By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thailand’s counter-narcotics police chief on Tuesday confirmed the arrest in Thai territory of a suspected senior leader with a triad that, according to law enforcement sources, dominates a multi-billion-dollar illicit drugs trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
The suspect, Hong Kong’s Lee Chung Chak, was arrested in October but is trying to block his extradition to Australia through an appeal in the courts, Lt. Gen. Montri Yimyaem, commander of the Thai police’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau, told BenarNews.
“The AFP sought our cooperation to extradite him to Australia based on an extradition treaty. We arrested him according to a Thai court order,” Montri said, referring to the Australian Federal Police.
“His case is at the appeals court stage. He has appealed because he doesn’t want to be extradited.”
In November, Thailand’s Criminal Court approved Lee’s extradition to Australia, according to a report by the Reuters news agency.
BenarNews contacted Thai appeals court officials to find out the status of Lee’s appeal, but they declined to give details. The news service also tried contacting the Australian Embassy in Bangkok for information, but officials did not immediately return phone calls.
Lee’s was the second recent high-profile arrest of senior members of the drug syndicate Sam Gor, or “The Company,” Reuters reported. Tse Chi Lop, a China-born Canadian national who police suspect is the kingpin of Sam Gor, was arrested last month in the Netherlands, according to the news agency.
The syndicate is suspected of mass producing drugs – mainly methamphetamine and heroin – in so-called super-labs in Myanmar, according to a 2019 Reuters investigation.
Australian Federal Police suspect the duo of being jointly involved in billions of dollars of drug imports into Australia over several decades, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Lee is also suspected of laundering millions of dollars through Australian gaming giant Crown Resorts, the Australian newspaper said.
The AFP heads Operation Kungur, a multinational task force targeting the syndicate to which both suspects allegedly belong, according to Reuters. Australia’s federal police had requested law enforcement authorities around the world to arrest Tse and Lee, Reuters reported.
The Sam Gor triad is believed to launder drug money through businesses such as casinos, hotels and real estate in Southeast Asia’s Mekong region, Agence France-Presse reported.
Sam Gor syndicate leaders on the Australian Federal Police’s wanted list include Canadian citizens, and others from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and mainland China, according to Reuters.
Reuters cited estimates from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that Sam Gor made up to U.S. $17 billion from methamphetamine trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region alone in 2018.
Police officials in the Asia-Pacific region believe that, on occasion, as much as 70 percent of methamphetamines entering Australia come from this syndicate, the Morning Herald reported.
‘Drug network of 14 Chinese descendants’
According to a Thai anti-drug official, premium drugs were being produced in the Golden Triangle and distributed by a group called 14K – a drug network of 14 Chinese descendants worldwide – that is a member of Sam Gor. The Golden Triangle is the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar come together.
Many key members of 14K “speak good Chinese and English so that they can distribute the drugs from the Golden Triangle to Chinese-populace areas in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, Canada and New York,” the official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Methamphetamine production has quadrupled in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle region in recent years, the head of UNODC in Bangkok said last week. Illegal manufacturers of synthetic drugs have changed ingredients used to start the process, he said.
“The surge that has come out of the Golden Triangle, we have never seen something like this globally, so quickly,” Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific representative for the UNODC, told BenarNews last week.
“So there are indications that there are very sophisticated criminal activities around chemicals going on inside the Golden Triangle right now,” Douglas said.
Thai authorities have been keeping an eye out for Sam Gor activities kept over the past few year, the former Thai anti-drug official said.
“Thailand becomes a conduit for drugs trafficking to Malaysia which [in turn] is a stopover before drugs are shipped abroad to Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada and the U.S., for example,” the source said.
Thai anti-drugs enforces seized 516 million meth tablets in 2018, more than double that of the previous year, Reuters reported in 2019.
UNODC’s Douglas said last week that he was concerned for the future, noting there were more drug seizures in January than in the same month in 2020. He said another surge in 2021 could occur unless steps were taken to stem the flow of illegal drugs.