BANGKOK (AP) — Customs officials in Thailand made their biggest seizure of heroin this year, about 315 kilograms (700 pounds) worth up to 944 million baht ($29 million), bringing the total confiscated so far this year to 2 tons, officials said Tuesday.
They did not say where the drugs originated, but the seizure comes amid concerns that production may surge in neighboring Myanmar, the region’s main supplier of illicit drugs, because of severe instability following the military’s ouster of an elected government in February.
Customs Department Director-General Patchara Anuntasilpa said 134 shrink-wrapped packets of heroin, each weighing about 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), had been concealed in a shipment of acrylic paint headed for Australia.
He said the drugs were discovered on Monday because the packets of heroin were placed in square plastic containers which stood out on X-rays of the paint buckets.
The arrest of a suspect led to the identification of the person who hired him, who fled to Laos, said Wichai Chaimongkol, secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board.
The Golden Triangle area, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, was a major production area for opium and hosted many of the labs that converted it to heroin.
Thailand has almost completely eliminated opium farming and heroin production, which continues in Myanmar, whose border areas have always been poorly policed. Heroin and other drugs are often smuggled through Laos to Thailand, where much of it is transshipped to overseas destinations such as Australia.
Over the past two decades, easily manufactured methamphetamines have supplanted opium and heroin to become the dominant illegal drug in the region for both domestic consumption and export.
“While demand for opiates continues to decrease as the region’s synthetic drug market expands and diversifies, organized crime groups that traffic heroin are still generating substantial profits, with heroin manufacturing and trafficking making up the vast majority of this value,” the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said in its annual Myanmar Opium Survey, published in January.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank noted in a report in March that statistics show that “the Australian drug trade is large and growing.”
“Despite the best efforts of law enforcement agencies, methamphetamine and heroin use has been increasing by up to 17% year on year. Falling prices in Southeast Asia are likely to keep pushing that number up, while drug prices and purity in Australia remain relatively stable,” the report said.
The U.N.’s drug agency has warned that the political turmoil in Myanmar could lead to an expansion of the illegal drug trade.
It said three factors could trigger an upsurge: a general breakdown of good governance, a collapse of markets for normal crops, and a desire by ethnic rebel militias, some of which have long ties to the drug trade, to raise revenue to support their activities during the political uncertainty.
This article has been corrected to note that the drug seizure was announced Tuesday, not Thursday.