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Drug routes out of Golden Triangle; AFP helps tell story

By Hamish Walker

Nine tonnes

The 'Golden Triangle' — where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge — has for decades been a region associated with 'traditional' drug production and trafficking. But this threat now extends to synthetic drugs, with the Triangle a key embarkation and transit zone for methamphetamine with devastating effects on our community.

When these drugs land in Australia – up to 70 per cent are connected to Myanmar — they are potentially fetching upwards of wholesale $100,000 per kilogram. Manufacturers only need to look at being successful in transiting one in 15 times to break even.

Anything beyond that is pure profit.

That's what the AFP and its international partners are up against.

The extent of the problem became obvious when the Australian Federal Police (AFP) recently accompanied Channel Nine's 60 Minutes political reporter Chris Uhlmann to Myanmar and Thailand to see what authorities are doing about the threat offshore – the first Australian media crew ever to be invited into Myanmar.

The story broadcast on Sunday (15 March).

AFP Deputy Commissioner Specialist and Support Operations Karl Kent said it is important to tell the story of the affects the illicit drugs trade from the Golden Triangle has on the Australian community.

two men standing next to a river talking
AFP Senior Officer in Myanmar Jared Taggart talks with Nine News Political Reporter Chris Uhlmann in Mandalay.

"The damage of methamphetamine is vast. If you look at first order affects, it goes to the mental health, physical health and wellbeing of people in our community who can no longer function affectively due to excessive use of methamphetamine. We know it forms physical dependency as well as physiological dependency. It contributes to domestic violence and violence against first responders including paramedics, hospital staff and police. More broadly nationally and internationally it harms other nation states through wildlife trafficking or other aspects of serious and organised crime including human trafficking – global in their reach.

"In Australia we have figures and it's around nine tonnes every year. Overall, Australians are spending billions of dollars every year on illicit drugs. That means the demand is at levels we have not seen before and is growing," Deputy Commissioner Kent said.

Deputy Commissioner Kent said as a society, we are best-placed to stem the supply of illicit drugs when we take away the demand. That is why a coordinated response from law enforcement in collaboration with the health and education sectors is so important.

"I think we sometimes forget how many good decisions a community makes every day not to take drugs.

"If we can't educate our community enough to say no, to stop this supply of illicit drugs in the country, the only way of stopping it is to attack the business model itself and the business model relies on money," Deputy Commissioner Kent said.

Golden Triangle

The AFP collaborates extensively with international law enforcement partners in the Golden Triangle region to disrupt transnational organised crime syndicates and the supply of narcotics targeting the Australian community. The collaboration with regional partners across Asia include joint operational arrangements such as Taskforce STORM in Thailand, Taskforce BLAZE in China, Strike Force DRAGON in Cambodia, the Joint Transnational Crime Centre in Vietnam and the Drug Crime Centre based in Yangon, Myanmar.

The AFP's counter narcotics disruption strategies in Myanmar includes joint operational activity with the Myanmar Police Force (MPF) to counter the proliferation of methamphetamine production and trafficking. This has led to increased close cooperation and large methamphetamine and clandestine laboratory seizures of direct relevance to Australia. In June 2019, the MPF destroyed 22 tonnes of various narcotics seized in the previous 12 months, and destroyed more than 370 tonnes of various chemicals used in their manufacture.

Two uniformed officers inspecting a large number of barrells
MPF officers inspect seized chemicals at a secure location near Mandalay.

Jared Taggart recently returned to Canberra from a four-year posting to Myanmar where he worked as the AFP's Senior Officer based in Yangon. He spoke to 60 Minutes in a hotel room in Mandalay.

A uniformed officer being interviewed by a man
Nine News Political Reporter Chris Uhlmann speaks with MPF Police Lieutenant Colonel Myo Aung, Commander No.2 Drug Enforcement Branch (Upper Myanmar).

"Methamphetamine is not a just a policing problem, it is a community issue and is the joint responsibility of all – it is an attack on our society, both here in Australia and in Southeast Asia, which is destroying individuals, families and communities.

Unintended consequences

From 2010 to 2014 most of Australia's meth was flowing out of the southern provinces of China, but their law enforcement operations dismantled the manufacturers and removed the threat. The unintended consequence of that? Production was displaced across the Myanmar border into areas where those organised crime groups were able to exploit opportunities to re-establish their production.

"We started to see a really big increase in meth seizures which appeared to emanate largely out of Myanmar.

"There is a regional fight against organised crime. This is why we are working very closely with our counterparts in the region because everyone is affected by this and it's a shared responsibility because it's a shared problem.

"We look at the investigations completed and the seizures we have made on shore with our partners – state police and the Australian Border Force. We think it is likely 60 to 70 per cent of methamphetamine seizures we see in our community in Australia are likely to have emanated from Myanmar," Senior Officer Taggart said.

A car being directed to pull over on the side of a road
MPF roadside stop just north of Mandalay.

One of those recent successes under Taskforce STORM was Operation CIRCINUS which saw three people charged in Melbourne in relation to Australia's largest ever onshore methamphetamine seizure, worth more than a billion dollars. The drugs were found in green tea packaging, concealed inside stereo speakers, with the consignment originating from Bangkok, Thailand.

"We would class as a piece of intelligence that we would associate with particular organised crime syndicates – the Sam Gor syndicate. Others may try and replicate similar packaging as a means of indicating quality of a product," Deputy Commissioner Kent said.

A black box containing multiple packages
Methamphetamine held as part of Operation CIRCINUS the largest ever onshore seizure in Australia worth more than a billion dollars.

"Those organised crime groups are exploiting the instability that exists in some of those locations and taking advantage of Myanmar and the way in which the Government is denied from delivering services to communities in those locations," Senior Officer Taggart said.

Kings Roman Casino – Laos

Departing Myanmar the 60 Minutes crew travelled to Thailand where they filmed the Kings Roman Casino located in the Special Economic Zone on the banks of the Mekong River in Laos, right on the Golden Triangle. Offering gambling and allegedly prostitution and the sale of endangered wildlife, the casino has been hit with sanctions by the US Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

A large gold and white building amongst other smaller buildings
Kings Roman Casino built in the Special Economic Zone in Laos.

Casinos represent a significant risk for money laundering activities and are vulnerable to criminal exploitation. They provide services that are recognised globally as vulnerable to misuse by criminals.

AFP Senior Officer based in Bangkok Stephen Fry accompanied the 60 Minutes crew on a boat donated by the Australian Border Force to Thailand's Office of the Narcotics Control Board.

"The US Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control early in 2018 declared the Kings Roman Casino and its Directors as a Transnational Criminal Organisation. They alleged it was involved in money laundering and illicit drug trafficking."

Two men standing on a dock wearing life jackets and talking
Nine News Political Reporter Chris Uhlmann interviews AFP Senior Officer Stephen Fry on the bank of the Mekong River in Thailand.

"There is in excess of 200 casinos in the Southeast Asia region and we have seen a large number of casinos emerge in Cambodia. Casinos have long been known as potentially vulnerable to misuse by transnational organised crime," Senior Officer Fry said.

A boat speeding through the water
Nine News Political Reporter Chris Uhlmann interviewed AFP Senior Officer Stephen Fry on a boat donated by the Australian Border Force to the Office of the Narcotics Control Board.

The 60 Minutes interview with AFP Senior Officer Stephen Fry can be viewed on YouTube.

Money Laundering

Back in Australia the methods and techniques used by organised crime groups to launder the proceeds of crime continues to evolve. Drug trafficking and money laundering are global issues that are interconnected. As increasing amounts of drugs are trafficked, this creates more illicit funds which criminals will seek to legitimise through money laundering.

The Government is committed to continually improving Australia's anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing (AML/CTF) regime and working with industry to ensure that Australia's financial system is hardened against criminals and terrorists without placing undue burden on industry.

Two people wearing hazmat suits and breathing masks demonstrating handling chemicals
US Drug Enforcement Agency representatives train MPF staff in the handling of dangerous chemicals found at methamphetamine labs.

Deputy Commissioner Kent said Australia's anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing regime is focused on partnering with businesses that provide services at high risk of being misused by criminals and terrorists in the pursuit of their crimes.

"Our environment does cover certainly banking institutions and major financial institutions under our anti money laundering and counter terrorism financing legislation.  As recently as 2019 those provisions in the Act were strengthened by the Government and there was a streamlining of actions in that space." Deputy Commissioner Kent said.

If members of the community have any information that may assist police in these efforts please call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or report online. Reports can be made anonymously.

For free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drug treatment services, call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.

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