VIENTIANE, LAOS — Early last year customs officials manning the baggage X-ray machine at the airport here discovered more than 88 pounds of heroin stashed in the luggage of two outbound passengers within a space of a week. It later turned out that the heroin was brought in by Nigerian drug traffickers across the recently opened Thai-Laotian bridge spanning the Mekong River.
The seizures were sizable. But what had drug officials equally concerned was evidence of the movement of international smuggling through Laos, which has been gradually opening up to the West after decades of isolation.
The incident was one in a string of discoveries that indicate that the opium lords of the Golden Triangle region straddling Laos, Burma, and Thailand may now be looking to Indochina as a new transit route for drugs.
In the region, Cambodia has become a particular concern given its lack of effective narcotics legislation. In August 1995, authorities seized 157 pounds of heroin in a speedboat, the largest seizure in the region last year, and officials in Phnom Penh now admit that the country has a serious drug-trafficking problem. According to sources in the region, shipments through Vietnam are also on the increase.
An estimated two-thirds of the heroin found in the US originates from the Golden Triangle, most of which comes from Burma. Traditionally, the heroin has been produced and refined in Burma and shipped through Thailand to the West. But experts now say that the percentage of Southeast Asian heroin moving through Thailand has dropped sharply from more than 75 percent to around half.
Two recent developments are likely to continue this trend. In January the Burmese military occupied the headquarters of the notorious opium chieftain Khun Sa, affecting refining and transiting operations along the Thai-Burmese border. Also in January, Thanong Siriprechapong, a former member of the Thai parliament and a suspected trafficker known as "Thai Tony," was extradited to the US. He was the first Thai national extradited to the US. Others are expected to follow.
With their Burmese operation under pressure and the threat of extradition hanging over drug traffickers in Thailand, it is only natural that traffickers are now paying closer attention to the newly emerging market economies of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, drug experts say.
"The traffickers have been looking for new routes and smuggling methods," says a Western diplomatic source familiar with the Southeast Asian narcotics trade. "They've been able to take advantage of the relative openness we're seeing in these countries."
With its location in the heart of Indochina, Laos will become an increasingly important transit point for inter-regional trade, particularly after it joins the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. "It's clear that what's happening in the case of Laos can only be conducive to easier trafficking opportunities," says Thibault le Pichon, country director for the United Nations Drug Control Program here.
Although there is no hard data, reports from Laos suggest that more trafficking may already be taking place. About 22 pounds of heroin were recently discovered in the panels of a pickup truck at a Laotian-Vietnamese border checkpoint. Additional seizures have also been made in Vientiane and along the Thai-Laotian border.
"We've arrested people from Nigeria, Benin, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, China ... and so on," notes Soubanh Srithirath, vice-minister for foreign affairs and chairman of the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision.
Most disturbing, however, was the discovery last February of two illicit amphetamine laboratories in the northwestern Laotian province of Bokeo, where more than 13 pounds of heroin were found along with large quantities of chemical precursors for drug production. The finding suggests that drug lords pushed out of Burma and Thailand may be eyeing Laos as a new refining and production base.
Evidence from abroad also points to increased trafficking activity. "We keep getting reports of seizures in other locations which say it came through Laos," explains Al Bryant, director of narcotics affairs for the US Embassy in Vientiane. "Just from past experience and having watched things in Asia for some time, it's a crossroads here, and we have to anticipate that this is going to be a major route."
Ironically, Vientiane is making significant progress in reducing opium production within its own borders. According to a recent US State Department report, Laos is the only major opium-producing country where production has been declining over the last six years.
Laotian officials note that the government is making efforts to stem the heroin trade. Two new counternarcotics units were established with American assistance. In April the Laotian parliament approved amendments to the criminal code, which considerably strengthened the country's lax trafficking and possession penalties.
Officials admit, however, that their efforts will be hampered by both geography - Laos has long and poorly controlled borders - and money. Mr. Bryant says the Lao government lacks the budget to train and finance the personnel needed to combat trafficking.