Drug gangs use Thailand as transit level to Malaysia

An ‘ant army‘ of smugglers move drugs across the Myanmar and Lao borders in small amounts, after which they are merged into large consignments like this 250kg package of crystal methamphetamine (yaa ice)seized on a train to the South a week ago. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)

Arecent major crackdown, in which 250 kilogrammes of crystal methamphetamine were intercepted while being smuggled on a train to the South, has underlined observations that Thailand has become a transit point for transnational drug smuggling.

The gang had previously smuggled the same amount of the drug via Thailand to its destination in neighbouring Malaysia, the arrested suspects told police.

With a street value of more than 250 million baht, the 250kg of crystal methamphetamine, known as ice, was seized in an operation jointly carried out by the Railway Police Division (RPD), the Crime Suppression Division and the Highway Police Division.

Prior to the crackdown, the authorities had learnt that a vast amount of the drug had been moved from neighbouring Laos into Thailand by a number of smugglers who had evaded border security checks on several occasions by each carrying small amounts of the drug.

The drugs were then merged into a single consignment to be taken to Bangkok before taken south towards Malaysia.

Acting on intelligence reports, the RPD deployed plain-clothes officers on trains heading to the southernmost station, Sungai Kolok.

On Feb 5, officers on board the direct Bangkok-Sungai Kolok express noticed four male passengers in a carriage behaving suspiciously.

The suspects noticed the police presence and attempted to flee when the train stopped at Ban Pong in Ratchaburi province, abandoning five pieces of luggage and four rucksacks on the train.

Inside their bags, police found 250 tea packs containing one kilogramme each of crystal methamphetamine.

With the help of local police, the RPD officers later detained three out of the four suspects.

They were identified as Chakphat Phumphuang, 27, from Nong Khai; Wisarut Traichai, 23, from Nakhon Phanom; and Phonthawat Mala, 20, from Nakhon Phanom.

According to Pol Maj Gen Woraphong Thongphaibun, chief of the RPD, the suspected leader of the gang has been identified as Phatthanan Khansi, 34, and is thought to have hired Mr Phonthawat and Mr Wisarut to collect the consignment from an unidentified man on the bank of the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom’s Tha Uthen district.

The two men then took the drugs to Bangkok, with the help of Mr Chakphat and Suriyan Bunthiam, the suspect on the run, said Pol Maj Gen Woraphong.

The four smugglers were told to deliver the drug to Mr Phatthanan in Hat Yai district of Songkhla province who would have then taken care of smuggling the drug on to Malaysia.

Mr Phatthanan is still at large.

The detained suspects told the police they were each hired for 20,000 baht and promised an extra payment if they could successfully get the drug to its destination, the officer said.

According to the suspects, they had already smuggled one previous consignment of 250kg of Ice to Malaysia, said Pol Maj Gen Woraphong.

Pol Lt Gen Sommai Kongwisaisuk, chief of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB), said if the drug had reached Malaysia as intended, a portion of it would have been sold locally, while the rest would have been smuggled on to Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and a group of European countries such as Britain.

Aside from these countries, an emerging destination for drugs smuggled through Thailand is Israel, said Pol Lt Gen Sommai, adding that the street value of the drug will become 10 times higher once it leaves Asia.

The street value of crystal methamphetamine in Thailand is about 1 million baht per kilogramme, he said.

In 2016, a total of 28 Malaysian nationals were detained with 261kg of crystal methamphetamine later proved to have been smuggled in from the Golden Triangle, an area of approximately 950,000 square kilometres that overlaps the mountains of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, he said.

After that incident, Thailand began working more closely with Myanmar in countering cross-border drug smuggling, said Pol Lt Gen Sommai, admitting that figures suggest Thailand is being exploited more and more as a transit route of the transnational drug smuggling gangs.

“There is no room for complacency as those drug smuggling networks will not stop,” he said.

“That’s because of the high incentives they have for getting the drugs to their destinations. The actual costs of the narcotics are relatively low but their street values will become eight to 10 times higher when they reach their destinations,” he said.

Each tablet of methamphetamine, for instance, costs only about 10 baht to produce, but its street value rises to 80 or 100 baht per tablet when it reaches Thailand, he said.

“What’s more, the drug networks have shifted to using Bitcoin for their illicit trade, which now makes it more complicated for the authorities to track their money trail,” he said.

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