Organized crime works effectively around controls on traditional precursors. “
To combat drug and precursor trafficking across their shared borders, Thailand, China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam launched a joint intelligence-sharing initiative at the end of 2019, dubbed Golden Triangle Operation 1511.
The five countries hoped to “step up cooperation” to close the centers of trafficking in the Greater Mekong.
From December 2019 to December 2020, officers arrested more than 16,000 people and seized nearly 450 million methamphetamine pills, more than 34,000 kilograms of crystal meth and more than one million kilograms of precursor chemicals, Thai authorities said. to the UN panel.
Authorities in the region see it as a success so far, although the operation was partly derailed by the pandemic.
“According to our statistics, Operation 1511 was able to capture a lot of things,” said Paisit Sangkahapong, deputy secretary-general of the Thai Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB).
“However, there are still other precursor chemicals passing through our checkpoints in the Golden Triangle region. It’s something we have to work on, ”Paisit said.
Pre-precursors are a global problem. Cornelis de Joncheere, president of the INCB, called the growing use of pre-precursors a “critical challenge for the international drug control system” during the UN-sponsored panel.
These problems are more acute in Asia because the illicit drug production centers of the Golden Triangle are functioning. alongside two of the world’s largest chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers, China and India, providing easy access to legal chemicals that can be used for illicit purposes.
“The symbiotic relationship between chemical and synthetic drug companies here in Asia is undeniable,” said Douglas.
“The methamphetamine surge led to a wave of chemicals. “
Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented the amount of crystal meth seized by Operation 1511 from December 2019 to December 2020.