• savglobalanalyst


Hayden Cribbon, Ana Rosa Del Rey Revilla, Antonia Gough, Charlotte Morton, PACOM Team Katelyn Ferguson, CRIME Team

Week of Monday, April 5, 2021

Map of the Golden Triangle region[1]

The Golden Triangle is the region encompassing northern Thailand, eastern Myanmar (former Burma), and northeastern Laos; as well as a small portion of China. It is historically known for the illicit trade of drugs, but a variety of other illegal commodities are also traded in the region. The presence of these markets has not only allowed criminals to profit but has served as a facilitator to various crimes that destabilize local economies and communities, damage the environment, and result in human rights violations. Profits remain high in these illegal industries, while little chance of detection or punishment exists. Steady flows of tourism through the region before the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the main facilitators of the various illicit markets, and while less tourism has occurred in the area, many of the illegal markets shifted to virtual markets. With the world beginning to open up again as many countries are lessening their travel restrictions, it is highly likely that the physical markets of the Golden Triangle likely see an increase in purchases in various unethical and illegal commodities.

The Golden Triangle is a hub for illegal markets whose geography and climate conditions make it practically inaccessible for several months a year. The illegal drug market has been dominant in the region. Additionally, human trafficking from Myanmar and Laos to Thailand for sexual exploitation and forced labor also represents prevalent illicit activities in the area. Counterfeit commodities such as imitation medicines being sold are not safe and are undermining the legal vendors of these items. Also infecting the area is the illegal wildlife market, including smuggled alive and poached animals. This market is prevalent especially as tourists have the opportunity to consume ‘farm to table’ exotic meats. For its part, cybercrime is also widespread, not only as a criminal venture on its own but also as a facilitator of other illicit activities.

The Drugs Market

There is growing concern that militia groups are trafficking the chemicals used to make pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, reflecting a trend that is evading law enforcement’s counter-trafficking tactics.[2] Certain areas of Myanmar are currently under territorial control by groups who have the protection of rebels and militia with close links to the military. The main implication of this is that organized criminals operating in these areas are free to produce drugs undisturbed. The fact that law enforcement is currently unsure of the destination and use of chemical components of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine being trafficked in the Golden Triangle indicates the difficulties in countering the newly-developed methods to smuggle drugs across country borders. There is also the potential that the chemicals that make up medicinal drugs are being used to make recreational drugs within the destination country that remain undetected by law enforcement, illustrating another possible element of this trafficking method that needs to be investigated. A severe lack of progress in Myanmar specifically has allowed the country to become the leading producer of methamphetamine globally, and second only to Afghanistan in terms of heroin production.[3] Thus, there is a pressing need for governments to remain on top of these developments. If this does not happen, one of the most destabilizing potential implications would be for indirect facilitation and continuation of the coup in Myanmar. International efforts to resolve the complex political situation will be hindered by increased instability on the ground in Myanmar that has been facilitated by organized crime.

At the root of this is the supply of chemicals for synthetic drug production. The Golden Triangle’s location between two massive chemical producers - India and China - makes such chemicals easily available in the region.[4] An additional challenge is that these substances are often multi-purpose: they are used in agriculture, medicines, and the chemical industry to give a few examples. This increases the reasons for the smuggling of these substances as well as the possibility to move them in large quantities under legitimate means. Separating these chemicals’ legal and illegal usages becomes difficult.

In addition, while opium production is dependent on harvest cycles and crop success, synthetic drugs are easy and cheap to produce in laboratories that can be built to be highly portable. These laboratories originated in China, but due to the Chinese government clampdowns, manufacturing was moved to the Golden Triangle leading to the exponential growth in synthetic drug production in the region.[5] The crime syndicates who controlled methamphetamine supply also relocated from China to Southeast Asia.[6] As a result, prices of synthetic drugs have dropped over time. China’s economic and political might makes the job of law enforcement in the Golden Triangle even harder to cope with the vast amounts of illicit goods moving throughout their territories. The pandemic has worsened an already bleak economic and social situation for many in the Golden Triangle, as well as China and India. At a time when unprecedented numbers face unemployment or a reduction in income, more people are at risk of falling victim to drug addiction and/or crime, including joining the drug manufacturing industry. The socio-economic situation of the producing countries is thus closely linked to the rampant growth of the industry. The marginalized and economically fragile remain highly vulnerable to partaking in the drug production and trafficking business, and may well also face drug addiction along the way. Many individuals are intimidated or forced into becoming involved in the selling and trafficking of drugs from a young age. Given societal stereotypes, women are considered far less likely to be involved in this illicit business. This damaging assumption means that many women - already with a vastly disproportionate stake in economic and political life in this region - are often exploited into becoming traffickers. It is unsurprising then that in Thailand, which houses the second-largest female prison population in the world, 80% are there as a result of drug-related offenses.[7] This link demonstrates that governments in the region must approach transnational illicit activities from a societal and economic perspective just as much as they do from a law and order and security angle. The Golden Triangle governments must also take into account the links between incarceration situations and the chances of reoffending. Cramped and under-resourced prisons are more likely to fuel the cycle of recidivism amongst young citizens of these countries who have turned to crime.

The Golden Triangle has primarily been an opium-growing region, but more recently the production has shifted to amphetamine-type stimulants. In 2019, 139 tons of meth were seized by authorities, an increase from 82.5 tons in 2017.[8] This trend is likely the result of shifting commercial demands. In contrast, pseudoephedrine seizures have dropped from more than 10 million tablets in 2016 to zero in 2019, while ephedrine has decreased from 534 kilograms in 2016 to 402 kilograms in 2019, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).[9] Both are stimulant medications. Pseudoephedrine is often used legitimately as a nasal decongestant and can be used to keep people awake with higher doses.[10] Ephedrine is used to prevent low blood pressure and nasal congestion and with higher doses can cause heart palpitations and insomnia.[11] One reason for the decrease in seizures is that the trafficking of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine is being implemented using alternative methods, such as trafficking the individual chemicals as opposed to the formed drug. Law enforcement may not be aware of how to monitor this trafficking method because it has been previously unseen. Additionally, law enforcement may have reduced a focus on monitoring the trade of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine because they are relatively ‘low-impact’ drugs compared to the opium trade, which may be receiving a greater focus.

In fact, opium production is still a serious concern. After a decade of steady reduction, opium production has recently climbed back to 2003 levels in the Golden Triangle region.[12] One potential reason for the spike is an increased regional demand, which may have been prompted by the economic and social strain of COVID-19 on the world. The pandemic forced a large portion of the population to spend more time socially isolated, which has had a toll on mental health and opened up the possibility for using drugs as a coping mechanism. Additionally, the economic impact of COVID-19 has forced people to try and make a living with what they have available. The opium trade has the potential to be a lucrative business, so its production was likely relied upon for livelihoods. The opium trade is also likely to be impacted by the United States’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by September 2021. The US has fought the opium war in Afghanistan for years so the withdrawal will likely result in a net increase in opium production. Although the US has had minimal success in ceasing the opium war, its presence was a signal to the industry that they had an opposition, which will no longer exist when troops are removed.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Drug Market

While the UNODC has detected a reduction in drug prices during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in other regions of the world, no such trend was recorded in Southeast Asia. This was accompanied by a growth in online sales.[13] This happened because the pandemic has diverted the attention of governments in the region, resulting in increased methamphetamine supply and pushing the price to record lows, making the demand rise in turn. While the price has been reduced, the quality of methamphetamine drugs has not decreased.[14] The likely reason for this is that the industry relies on returning customers, especially because the trading of methamphetamine is expensive and its success is reliant on people wanting more. Once the COVID-19 pandemic has eased and the factors that have been contributing to increased online sales are no longer present, the industry may or may not continue to thrive. The potential factors that will contribute to the results are the economic recovery that will occur post-pandemic, the potential continuation of an addiction that formed during that period, and social drug use when social isolation is no longer implemented. First, economic recovery will either give people more funds to spend on drugs (funding the drug trade) or reduce the financial stressors that were previously causing their drug use (thereby reducing the drug trade). Second, an addiction that was created during the pandemic may increase drug use post-pandemic. Third, the removal of social isolation requirements post-pandemic is likely to increase social drug use, accordingly fostering the drug trade. Such factors will be dependent on individual circumstances and therefore vary the continued use of drugs after the pandemic. However, drug consumption is expected to continue at high levels.

The Role of Organised Crime Groups

Drugs are produced on an industrial level and organized criminal organizations, as well as decentralized networks of drug traffickers, are structured in a way that allows them to quickly adapt.[15] The network of production facilities that sustain the mammoth synthetic drug industry in the region would not be possible without the financial backing and involvement of organized criminal groups. Smugglers have thus shifted their transit routes from the north to the northeast, making increased use of the Mekong River.[16] This development may well continue after the pandemic is over, as drug smuggling routes in the Golden Triangle rely heavily on the naturally impenetrable and unregulated nature of the borders. These connect vastly different societies, cultures, and economic systems, providing a unique mix of challenges. The problem simply gets displaced to another location, in what one can imagine as a “balloon effect,” where stricter border patrols in one area simply push the trafficking elsewhere on the border. Previously unsuccessful attempts by authorities to increase border controls demonstrate this. Still, it does not stop regional law enforcement and governments from prioritizing border management within their wider strategies against illicit markets, despite its arguable ineffectiveness. The very same groups who carry out border patrols are often also those who are involved in drug trafficking. Until this is not the case, and until the region’s highland economies have a chance of competing economically with illicit markets, smugglers will always find a new way to transport their goods if their usual route is made inaccessible. Indeed the vast sums of money made by illicit industries are extremely tempting to the very officials who are best placed to clamp down on these markets, so a vicious cycle exists that is difficult to break.

The conjunction point of the three countries forming the Golden Triangle[17]

Developing communities are especially vulnerable to cheaper than ever synthetic drugs. Organized crime groups have been a significant contributing factor to this increase in affordability, possessing the resources and power to increase production and purity at the same time. This driving down of prices has created a marked difference in the price of synthetic drugs in neighboring countries to the Golden Triangle. Organized criminals elsewhere in the region thus tend to source their drugs from the Golden Triangle, it provides by far the best deal. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle that allows the industry and its profitability to grow and grow. A popular tablet form of methamphetamine called “yaba” can be obtained for as little as 50 Baht ($1.60 USD) in the northern regions of Thailand.[18] The age range where drug abuse is most common is between 18-25, and according to the International Monetary Fund more than half of the population of Southeast Asia is under 30.[19] [20] This inherently implies that drug consumption represents a higher risk in communities where the population is younger and there are fewer opportunities for young people. Given the cheaper access to drugs, everything seems to confirm that the trend of drug consumption in this region will continue to increase. Even though narcotics use is not linked to a specific social class, cheaper access makes it more accessible to people in poorer areas, meaning it will have a greater impact on these communities.

Counterfeit Medicines

In addition to recreational drugs, counterfeit medicine is a prolific and dangerous product of the Golden Triangle. Bangkok is a prime destination where fake drugs find their way even into legitimate pharmacies.[21] Traffickers use the same routes established by methamphetamine and heroin traffickers.[22] Antimalarials and antibiotics are the most commonly reported categories of counterfeit medicines, which are constantly in demand in Southeast Asia. Some nations lack the legal framework to define these falsified drugs.[23] Distributing counterfeit medicine is a lucrative business, and some estimates say the counterfeit drug market is growing faster than the legitimate counterpart. Modern pharmaceuticals are vital to the wellbeing of millions and criminals are all too willing to capitalize on vulnerabilities in the market. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened a fresh wave of demand for medications, and vulnerable areas may be at risk of fraudulent vaccines. The manufacturers of fake medicines do not take into consideration the health risks that these medicines could have on users and are not concerned with curing individuals of their health issues, focusing only on profit. In order to combat this illicit industry, affected countries need to establish more thorough guidelines and legislation. Information about how to spot fake drugs should be made available to the public, and stricter guidelines for marketplaces should be implemented. Legitimate sources for pharmaceuticals could be made more easily available to those in need and may be a good recipient of humanitarian aid.

Knowledge Gaps Among Local Law Enforcement

The current degree of knowledge on the rapidly changing synthetic drug market amongst law enforcement and scientists in the Golden Triangle is not at the level required to stay ahead.[24] Organized crime networks are using an ever-increasing range of chemicals in their production: in 2003 three illegal opioids were identified in the Golden Triangle region. By 2019, this number increased to 28.[25] Golden Triangle governments must do three things in order to combat the production and sales of synthetic drugs. First, they should dedicate more resources to tracking the production and commerce of chemical compounds used as the raw materials for synthetic drugs, especially given Thailand’s hub status in this area. This will require each government to cooperate with other countries in the region as well as with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the UNODC. Second, they must collaborate with the Chinese Government to a much greater degree. While this has already been encouraged by the UNODC, the governments need to take further steps to ensure effective intelligence sharing on the chemical and pharmaceutical industries’ production chains within and between these countries. Third, governments must ensure that their knowledge of the clandestine manufacturing and of the chemical precursors used to produce synthetic drugs is up-to-date and comprehensive. This is not an easy task, as the chemical composition of drugs is constantly evolving. This evolution is a result of the relatively easy ability to mix various chemicals in a way that keeps producers one step ahead of what is classed as an illegal substance by governments. The pace at which governments, particularly those in the Golden Triangle, can update their laws to include new cocktails of chemicals is far slower than the speed at which producers can concoct them.

On April 3, 2021, Thai law enforcement confiscated over 100 grenades and 6,000 ammunition rounds that were due to be transported to Myanmar.[26] This particular shipment has been found to have links with both a drug trafficking ring in the north of Thailand and an arms smuggling network in the south. This recent example directly demonstrates the pervasiveness and interconnectedness of different forms of transnational illegal markets and networks in the region. The existence of an illicit market for weapons also strengthens the ability of criminal groups to coerce people and fight law enforcement units. In addition, it gives access to weaponry to separatist and terrorist groups, further contributing to instability in the region.

Human Trafficking

Regarding human trafficking, the main form of exploitation detected in the Golden Triangle are sex trafficking (64%) and forced labor (29%), leaving only a 7% for other purposes of exploitation.[27] The flow of human trafficking in the Golden Triangle usually has Thailand as the receptor country. This is due to the economic development that it experienced during the 1990s, which made it comparatively richer than itself from neighboring countries. The difficult economic scenario and increased instability Laos and Myanmar find themselves - especially due to the armed conflict experienced by the latter for decades - has made them an easy target and the point of origin of these flows of human trafficking. While the situation in Myanmar continues to worsen, the risk of human trafficking in the country increases. Traffickers may exploit the undeveloped economies of Myanmar and Laos as an opportunity for forced labor and sexual exploitation, reinforcing human traffic flows in the region. If further measures are not taken to protect these citizens from human trafficking by prosecuting traffickers and by offering solid and legal opportunities, including better access to education and professional experiences, the role of these countries as origin points of human trafficking flows will persist. Moreover, these significant and growing disparities in the security, economic and political situations of the Golden Triangle countries and their uneven paces of development and improvement have been exploited in all other illicit markets as well.

In the particular case of Myanmar, more than 100 ethnic minorities are present, and many have clashed with the government for decades demanding autonomy or secession. These ethnic minorities have been subjected to greater exclusion and persecution, which makes their citizens more exposed to human trafficking. The unfavourable situations in which these individuals find themselves are known to the traffickers who take advantage of such conditions to offer them supposed opportunities and attract them to human trafficking. The global pandemic situation has further reinforced the risk of the most disadvantaged people to be victims of human trafficking. Governments have devoted all or most of their efforts to controlling the pandemic, thus driving the attention away from other problems. This situation, together with the political and social crises, has meant that human trafficking is no longer a priority for the government, at least in the short term. This intrinsically implies a greater risk for the most disadvantaged population.

Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

The Golden Triangle is a region where wildlife products, both alive and deceased, are openly displayed and sold. No longer just an emerging threat, this industry now generates USD $19.5 billion a year in the East Asia and Pacific region.[28] The wildlife in this region, including species that are close to extinction, are exploited, confined, tortured, and killed in order to have their body parts sold for decor, traditional medicine or consumption.[29] Facilities such as tiger farms and bear farms exist in the Golden Triangle, where the wildlife - obtained via poaching - are confined in cages, visibly distressed while paying clients can choose which animal they would like to be slaughtered for their ‘farm to table’ meal.[30] However, it is likely that many consumers are unaware of how the product was obtained and of its implications in terms of damage to ecosystems, increased chances of various species becoming extinct, the risk of being transmitted a zoonotic disease and so forth. The negative impact is not limited to the region, as wildlife is trafficked from outside the Golden Triangle as well.[31] The large numbers of tourists traveling to the Golden Triangle and their exposure to these wildlife products continue to drive the demand and supply for these products. The fact that the wildlife and timber trade are often embedded in legitimate trade further increases the difficulty of detecting illicit goods.

Although there was a reduction in large seizures relating to transnational wildlife crime in Southeast Asia during 2020 due to travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities have nevertheless seized 1,892 kilograms of endangered wildlife products, 82 live species, and 145 tons of timber from protected forests.[32] The trade is likely to return to pre-pandemic levels as soon as border restrictions are removed because it was traditionally largely ignored by the Golden Triangle governments. However, there is a real possibility that the pandemic’s alleged origins might serve as an impetus for change in the region, with the realization that wildlife trafficking is a vehicle for the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Asian elephants are just one example of the species at risk of illicit wildlife trafficking[33]

While organizations such as Traffic and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are working together with local NGOs to help stop the wildlife trade, especially within the Golden Triangle, there needs to be more awareness about the unethical and unsafe practices and implications within the illegal wildlife trade spread among local communities and tourists. Additionally, there needs to be increased enforcement in terms of holding poachers and those contributing to the illegal wildlife trade accountable. Local rangers need technological tools so that they can track and protect local wildlife. Lastly, these markets for wildlife need to be closed. Golden Triangle governments must strengthen their legal framework in this area of crime and strengthen the penalties that are enforced for wildlife and environmental crimes.


The scope and complexity of the illicit markets in the Golden Triangle will always mean that implementing effective solutions will be equally challenging and multi-dimensional. Criminals engaged in these markets have shown ruthless adaptation to the various protocols and precautions that authorities have tried to implement and enforce. The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) PACOM team recommends that the governments and law enforcement officials within the Golden Triangle region continue their efforts to prevent transnational criminal activities and to work collaboratively in countering these markets. This could come in the form of increasing the presence of law enforcement at borders to monitor who and what is traveling within the region. Some illicit trafficking will require specific efforts. For instance, the illegal wildlife trade can be countered by educating local populations and tourists about zoonotic diseases, species at risk of extinction and how to respect local wildlife, the environmental impact of human activities, and promoting non-invasive forms of ecotourism that will help stimulate local economies. In the case of human trafficking, locals and tourists can be educated on how to spot evidence of ongoing trafficking and how to safely help. CTG recognizes that the capabilities of criminals engaged in various illegal markets are adapting to avoid detection, so taking a concerted, collaborative approach towards trafficking now will aid in reducing its scope. Increased efforts at intelligence sharing between the Golden Triangle countries, as well as their key regional partners, is a vital area for development. The PACOM team will continue to monitor any developments in the Golden Triangle that could change our recommendations to the governments within the Golden Triangle region. Please contact us for further assistance.

_______________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] “Golden Triangle” by Bing Maps

[2] Asian drug lords likely producing precursor chemicals in Golden Triangle, Reuters, February 2021,

[3] UN issues warning after Myanmar raids net 'record-breaking' fentanyl seizures, Deutsche Welle, May 2020,

[4] Thai authorities and UNODC hold high level talks on precursor chemical trafficking, UNODC, March 2021,

[5] Is Southeast Asia's drug trade too big to control?, Deutsche Welle, May 2020,

[6] Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment 2020 East and Southeast Asia and Oceania, UNODC, November 2020,

[7] The Thai Meth Highway, Sky News, March 2021,

[8] Asian drug lords likely producing precursor chemicals in Golden Triangle, Reuters, February 2021,

[9] Asian drug lords likely producing precursor chemicals in Golden Triangle, Reuters, February 2021,

[10] Pseudoephedrine, Medline Plus,February 2018,

[11] Ephedrine, RxList, August 2020,

[12] East and South East Asia, International Drug Policy Consortium, 2021,

[13] Asia-Pacific Drug Trade Thrives amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, Reuters, May 2020,

[14] UNODC report on East and Southeast Asia: continued growth in the supply of methamphetamine while synthetic opioids spread, UNODC, May 2020,

[15] Asia-Pacific Drug Trade Thrives amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, Reuters, May 2020,

[16] Thai Navy Patrol Seizes 950,000 Meth Pills Along the Mekong River, Chiang Rai Times, March 2021,

[17] Tripoint where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, in the middle of the Mekong River by Wayne77 , licensed under Public Domain

[18] Fighting Drug Trafficking in the Golden Triangle: a UN Resident Coordinator Blog, UN News, September 2020,

[19] Drugs and Age - Drugs and associated issues among young people and older people, UNODC, June 2018,

[20] Passing the Baton, With brighter prospects than their parents had, Southeast Asian youth get ready to take on the world, The International Monetary Fund, September 2018,

[21] Knowing the Extent of Counterfeit Medicines in Asia, The Peterson Group, March 2018,

[22] Tens of Thousands Dying from $30 Billion Fake Drugs Trade, WHO Says, Reuters, November 2017,

[23] Countering the Problem of Falsified and Substandard Drugs., U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2013,

[24] Thai authorities and UNODC meet about precursor chemical trafficking in the Golden Triangle, UNODC, November 2020,

[25] UNODC report on East and Southeast Asia: continued growth in the supply of methamphetamine while synthetic opioids spread, UNODC, May 2020,

[26] Arms probe extends to Myanmar, Bangkok Post, April 2021,

[27] Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020, UNODC, January 2021,

[28] Wildlife and Forest Crime, UNODC Southeast Asia and Pacific, 2021,

[29] Ibid.

[30] Inside the disturbing world of the illegal wildlife trade, National Geographic, November 2018,

[31] Ibid.

[32] New crime-fighting network to help ASEAN tackle cross-border cases, Nikkei, March 2021,

[33] Asian elephant walking in Tad Lo river at golden hour, Bolaven Plateau, Laos.jpg by Basile Morin, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.


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