UNODC Gives us a Detailed, but Lacking, View of Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific

          The UNODC recently released a threat evaluation on the state of organized crime in East Asia and the Pacific. It categorized the various industries from which organized crime syndicates profit, including human and drug trafficking, counterfeit production and imitation medications. Constant conflict seems to be a main contributor to the success of South Asian organized crime. Within these industries, the trade of methamphetamines and heroin, illegal logging and wood products and counterfeit consumer goods make the three most lucrative areas for organized crime.

         Though Asia has a long history of opium use, there are presently approximately 3.3 million heroin users in East Asia and the Pacific. However, as Afghan heroin has surpassed the production of South Asia’s “Golden Triangle”, new groups of traffickers have entered the scene. Nigerian, Pakistani and Iranian traffickers now run the international routes using Malaysia as a hub to transport heroin to nearby China and Australia. East Asia also has a relatively long history with methamphetamine, as it became available in the 1950s and 1960s. In Oceania and the Greater Mekong Sub-region, levels of methamphetamine are comparable to the peaks of cocaine use in the USA in the 1990’s. This popularity may be because, while heroin must be transported in its refined form, methamphetamine can be produced wherever the basic chemicals are available. As a result, there is no need for international trafficking of the finished product. While Malaysia and China still control the methamphetamine market, Nigerian and Iranian traders have also been rising in significance.       

         While the East Asian drug trade has earned over 31 billion dollars, illegal wood products are a 17 billion dollar industry by themselves. In Sarawak, the timber industry is dominated by a few large-scale logging operations, which also operate internationally in Africa and South America. Timber is brought to Singapore to be laundered before it is formally transported into China, India and Malaysia, a process that involves traders, shipping agents and banks. These intermediaries are used to falsify documents and dispense bribes. The corruption of officials plays a central role in the illegal wood-based products market as well.

         An additional 24.4 billion dollars is the product of illegal consumer goods. Because the production of genuine articles is decentralized, illegal operations often go unnoticed. A large organized mechanism is not necessary as the different components to counterfeits can be manufactured separately and then assembled quickly in a free trade zone. There are two main methods these goods reach the consumer; sent directly via post, mainly for Internet purchases, and large volumes of merchandise arriving in shipping containers and distributed upon arrival. It is the brokers who really facilitate the trade of counterfeits, connecting suppliers with consumers and organizing international transportation. South Asia and West Africa are, again, main players in the trafficking of these illegal goods.

         The tiered nature of illegal trafficking makes it difficult to apprehend the top players. Traffickers generally come from ethnic groups that straddle international boarders, often from families who have been involved in the drug trade for generations. For many of these transporters, drugs or other contraband are seen as a way out of poverty and, once enough money is made, they move onto full-time licit pursuits. Arrests of small-scale traffickers do little to effect the flow of illicit goods into the region. It is the buyers and traders who run the market. Traders are often involved in a wide range of goods, or have careers as state officials or military personnel.

        Although UNODC is correct that their report covers, “the mechanics of illicit trade” as their deputy executive director Sandeep Chawla said, it fails to show the context of organized crime in the region. The specificity and segmentation of the information is useful, but there is no mention of the cooperation between the various illicit industries. The absence of additional research into the apparent patterns of international trafficking makes the report an incomplete picture of organized crime in East Asia. The concentration of activity involving Nigerians and in Malaysia is not coincidental, given the complex nature of organized crime, yet the separation of each category makes it appear as though each industry occurs in a separate situation. For the UNODC to truly report on an issue, these inter-connected agencies must be brought to light.


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