Narco-guerrillas and ruthless foreign gangs in the lawless, remote jungles of Myanmar are cranking out high-purity crystal methamphetamine at unprecedented levels, which top drug experts say is appearing on New Zealand streets.
Safely nestled in mountainous, dense forests, with the Myanmar authorities and army turning a blind eye, and often aided by state-backed militias, high-tech meth laboratories and factories employing world-class chemists are fuelling a US$40 billion regional drug economy.
Record billion-dollar busts in Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in recent months – with tonnes bound for wider distribution by organised crime supply networks – has the United Nations ramping up political pressure on troubled Myanmar, also called Burma, and other governments of the so-called Golden Triangle region, to help crack down on the rampant drug trade.
"What we see inside Myanmar right now is massive amounts of really-high-purity crystal meth being produced, and this supply push or oversupply is being connected to high demand across the region, including in places like Australia and New Zealand, which have some of the highest crystal meth prices per kilo in the world," says Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and the Pacific regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The last three years have seen a "massive surge" in crystal meth production in northern Myanmar, especially from outside gangs moving into the territory controlled by ethnic armed groups, says Douglas, the veteran Bangkok-based UN head of office.
The mass-produced methamphetamine, widely known as P in New Zealand, is typically produced using pseudoephedrine and ephedrine – everyday cough and cold remedy ingredients. Huge quantities of the precursor chemicals are smuggled into Myanmar, mostly from China and Northeast India, the Herald has been told.
Once synthesised into crystal meth, the finished product is trafficked across the country's porous borders before being shifted through established Southeast Asian organised crime networks. Experts on international drug smuggling say the drugs are then packaged up for regional distribution, hooking up with gangs like the Head Hunters and Comancheros , who then cut up the meth – arriving in New Zealand in either crystal, powder or liquid form, Customs told the Herald – for sale on the streets. Increasingly, it's understood that the gangs are keen to get into smuggling the product themselves, cutting out the middleman, and ramping up profit.
Last year, a record 417.8kg of methamphetamine was seized at the border by New Zealand Customs, the Herald can exclusively reveal. It represents a staggering 2000 per cent jump in the amount of meth stopped by Customs over the last five years.
While Customs bosses are also seeing increasing efforts to create a cocaine and ecstasy underworld Downunder, meth "continues to be New Zealand's drug of choice", according to Customs and Police.
Not too long ago, most of it was coming from North Asia, predominantly China. Now, agencies are well aware that it's Myanmar's booming drug makers that are fuelling the intercontinental market in huge quantities, and that it's making its way to Kiwi criminal enterprises.
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"We know a significant amount of drugs come to Australia and New Zealand from that region," confirms Jamie Bamford, Customs' group manager for intelligence, investigations and enforcement.
Narcotics intelligence confirms the recent shift in smuggling from "lots of little" to "fewer [and] large".
"We are aware of efforts to ship larger quantities here. Our adversaries are pretty clever, pretty responsive, and they will chop and change the way they send it and how they send it," Bamford says.
It's coming by shipping containers, small boats, air cargo, mail, and drug mules.
Drug syndicates or gangs might have success mailing drugs before shifting to another method, or even another location.
Customs officers and police have to be quick at spotting the trends and responding.
While some experts think New Zealand is being used as a staging post for drugs being smuggled onwards into the bigger Australia market – and vice versa - Bamford doesn't think transtasman routes are currently happening on a large scale.
Customs and Police both have liaison officers based in Bangkok and other hot-spots, working in-country with international counterparts, police, Interpol, narcotics agents and regional border forces to target the drug trade.
The key to "disrupting the supply chain" hinges on the strong domestic and international networks, a Police spokeswoman said.
"With these strong networks, police and Customs are becoming increasingly successful at disrupting the supply of illicit drugs into this country and holding those who profit from importation to account. But complacency is our enemy and we rely on strong relationships on and offshore to stay abreast of changing trends," she said.
Douglas occasionally deals with the out-posted New Zealand staff, along with embassy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials, who all have a stake in the global drug war.
But they have their hands full, especially while Myanmar - a complex, troubled, and divided country of 53 million people, and 135 ethnic groups, including the world's most persecuted minority, Rohingya Muslims – has little control over its "black zone" interior.
Senior drug policy leaders from the Greater Mekong Sub-region – Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – and UNODC officials met in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's sprawling, sparse modern capital city, last month to discuss the region's rampant illicit drug production and thrash out a new strategic regional plan.
The UN wants drugs in Myanmar included in peace talks and ceasefire treaties, and in regional political discussions of the Asean group. "We are pushing hard right now to say this has to be at the table but there are many other issues holding back talks," Douglas says.
A framework of action to target drug production, trafficking, and drug use with the Mekong countries, including China, is "working reasonably well", Douglas says, but is limited by the scale of the problem and by the politics, with Northern Myanmar remaining "essentially off the international grid".
"For sustainable development to happen in the country, the drug economy has to be dealt with, and it's not being dealt with right now," he says. "The government in Myanmar is not intervening in the production areas for a variety of reasons. They know it's going on in there, but are not intervening to stop it."