Two Hong Kong triads have linked up with one of Latin America's largest and most notorious drug cartels to supply the burgeoning global market for methamphetamine, the Sunday Morning Post has learned.
Members of the 14K and Sun Yee On triads are supplying Mexico's Sinaloa cartel with the raw materials needed to produce methamphetamine, or "crystal meth", as demand skyrockets.
The Sinaloa cartel is one of Mexico's most powerful organised crime groups and has played a deadly role in the country's drug wars, which have claimed 60,000 lives since 2006.
The connection emerged a week after one of the biggest drug busts in recent years saw a massive methamphetamine production racket closed down in the eastern Guangdong city of Lufeng. China is one of the world's biggest producers of methamphetamine, also known as Ice, and of its precursor chemicals. Hong Kong triads have long been significant players in the regional narcotics trade, but recent developments suggest they are seeking to build networks further afield.
Details of the Mexico connection come in the wake of the arrest on Christmas Day of three known affiliates of the Sinaloa cartel in a US intelligence-led raid on a cock fighting farm south of Manila.
Philippine anti-drug agents smashed a meth lab and seized 84kg of the powerful and addictive stimulant in the raid.
"The Mexicans are already here," said drug task force chief Bartolome Tobias, adding that he believed they were getting help from "Chinese drug syndicates".
Informed sources have identified the 14K and Sun Yee On as being among the syndicates known to smuggle the raw material used to make meth - ethyl phenylacetate - into the Philippines.
A Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency source told the Post that intelligence reports indicated the involvement of the 14K in the meth lab busted south of Manila. Several drug syndicates may have been involved, but details could not be disclosed until certain arrests were made.
Ties between Hong Kong triads and the Sinaloa cartel were also outlined in a report by the Mexican attorney general's office last year.
According to the report, the 14K and Sun Yee On supply the cartel with precursor chemicals such as ethyl phenylacetate and ephedrine for the manufacture of meth for the insatiable American market.
In recent years there have been a spate of seizures of precursor chemicals by authorities in Latin America, with most of the shipments coming from China.
In a six-week period in 2012, Mexican security forces seized about 900 tonnes of precursor chemicals.
Months later, the authorities in Belize intercepted a single shipment of meth from China that was worth an estimated US$10 billion.
Lax controls in China's chemical industry offer gangs easy access to precursor materials, while regulatory shortcomings abet smuggling efforts.
A recent UN report said Hong Kong did not issue end-user certificates to ensure the buyers of precursor chemicals were the actual recipient of the materials.
The narcotics division had not responded to questions on the regulatory framework by last night.
"These cartels benefit via linkages with Chinese organised crime by obtaining access to bulk precursor chemicals whose regulation has been severely tightened in Mexico and the United States," said Professor Robert Bunker, of the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania.
"The Chinese and HK triads get cash providing the bulk of precursor materials and also infantry small arms and ammunition. They also profit from smuggling Chinese and other Asian nationals via the cartels into the United States."
The gangs also trade finished drugs, with Sinaloa selling cocaine to increasingly affluent Asian markets, according to a 2011 report by the non-profit Jamestown Foundation.
Cocaine seizures by Hong Kong Customs soared from 30kg in 2011 to 600kg in 2012, a jump of nearly 2,000 per cent.
The figure fell to 170kg last year, yet the drug has been classed a "growing threat" in Asia by the UN.
According to Customs, most of the seizures were destined for neighbouring countries.
Cocaine's expanding presence on the mainland has been linked to increasing affluence. The prevalence of meth has also continued to grow across Hong Kong and the mainland, although its popularity is generally confined to younger drug users.
Seizures of meth pills across China rocketed 1,500 per cent from 6 million in 2008 to 100 million in 2012, according to a November report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
The extent of Hong Kong's involvement in the international meth trade was highlighted by a series of arrests in Sydney over the past two years.
In 2012, four Hongkongers were detained following a record seizure of HK$4 billion of heroin and crystal meth.
The huge haul was followed less than a year later by the capture of three more Hongkongers in the city in two more big methamphetamine busts.
Chief Superintendent Kwok Ho-fai, of the police organised crime and triad bureau, declined to answer questions on the links, saying the force would not comment on "operational matters".
United in notoriety - Hong Kong's triads and the Mexican Sinaloa cartel
Named after the state on Mexico's Pacific coast where it was formed, the Sinaloa cartel is perhaps the most powerful drug trafficking organisation in the world.
Founded in 1989, the cartel is led by the elusive Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, who has been wanted by authorities worldwide since he escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 by bribing the guards.
Last year the Chicago Crime Commission branded Guzman Loera "public enemy number one" due to Sinaloa's impact on the drug trade in the city. The last person to hold the distinction was Al Capone.
The cartel's heartland covers a "Golden Triangle" across Mexico's Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua states. But the cartel is said to maintain operations in locations as diverse as Sierra Leone, Russia and Australia and is now considered a transnational organised crime group.
On Friday, police in the Netherlands arrested a man suspected of being the cartel's top enforcer. Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa heads a group of hitmen known as "the Anthrax". He is active on social media and frequently posts pictures of a seemingly luxurious lifestyle that features celebrities, high-profile events and fast cars.
Hong Kong is home to a handful of organised crime syndicates.
Paramount are the 14K and the Sun Yee On triads, arch-rivals with a propensity towards violence.
Triads have their roots in dialect groups, trade guilds or political movements, but are now responsible for much of the region's drug trafficking and vice establishments.
With about 55,000 members worldwide, the Sun Yee On is said to be the most organised and wealthiest triad society.
Founded by Hokkien immigrants from northeast Guangdong in 1919, the triad exerts considerable sway in its traditional stronghold Tsim Sha Tsui East, as well as in Tuen Mun and Tseung Kwan O.
The 14K was founded in Guangzhou in 1945 as an anti-communist taskforce. In 1949, it relocated to Hong Kong following the Nationalist defeat and today exerts influence predominantly over West Kowloon, Yuen Long and Kwun Tong.