Thursday, July 08, 2010

Laos: Laos burns drugs - crime syndicates survive

By Taro Ichikawa
Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

TOKYO (IDN) - Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, has made significant strides in combating the scourge of illicit opium production and addiction, says a new report by the United Nations, but warns of serious problems arising from the country becoming a transit route for transnational criminal syndicates.

Pointing to the country's persistent efforts to handle the situation, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on July 2: "Over three tons of illicit drugs seized by Lao law enforcement officers were burned (on June 26) near the Lao National Assembly in commemoration of the twenty-third anniversary of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking."

Nearly 9 kg of heroin, 985,000 methamphetamine (Yabaa) pills, 2.8 tons of cannabis and 176 kg of opium were destroyed at the burning ceremony.

The Vienna-based UNODC said that Laos had achieved "unprecedented success in dropping opium production and addiction rates to insignificant levels in less than 10 years (1998-2007), with respective cultivation and addiction rates dropping by 94.5 and 81 per cent".

However, the agency added: "Transformed from a landlocked country to a 'land-linked' country due to major improvements in transportation infrastructure, Laos has become a transit route for transnational criminal syndicates who profit from the country's central location to move drugs to vast markets."

This spillover effect of synthetic drugs transiting through the country has created an abuse problem affecting youth in urban centres and along trafficking routes.

Considering that Laos is located at the hub of the Greater Mekong Subregion, sharing borders with five countries -- Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west – "it is situated between the drug producers and their highly lucrative markets," said Soubanh Srithirath, Minister to the President's Office and chairman of the Lao Commission for Drug Control.

"Our Government foresees the long-term dangerous impact of drugs on security, stability and national socio-economic development of the country," he added.


In a country where an estimated 51 per cent of the population is below the age of 21, the problem of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) has been identified as a priority drug control issue that affects people's health, the social fabric of Lao society and the overall national security and sovereignty of the country.

In his opening remarks at the drug burning, Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh said: "The Government will concretely pursue its existing policies and measures by focusing on integrated rural development in conjunction with the National Drug Control Master Plan aiming at gradually improving the livelihoods of people in remote areas."

Speaking at the ceremony, Leik Boonwaat, UNODC representative in Laos said: "The Government of the Lao PDR (People's Democratic Republic) and its people have made significant achievements in addressing the challenges of illicit drugs. However, recent events have shown that it is important to be ever vigilant. Support for the National Drug Control Master Plan is becoming even more crucial in order to achieve national development goals."

Drug control has indeed been long regarded as an important issue in Laos. In 1998, according to UNODC Opium Survey, the country ranked as the world third largest illicit opium producer. At the time, the Laos also had one of highest opium addiction rates in the world.

However, and due to the Government's strong commitment to address the issue, from 1998 to 2005, opium cultivation was effectively reduced by 94 percent and opium addiction by 80 percent. In 2006, the Lao PDR declared its success in significantly reducing opium poppy cultivation.

Since the mid-90's however, ATS, Heroin and other illicit drugs significantly increased, and resulted in Laos becoming a transit point for drugs trafficked in the region.

Knowledgeable sources say that narcotics trafficking in Laos is difficult to control because of the remoteness of many border areas, their attendant lack of communications, and the scarcity of resources, all of which make stationing officials at many of the border crossings difficult. However, several counternarcotics policy initiatives have been undertaken.


During the late 1980s, narcotics control became an important United States concern, because Laos was a major producer of opium and marijuana. In 1987 Laos began to cooperate with the U.S. in drug control efforts when it requested assistance in providing a viable crop alternative to opium farmers.

Increased efforts on counternarcotics cooperation have been evident since January 1990 when a memorandum of understanding on the Bilateral Cooperation of Narcotics Issues was signed. This agreement focused on ways for the United States to provide antinarcotics programs.

The U.S. provided narcotics-related training to a number of Laotian officials in June 1990 and again in August 1991.Iin 1992, the U.S. Customs Service officials held a training session in Vientiane for Laotian customs officers and other officials. Since then, Laotian officials have also travelled to Australia, Japan, and Europe for counternarcotics cooperation training.

In late 1992, as part of the continuing counternarcotics effort, the Lao Customs Department set up an anti-smuggling unit in Vientiane. The Council of Ministers approved the formation of this counternarcotics police unit operationally under the Ministry of Interior but with policy controlled by the Lao National Committee on Drug Control and Supervision.

Progress in the configuration of the unit was negligible. As of mid-1993, however, the United States was working with the Laos to provide support and training for the unit, and the site for the unit was being renovated.

Estimated opium production is stated to have declined annually since 1989, largely through successful crop reduction and replacement programs that target specific areas and are funded and initiated by the United States and the UN Drug Control Program.

Laos has facilitated these crop substitution programs aimed at developing alternative crops and occupations in Houaphan, Vientiane, and Xiangkhoang provinces. In 1989 there were an estimated 42,130 hectares of land deemed "potentially harvestable" for cultivating opium.

Decreased opium cultivation and production are also the result of increased law enforcement efforts, narcotics-related arrests and crop seizures, and a greater effort to disseminate information on the disadvantages of drug trafficking.

Although the government tends to deny that it has a domestic drug problem, a public awareness programme stressing the dangers of drug use and trafficking has been established, and, as part of the information and education campaign, there has been increased publicity on penalties for offenses.

In April 1993, Laos was certified for narcotics cooperation in 1992 by the U.S. Department of State. Certification is granted for performance in narcotics cooperation in the previous calendar year and is categorized by cooperation or certification, noncooperation or decertification, and national interest waiver.

Certification guarantees Laos increased United States cooperation and funding of counternarcotics programs. Certification (with explanation), however, stipulates that in order to receive full United States support, Laos has to take visible, significant, and continuing action to improve the enforcement of antinarcotics laws, which were first enacted in November 1989.

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