Understanding Asia’s Golden Triangle Opium Trade

Heroin, which is produced from opium, is one of the world’s most popular illicit drugs and a key component of the global drugs trade. While heroin itself is well-known, what may not be as well-known is where the drug originates. In this article we cover the Golden Triangle, the second largest opium-producing region in the world.

The Golden Triangle

Covering an area of almost 367,000 square miles, Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle has operated as one of the world’s key opium-growing areas since the 1950’s. The Golden Triangle runs along the Mekong River, and includes the mountain ranges of three Southeast Asian countries: Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand.

The majority of the world’s heroin was produced in the Golden Triangle until the beginning of the 21st century when Afghanistan’s Golden Crescent moved into the top position. Law enforcement efforts in the late 1990’s had some effect on levels of production in the Golden Triangle, however these gains did not last. Since 2006, opium production in the region has tripled to an estimated worth of US$16.3 billion according to the United Nations (UN).

Opium cultivation in Myanmar and Laos in 2014 was around 63,800 hectares, an increase of 2,600 hectares over the previous year and the eighth year in a row that saw an increase. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that the region produces 762 tons of opium, which has resulted in 76 tons of heroin.

Global Heroin Trade
Image citation: “HeroinWorld-en” by ҉ Cerveaugenie – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HeroinWorld-en.svg#/media/File:HeroinWorld-en.svg

While the United States remains one of the main markets for heroin, the drug trade has been further fueled by the increasing demand for opiates in China – many users believe that heroin from the Golden Triangle is purer than Afghanistan’s. Since 2007, China has seen an estimated growth of 800,000 heroin users. Other drugs, such as methamphetamine are also seeing significant growth in users.

Myanmar’s influence

Out of the three countries that make up the Golden Triangle, Myanmar plays the largest role in the growing of opium. The country is estimated to be the second largest opium producer in the world. While numbers are hard to come by, the United Nations has estimated that there may be up to 167 square miles of land dedicated to opium cultivation in the country.

At one point in 1996, according to the United States Embassy in Rangoon (Myanmar’s capital), revenues from the illegal export of opium equaled revenues from the country’s legal exports. A large amount of the illegal money has been funneled back into legal investments such as infrastructure projects and hotels, making it very difficult to identify black market money from legal money. Money laundering operations are thus rampant throughout the country and the region.

How is the opium moved?

Once the opium has been harvested, it is generally moved by horse and donkey caravans to “refineries” located along the Thailand-Myanmar border where it is turned into heroin base and heroin. There is a two-way trade occurring here, with the chemicals needed to manufacture heroin being trafficked into the processing areas. Many of these chemicals are sourced from China.

The majority of the products are then moved to northern Thai towns, or on to Bangkok, where it is prepared for shipping onto international markets. The heroin is generally brought to the US via couriers traveling on commercial airlines.

Who is in charge?

Myanmar’s northern Shan state, which is home to numerous rebel groups, is a key opium producing location. According to the UN, Shan state accounts for 89 percent of opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle. The rebel groups use the funds raised from the sale of opium to finance their various insurgencies.

RELATED: The United Wa State Army: Myanmar’s Opium Kingpins?

While there are many players involved in the drug trade in the Golden Triangle, perhaps the largest player is the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Made up of ethnic fighters, the UWSA mainly operates along Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand. The organization has strong links to the country’s ruling military junta and has also previously served as the military branch of the Burmese Communist Party.

Farmers with few options

A key problem with fighting the opium trade has been the farmers’ lack of viable choices of other crops to grow. Many of the farmers in the region suffer from food insecurity and are mired in poverty. Often, the only option that they have to earn a reasonable income that will allow them to support their families is to engage in the growing of opium. According to the UN, the average annual household income for a family that is growing poppies is around US$2,040, this is 15 percent more than those who are not growing the crop. These farmers are not cold-blooded criminals, but simply families struggling to get by and who have been caught up in an illicit global trade.

Sex and…?

While opium remains the largest revenue generator in the Golden Triangle, the sex industry has seen significant recent growth. As money has flown into the region, scores of sex workers have followed behind. It is now common to be approached by numerous prostitutes when visiting anywhere in the area.

Reflecting the changing tastes in global drug use, the Golden Triangle has also seen strong growth in the production of methamphetamine (often referred to as crystal meth). The chemicals used to produce the meth are generally imported from China.

Current law enforcement efforts

One of the chief law enforcement operations currently operating in the Golden Triangle is the Safe Mekong Coordination Center in Chiang Mai. The Center is a coordinated operation involving representatives from China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. The four countries’ law enforcement agencies share intelligence on the movement of drugs throughout the region.

The Center’s operations include increased boat patrols on the Mekong River. The boats used are often heavily armed due to the dangers involved. For example, in 2011, 13 Chinese sailors were murdered and their boat stolen by drug smugglers who used it to ship methamphetamine. These murders were one of the main motivators for the creation of the Center. The Center has met with some success since its founding, but perhaps its most important contribution has been the example it has set for further regional coordination in the future.

Increasing economic integration: good for the drug trade?

The ongoing processes of increased regional integration, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), could end up being a boon to those engaged in the illicit drug trade. ASEAN is made up of 10 Southeast Asian countries. The organization is currently finalizing its development of the ASEAN Economic Community, which will reduce trade barriers and border controls between member nations, as well as increasing transport connections. These types of developments could provide substantial opportunities to organized crime if member states are not prepared to crack down on illegal activities in their nations.

However, if previous ASEAN anti-drug efforts are a sign of things to come, then there is little reason for hope. For example, the organization’s goal of making Southeast Asia drug free by 2015 has been a laughable failure. If the organization cannot get serious about the problems that it is facing and avoid setting impossible goals, the drug trade is sure to flourish for many years to come still. And the Golden Triangle will be at the epicenter of this multi-billion dollar industry.

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