Huge fentanyl haul seized in Asia's biggest-ever drugs bust

Our Foreign Staff
Precursor chemicals used to make illicit drugs were seized by Myanmar police - REUTERS

Myanmar police say they have seized a huge haul of liquid fentanyl - the first time the dangerous synthetic opioid that is ravaging North America has been found in Asia’s Golden Triangle drug-producing region.

In a sign that Asia’s drug syndicates have moved into the lucrative opioid market, more than 3,700 litres of methylfentanyl was discovered by anti-narcotics police near Loikan village in Shan State in northeast Myanmar.

The seizure of the fentanyl derivative was part of Asia’s biggest-ever interception of illicit drugs, precursors and drug-making equipment, including 193 million methamphetamine tablets known as yaba. At 17.5 tonnes, that is almost as much yaba as has been seized during the previous two years in Myanmar.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the scale of the bust was unprecedented and Myanmar’s anti-drug authorities had “dismantled a significant network” during a two-month operation involving police and military. Also seized were almost 163,000 litres and 35.5 tonnes of drug precursors - substances that can be used to produce drugs - as well as weapons. There were more than 130 arrests.

High pressure chemical reactors, and mixers used for manufacturing illicit drugs - REUTERS

The methylfentanyl discovery was an ominous indicator for the region’s illicit drug market, the U.N. agency and a Western official based in Myanmar told Reuters news agency.

“It could be a game-changer because fentanyl is so potent that its widespread use would cause a major health concern for Myanmar and the region,” said the Western official, who declined to be identified.

The head of law enforcement for Myanmar’s counter-narcotics agency, Colonel Zaw Lin, said the methylfentanyl had been verified using state-of-the-art equipment.

The seizure showed the drug syndicates' methods were changing, he said.

Fentanyl and its derivatives have caused more than 130,000 overdose deaths in the United States and Canada in the past five years, according to government agencies.

Weapons, ammunition, alongside bags of crystal methamphetamine and meth-laced yaba pills seized by Myanmar police - REUTERS

The opioid epidemic has not yet swept Asia, Europe or Australasia but there have been signs it is an emerging threat.

“We have repeatedly warned the region [that] fentanyl could become a problem but this is off the charts,” said UNODC’s Southeast Asia and the Pacific representative Jeremy Douglas.

“It is the shift in the market we have been anticipating, and fearing.”

While Myanmar police did not disclose the purity and exact make-up of the methylfentanyl found, it comes in two main variants, both more potent than fentanyl, according to the European Union’s drug monitoring agency.

Fentanyl itself is 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin.

Increasingly, drug traffickers have been mixing fentanyl and its derivatives with heroin, meth and cocaine, adding to their potency and lethality.