Asia faces a transnational criminal crisis, but the governments are ignoring it
The demand for methamphetamine, ecstasy, and other psychoactive substances by wealthy urban residents in East Asia and beyond is reviving organized crime in this region.
The recent scale of drug seizures in China’s Guangdong Province is staggering. It’s increased by 50% over the past year. In Lufeng, on the coast, in January 2015, 2.2 tons of liquid and solid methamphetamine bound for Shanghai was discovered. In May of that year, 1.3 tons of ketamine, along with 2.7 tons of its precursors, were found in the city of Yangjiang. The black tea was bound for Southeast Asia.
ASEAN is a young regional security agency that has just begun to respond to the threats posed by organized crime groups. These agencies are unable to make a significant impact on the criminal activity in the region. These agencies are also restricted by the fear of sharing intelligence with police, military, and customs services that may be compromised.
Criminality and connectivity
In 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated crime groups earn around US$90 to $100 billion per year from illicit sources. The most lucrative crimes were narcotic production and the trafficking of drug precursors, followed by illegal timber and wildlife trading. UNODC determined that human trafficking, illicit disposal waste, maritime crimes from piracy and illegal fishing to counterfeiting medicines and high street products, and underground gambling are the most damaging crimes.
The poor in Southeast Asia are often the ones who bear the brunt of transnational crimes. Growing demand for wood and wildlife products forces cash-strapped communities into collusion with criminal groups to extract and market these resources. The Japanese yakuza, triads in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, and “black societies” also look for opportunities to dump electronic waste in jurisdictions that are not regulated.
Southeast Asia’s lucrative market, coupled with the availability and demand of consumer products and medicines, has proven irresistible for criminal enterprises.
The fact that the cross-border trafficking of illegal products in and out of Southeast Asia has increased over the past few years, often through India and China, is a good example. This is in part because of the free-trade agreements that ASEAN has with these countries, as well as the massive upgrades to the region’s connectivity and infrastructure.
China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, and the Trans-Asian Railway are all speeding up change and development in transport and commerce in the region. A 2016 UNODC report stated that despite “thriving networks” of cross-border criminals, “a fully operational framework for tackling cross border crime does not yet exist”.
Organized crime in East Asia
East and Southeast Asia’s organized crime groups are diverse and sometimes temporary. The triads in southern China are among those that have survived from the 19th century. Some groups form and then disband within a few years.
It is an organised crime that provides protection services, i.e., enforcement of contracts for illicit markets. In situations where the state’s conflict resolution is weak, organized crime can offer similar benefits to legal institutions.
Crystal meth is seized by paramilitary police in Boshe Village, Lufeng Province, Guangdong, December 29, 2013. Stringer/Reuters
Law enforcement agencies now regularly observe the convergence and connectivity between different Asian criminal groups. The distinctions between ethnic groups and traditional organized crime groups are no longer as distinct. Major Chinese and Japanese criminal groups are becoming increasingly linked with Mexican, West African, and Iranian crime groups.
This is due to globalization and increasing wealth in China, India, and other parts of the region. There are many opportunities to expand into industries or places that any existing providers do not currently protect.