Tue, May 09, 2017 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Laos cartels hooking region on pills


The downfall of millionaire “Mr X,” long shielded by cash and contacts in Laos, has highlighted the role of the secretive communist country in showering pills across Southeast Asia.

Allegedly a key figure among gangs buying drugs from Myanmar’s methamphetamine labs, Laotian Xaysana Keophimpha — dubbed “Mr X” — is believed to have used his graft-riddled country to shuttle narcotics south.

The heavy-set 42-year-old was on Jan. 19 arrested by Thai police at Bangkok’s main airport en route to Laos where he lived freely, reveling in a lifestyle of celebrity parties and supercars.

He denies charges of drug possession and smuggling.

However, subsequent police operations have turned up several more men accused of running drugs through Laos, an opaque country whose role in the regional narcotics trade is gradually emerging.

They are the suspected intermediaries of the “Golden Triangle,” shifting pills, methamphetamine and heroin from the world’s second-largest drug producing zone to a regional market.

Among the accused is Xaysana’s friend Sisouk Daoheoung — a minor Laotian celebrity with a penchant for thoroughbred horses, and a shared devotion to fast cars and fancy holidays flaunted on social media.

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.

“From Xaysana’s phone and Facebook records it was clear he and Sisouk are friends ... their [drug] groups are connected,” Thai Police Major-General Supakit Srijantranon told reporters last week.

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

The highest-quality pills — with 15 to 20 percent meth purity — come from the factories of the North and South Wa — where armed ethnic groups have marshalled a self-governing state on the Myanmar-China border — and by the Lahu community.

Poor, corrupt and bordering five countries, Laos makes for an ideal transit route to the rest of Southeast Asia.

Drugs are moved across the Mekong River into Thailand then onto Malaysia and beyond.

Thailand is being hit hard by the trade.

Between October last year and last month, the country seized 74 million pills, according to the Thai Narcotics Control Board, as well as 2 tonnes of crystal meth and 320kg of heroin.

Police are fighting back and say they have battered three major Laos-linked drug networks, confiscating tens of millions of dollars’ worth of assets including hotels, cars, cash and a horse-riding school in Vientiane.

They are hunting a fourth group led by Usman Salameang, a Thai believed to be holed up in Laos, wanted for moving gear through Thailand’s violent border area into Malaysia.

Historically, Laos has been reluctant to admit it has a drug problem.

However, under Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith the country is keen to show that it is flushing out criminals and corrupt officials.

The recent arrests are part of Sisoulith’s get-tough message to the drug gangs.

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