Asia's more open borders must remain closed to criminal gangs

Jeremy Douglas warns of drug syndicates profiting from integration

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 3:16am

When the Jakarta police entered a toy warehouse in April, they were not shopping for their children. In what was the country's biggest drug bust of the past two years, 90kg of high-purity crystal methamphetamine was uncovered. The investigation implicated an organised crime ring stretching from Hong Kong to Malaysia and Indonesia.

At around the same time, Malaysian authorities arrested a group of Iranians for trafficking 22kg of crystal meth into the country; and just lately, Thailand discovered 600,000 speed pills produced in Myanmar and smuggled across the border by a major criminal network.

While these operations provide yet more evidence of the threat of organised crime networks operating in Asia, none is as illuminating as a recent drug seizure in Boshe village in Guangdong. In a single operation five months ago, Chinese officers raided a drug lab containing over three tonnes of crystal meth and arrested 182 people, including senior village leaders. Linked to numerous trafficking networks across the region, the drugs in the lab were worth millions of dollars.

Amazing as it may seem, this remarkably large operation in Guangdong is only the tip of the iceberg. The money generated by transnational organised crime in East Asia has recently been estimated - very conservatively - to reach a staggering US$90 billion per year. While this includes money generated from crime such as the trade in counterfeit goods and fraudulent medicines, illegal wood products and protected species, and the trafficking of men, women and children, the value of the drug economy constitutes the largest amount, at about US$32 billion a year.

Some drugs like heroin can be traced back to a specific geographic location near the Mekong River, in what is traditionally known as the Golden Triangle, while other synthetic drugs are now manufactured in almost every country in Asia. Law enforcement struggles to protect long and porous borders in the region. As regional integration accelerates in the coming years, the movement of people, goods and money will increase - and so too will the challenges.

The power of illegal money flows that are larger than the size of some national economies can hardly be overstated. Not surprisingly, this money is used to bribe officials, perpetuating and expanding corruption throughout the region.

Adding to the problem, weak enforcement of laws deters foreign investment and undermines domestic businesses confronted with unfair competition from those that break the law with impunity. The human impact is even more worrisome, as the trade and consumption of drugs rip families apart, overwhelm criminal justice systems and create significant health risks.

Efforts to integrate the region are admirable and should be supported. But while the positive effects of these developments on economic growth are well known, the flipside of how criminal networks will benefit is often not given enough attention. Such networks not only transcend borders but take advantage of their weaknesses.

Failure to seriously address the problem of transnational organised crime and trafficking risks undermining the many benefits of regional integration. An ambitious shared agenda and joint approach is crucial to confront this growing challenge. By opening up to sustained cooperation and effective regional coordination, Asia may just live up to its promise as a leading region in the 21st century.

Jeremy Douglas is the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Southeast Asia and the Pacific