Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Thailand targeting narco millions hidden in crypto



Thailand targeting narco millions hidden in crypto

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
An armed officer of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau guards some of the 25 tonnes of confiscated drugs from court cases which were incinerated to mark the United Nations' "International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking" at Bang Pa-In industrial estate in Ayutthaya on Friday. AFP

Thailand targeting narco millions hidden in crypto

The downfall of a methamphetamine syndicate laundering tens of millions of dollars of drug money through Thai gold shops, oil and construction firms have cast rare light on the staggering scale of Asia’s narco profits – and the ruses used to hide them.

Thailand is Southeast Asia’s meth “superhighway”, with drugs from remote Myanmar labs pouring through the border destined for the local market or overseas as far as Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Prices have dropped as the drug labs ramp up production of yaba – the tiny caffeinated pink or green pills guzzled by Southeast Asian truck drivers to clubbers – and the more expensive and highly addictive crystal meth known as “ice”.

Millions are hooked on drugs in Thailand, where prisons are stuffed with petty dealers and addicts.

But the drug lords remain beyond reach, hidden behind a web of middlemen and complex money laundering schemes.

Authorities say they are finally ready to change the game by going after drug money sloshing through Thai banks, construction businesses and cryptocurrency accounts.

Minister of Justice Somsak Thepsuthin told reporters last week: “We have found an irregular flow in the banks of 170 billion baht [$5.5 billion] – it may not all be drugs.

“But we are confident there is at least 12 billion baht in drug-related assets – drug money is being turned into gold, zinc [panels], steel rods and oil.”

Thailand’s get-tough message follows the recent unspooling of several networks, who bought oil with drug profits and traded it on international markets as well as transforming dirty money into construction materials for sale such as steel pipes, roofing and machinery.

The main group was allegedly controlled by Daoreung Somseang, a Thai woman already in custody in a Bangkok prison on trafficking offences.

Police allege she still ran a drug empire which spanned the country using gold shops and construction companies to clean at least $100 million cash through 113 accounts to move the money.

It is a cycle of drug production, trafficking and laundering that generates untold billions and turns a secondary economy of cryptocurrency, supercars and plush overseas properties.

Lieutenant-General Wissanu Prasartthong-osod, assistant to Thailand’s police chief, said: “It’s impossible to guess the real amount these drug networks are making.”

But the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC’s) Jeremy Douglas said the Daoreung’s dexterity in laundering shows the “scale and sophistication of the networks.

“This one is not even a super-syndicate . . . it’s mid-sized but is still moving a massive volume of money.”

On Friday, Thai authorities burned seized drugs worth $1.7 billion – another batch worth $800 million was incinerated in Myanmar – during an annual parade of law enforcement successes across the region.

But the record amounts are just a sliver of the money on the table for Asia’s meth lords, who emerge from drug crackdowns by raising production and piercing borders with corruption.

The UNODC estimates they are making between $30-$60 billion a year and are the biggest meth producers in the world.

The meth is produced in the “Golden Triangle” – cutting across northern Thailand, Laos, China and Myanmar – where armed rebels are the law and drug lords lease jungle labs under their protection.

The market-leading syndicate is believed to be the “Sam Gor” group, dominated by Chinese gangsters who control at least 40 per cent of Asia’s meth – sending their signature tea packets stuffed with “ice” across the Asia-Pacific region.

Asian organised crime is stealthier than its violent and showy Latin American peers, operating in anonymity across countries with long, porous borders, corruptible police, and large domestic markets of drug users.

To unwind the money trail, Thailand has been working with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), whose skills were honed in the fight with the Latin American cartels.

But crime experts warn police must be ready to follow the money wherever it leads if they are to get close to the heads of the criminal chain.

The UNODC’s Douglas added: “The message is you can’t just stop at the drug seizure.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh placed in two-week lockdown

    The government has decided to place Phnom Penh in lockdown for two weeks, effective April 14 midnight through April 28, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen no sign of subsiding. According to a directive signed by Prime Minister

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Hun Sen: Stay where you are, or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Kandal provincial town Takmao could be extended if people are not cooperative by staying home. “Now let me make this clear: stay in your home, village, and district and remain where

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Culture ministry: Take Tuol Sleng photos down, or else

    The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has told Irish photographer Matt Loughrey to take down the photos of Khmer Rouge victims at Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum which he allegedly colourised and altered to show them smiling. The ministry said Loughrey's work is unacceptable, affecting

  • Cambodia gears up for muted New Year festival

    The recent curfew and restrictions imposed in the capital and other Covid-19 hotspots were intended to break the chain of transmission, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said as municipal and provincial authorities issued new directives banning certain activities during the upcoming Khmer New Year