Police arrested ‘Asia’s El Chapo’, but will it mean less meth?

Photo: Radspunk / CC BY-SA

The arrest of Tse Chi Lop, head of Asia’s largest drug syndicate, does little to alter the structures that facilitate the region’s booming narcotics trade. From Myanmar’s ethnic armies and state-backed militias to Hong Kong triad organizations, the profits driving the trade will continue—Tse Chi Lop, like any link in the supply chain, is replaceable.

Editorial

Alleged drug kingpin Tse Chi Lop, head of Asia’s largest criminal organization, was arrested in the Netherlands on January 22 at the request of Australian authorities.

Tse Chi Lop is the leader of the Sam Gor drug syndicate, which brings in over US$17.7 billion per year trafficking methamphetamines, heroin and other narcotics from Southeast Asia to countries across the Asia-Pacific, according to the UN. The organization is reportedly the source of 70% of the illegal drugs trafficked into Australia, nearly all of which is produced in the long infamous Golden Triangle area where northern Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.

The Australian Federal Police have led a years-long operation against the Sam Gor syndicate for importing “substantial quantities of heroin and methamphetamine” into Australia and allege that his syndicate was linked to or committed at least 13 instances of drug trafficking since 2015.

The arrest of the Sam Gor leader signals a key inflection point in the changing Asia-Pacific drug trade: the impact on drug production, trafficking and seizures—if there is an impact—will offer key data on the structure of the drug trade.

The syndicate has led a new wave of drug trafficking in the Asia-Pacific in recent years, producing cheap synthetic drugs on an industrial scale—mostly methamphetamines—in labs in northeastern Myanmar and selling them across the region. Frequent large drug seizures by Thai, Australian, Malaysian and Myanmar authorities, though at times record-breaking, seem to do little to stem the flow of drugs. 

In all likelihood, Tse Chi Lop’s arrest will barely shift the dynamics that see traffickers move drugs across the Mekong Region and out to Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo and Melbourne. There are at least 19 other senior syndicate leaders, according to Australian police.

Schiphol Airport, where Tse Chi Lop was arrested. Photo: User:SElefant, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Drug lord arrested after years of investigation

Tse Chi Lop was arrested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on his way to board a flight to Canada; the drug boss was born in China but is a Canadian national and former Toronto resident. The Australian attorney-general will reportedly soon request Tse Chi Lop’s extradition to face trial, but no charges have been announced.

Tse Chi Lop is often referred to as “Asia’s El Chapo” in the media after Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, but remained largely out of the headlines and off the radar, except for a 1998 heroin arrest in the US, until a late 2019 investigation by Reuters. The organization was hit by a series of raids in 2012-13, but Tse Chi Lop was not arrested. 

He is also known by the nickname Sam Gor, which means “Brother Number Three” in Cantonese. Police and the media refer to his organization as the Sam Gor syndicate but members and associates refer to it as “The Company”.

Tse Chi Lop’s syndicate has pushed meth across Asia and the Pacific

The Asia-Pacific region’s drug trade is now built on cheap synthetic drugs, chiefly those known as “yaba” or “yama”—methamphetamine tablets that are usually made with caffeine and are far less potent than crystal meth. Heroin has been on the decline, in comparison, and Southeast Asian drug producers now churn out around 2 billion yaba pills per year, as well as ketamine and fentanyl. Drug manufacturers import the necessary precursor chemicals from southwestern China into the Golden Triangle, according to authorities.

Meth offers an enormous profit margin as it’s trafficked to wealthier countries; in northeastern Myanmar, one kilogram of crystal meth could sell for US$1,800. If that kilogram is sold in Thailand, it could be worth $70,500. If it’s sold in Australia, it’s worth $298,000 and in Japan, it’s worth $588,000, or 300 times its original value. The Sam Gor organization is believed to launder billions of dollars in profits through investments in mainland Southeast Asia, including real estate, hotels and casinos.

UN drug authorities say the COVID-19 pandemic has only caused methamphetamine prices in Southeast Asia to drop, reportedly to their lowest in a decade, as supply surges and potency remains high. In August 2020, yaba was selling for less than US$1 per pill in Cambodia, according to the UNODC.

In May 2020, authorities in Myanmar announced that a series of raids had turned up Asia’s largest drug seizure in decades, with 17.5 tons of yaba—193 million tablets—and 35.5 tons of drug precursor chemicals in northeastern Myanmar’s Shan State.

The past few years have also seen troubling evidence of fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, entering Southeast Asia’s drug supply. Last year’s record drug seizure in Shan State turned up 3,500 liters of liquid methylfentanyl, a precursor of the opioid, and a series of drug overdoses in Bangkok indicated that heroin supplies now contained fentanyl.

The drug machine will continue to function without Tse Chi Lop

Just as drug seizures have had little impact on the current meth boom, the same may be true for the arrest of Tse Chi Lop: business is too big to fail.

The same can be said about violence, as the Asia-Pacific meth racket has seen relatively little violence in recent years despite the involvement of ethnic armed groups and militias in Myanmar and myriad criminal organizations—the Hong Kong and Macau triads 14k, Wo Shing Wo and Sun Yee On and the Taiwan-based Bamboo Union.

If there are any impacts from Tse Chi Lop’s arrest, they will be seen the quickest in the volatile dynamics of northeastern Shan State, where violent conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military has been on the rise and many profit from the drug trade. Business has been as good as ever during the pandemic for illicit trade along the porous Myanmar-Thai border.

The drug trade has been central to Shan State’s armed conflicts for decades, stretching back to the role of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) in the 1950s. Especially since a splintering within the Communist Party of Burma in 1988, many ethnic armed groups and state-backed militias have relied on drug trafficking to fund their operations, often with the tacit acknowledgment of the Myanmar government. 

Some analysts point to how the government’s policy of turning rebel groups into militia has driven increased drug trafficking. The same has often been true of the peace process in general; absent more legitimate economic options, groups that cease hostilities with the Myanmar military are allowed to continue working in the drug trade—see, for example, the United Wa State Army.

The arrest of Tse Chi Lop does little to alter the now-structural features of Myanmar’s conflicts that allow the drug trade to continue; the armies and militias of Shan State will continue to profit. The drug trade will likely only shift if there is a change in the structure of the Sam Gor syndicate itself. Barring this, Tse Chi Lop, like any trafficker or group along the supply chain, is replaceable.

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