BANGKOK (Reuters) - International drug gangs from Africa and Iran are muscling in on Southeast Asia's booming methamphetamine business which has shown a staggering increase and is spreading through the region, the United Nations said in a report on Tuesday.
Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), including amphetamine and methamphetamine, have become the drugs of choice in many parts of Southeast and East Asia since the 1990s, replacing plant-based drugs such as heroin, opium and cannabis, the U.N. drugs office said.
The stimulants can be easily made anywhere from a variety of materials and precursor chemicals and bring huge profits for little investment, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said.
Increasing use of the drugs was reported from most countries in the region in 2010, the office said, while the illicit making of the drugs was thriving despite the seizure of 442 manufacturing facilities and nearly 136 million "speed" pills.
African crime gangs which used to deal in cocaine and heroin
had diversified into ATS trafficking while gangs from Iran had been identified as a significant drug-trafficking threat in the region, it said.
"African groups are involved in trafficking crystalline methamphetamine, ecstasy and heroin into Indonesia, and have used Cambodia as a centre for financial transactions and for the distribution of illicit drugs to Indonesia," the U.N. office said in a report.
"In Japan, the proportion of seized methamphetamine that was trafficked into the country from Africa increased 7.4 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in the first half of 2010."
In Malaysia, the number of African couriers arrested almost doubled in 2010 to 65, including 50 Nigerians, it said.
"To avoid detection, African drug trafficking organisations have diversified their methods by using couriers from countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia and by diversifying their trafficking routes."
Iranian gangs were also getting involved.
Malaysian authorities arrested 228 Iranian couriers in 2009-10 for smuggling methamphetamine while Japan reported the arrests of 135 of them in the same period.
Other countries reporting the arrest of Iranians included Thailand, where authorities nabbed 75 in 2010 compared with 12 in 2009, and Indonesia with 27 arrests in 2010.
"There are also indications that Iranian drug organisations have attempted to establish illicit ATS manufacturing operations in Malaysia and Thailand," the office said.
Seizures of methamphetamine pills shot up for the second year in 2010 to nearly 136 million from 94 million, the previous year, a 44 percent increase. China, with 58.4 million pills seized, Thailand and Laos accounted for 98 percent of the busts.
"The staggering increase in seizures reflects burgeoning production," the office said.
But Myanmar, where most pills are manufactured, by former rebels who struck ceasefires with the government, reported the seizure of only 2.2 million pills in 2010, or just less than a tenth of the 23.9 million seized the previous year.
"This may reflect that traffickers are deliberately avoiding trafficking methamphetamine directly to Thailand along the overland route and instead smuggling larger amounts out of the country through Laos and along the Mekong river into Thailand," it said.
In what could be a grisly illustration of that shift, 13 Chinese sailors were murdered on the Mekong river, near the Thai-Myanmar border in October. Thai officials have suggested methamphetamine smuggling was behind the killings.
Laos saw a 10-fold increase in methamphetamine pill seizures in 2010 and was vulnerable to the drug gangs.
"Its remote and sparsely populated mountainous borderlands make it vulnerable to displacement of manufacturing facilities from Myanmar."
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)