Drugged Out

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Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME

Taking action A raid on suspected meth dealers and users in Thailand's Pattaya city

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Law-enforcement officials across the region seem overwhelmed. Police in Thailand seized nearly 27 million pills in 2009; last year it was about 40 million, practically a 50% jump. "Seize 2 million tablets today and the traffickers will make another 10 million tomorrow," says Suchai Chindavanich, a senior officer with the Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB) of the Royal Thai Police. "The job is endless."

That frustration — and futility — is clear at Sop Ruak, a Thai village on the Mekong River with views of Burma and Laos. Here, day-tripping tourists pose for photos before a huge Buddha statue and browse the stalls selling T-shirts, trinkets and other Golden Triangle souvenirs.

The nearby office of Wichai Champatoom overlooks Burma, the Mekong and then Laos — in that order. A lieutenant with the Border Patrol Police, Wichai has the near impossible task of monitoring a 193-km stretch of the river. "We try our best," he says, "but we just don't have enough officers to patrol the area."

Anyone — a fisherman, a trader, a villager chopping bamboo in the forest — is a potential drug mule, and they can cross the Mekong anywhere. In the dry season, says Wichai, they can even wade across it.

Once on Thai soil, a network of lookouts ensures the product's safe passage along ill-frequented back roads and into the country's drug-hungry towns and cities. "The smugglers move fast," says Wichai. "We're always one step behind them."

The American Connection
It is 10 a.m. on a Sunday, and the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) — Thailand's closest equivalent to the FBI — has called an urgent press conference at its Bangkok headquarters. Laid out on a table for the TV cameras are 100 packages about the size of a paperback book. Each one bears the distinctive red label of Double U.O. Globe brand — top-quality heroin made in laboratories in Burma run or protected by the United Wa State Army, an ethnic rebel force that has enjoyed a tense cease-fire with the Burmese junta since 1989. Total weight: 36 kg. Wholesale value in Thailand: $750,000. Street value in the U.S.: at least five times that amount.

The bust is the result of a five-month investigation by the DSI and DEA. But what should be a proud moment for Thai and American antinarcotics officials is freighted with embarrassment. Four suspects — two men, two women, all handcuffed — are also paraded. They had been arrested the day before in Fang, near the border with Burma, along with Preeda Trakulpreeda, 41, who the authorities say is a major Thai heroin trader. But Preeda somehow escaped while in the custody of six or seven armed police. "It doesn't look good," admits a sheepish Colonel Narat Sawettana, DSI deputy director-general, who is investigating the escape.

Compounding matters, corrupt officials often give big-time traffickers tip-offs about police or military raids, says a former DEA agent with many years of experience in Thailand who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Realistically, if you intercept 1 in 20 or 30 loads coming into Thailand, you're doing O.K., because of the corruption factor," he says. "Also, look at the seizures: some are enormous by American standards. But who goes to jail? Usually some mope that's hired to take a truck from point A to point B. Even if the big guys are arrested — which is extremely rare — they never go to jail. Never." And the suspects paraded at press conferences like this one today? "Nothing but transporters," says the ex-DEA man. "They're what we used to call roadkill."

Intense U.S. interest in the Golden Triangle dates back to the Vietnam War, from which thousands of American troops returned addicted to heroin. Today, most heroin consumed Stateside originates in Colombia and Mexico, but the DEA's presence in Asia is bigger than ever. It now has 87 offices in 63 countries — including Burma, the target of strict U.S. sanctions. DEA informants there confirm the junta's complicity in the drug trade, according to diplomatic cables recently published via WikiLeaks. Still, the DEA enjoys what Pasquarello calls "very close" relations with the Burmese police, and credits the partnership with the country's reported increase in drug seizures.

The DEA's expanded reach is necessary to combat a trade of bewildering global complexity, argues Pasquarello. A shipment of South American cocaine might be smuggled through Asia, warehoused in Africa and sold in Europe, with the money going back to South America, he says. An investigation on one continent might lead to seizures on another. The DEA plays a major role in training law-enforcement officials in countries like Thailand. There, DEA expertise and intelligence seems to lurk behind almost every big bust.

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