It is easy to miss the spirit gate that guards the entrance to Phiyer, a remote village in northern Laos. Half submerged in weeds beside a field of towering sugarcane, the simple wooden structure resembles a set of miniature rustic goalposts. Look closely, however, and you will notice it is strung with roughly carved swords and assault rifles made of bamboo. The villagers believe the gate wards off disease and evil spirits.

A modern epidemic now threatens Phiyer and no amount of ancient voodoo will protect it. The village lies in the mountainous Sing district, which shares its northern border – and the mighty Mekong River – with Burma. There, in semiautonomous fiefdoms ruled by heavily armed militias, secret factories spew out hundreds of millions of tablets of methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug better known there by its Thai name yaba (crazy medicine). From Burma, the drug is spirited across the ill-policed Mekong into Laos and its four other neighbors – China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia – and onward to other parts of Asia and as far afield as New Zealand. Sleepy Phiyer sits on one of Asia’s – and the world’s – busiest drug-trafficking routes. (Read about an herbal remedy for drug users in Cambodia.)

Northern Laos was once notorious for opium, and its derivative, heroin. Together with Thailand and Burma, this mountainous region makes up the Golden Triangle, which once provided at least half of the world’s opium supply. Burma alone produced nearly 1,800 metric tons in 1993, estimates the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). A decade later, after eradication programs in all three countries, opium production in Southeast Asia fell to about 350 metric tons. Factor in global trends – soaring opium production in Afghanistan, or Colombia’s once growing share of the U.S. heroin market – and the Golden Triangle’s days as the world’s biggest opiate factory seemed numbered.

But the Golden Triangle – probably named after the gold once traded for opium – didn’t die. It did what any good business does in our globalized age: expand its markets and diversify its product range. First, new customers were found for an old product: heroin that once moved south into Thailand, and then on to international markets, now primarily moves north into China, where 2.2 million users consumed 45 metric tons of mostly Burmese heroin in 2008, says the UNODC. Second, the Golden Triangle was by the late 1990s manufacturing the product that symbolizes its renaissance. Methamphetamine is Asia’s favorite high. Its popularity is a symptom of the region’s astonishing economic growth. This new prosperity has liberalized trade, reduced transportation costs, accelerated the movement of people and products, and created a vast middle class with cash to burn. All this has helped traffickers shift their product to millions of fresh consumers.

Methamphetamine can be eaten, smoked, snorted or injected. It boosts energy, self-esteem and sexual pleasure, but can also cause paranoia and aggression. It is highly addictive: withdrawal symptoms include fatigue, anxiety and long-term depression. That addiction is difficult to treat, partly because the drug’s popularity straddles social and economic divides, town and country, work and leisure. The same drug that helps laborers endure backbreaking work in the fields allows affluent urbanites to party till dawn. (Read more about Burma’s opium production.)

Compare this with the Golden Triangle’s traditional crop. The second half of the opium poppy’s botanical name (Papaver somniferum) means “to cause sleep” – hardly the drug for countries aspiring to double-digit growth. Opium, the thinking goes, is for old people and “backward” hill tribes, while heroin is for losers; but methamphetamine has a social acceptance, particularly among young Asians, that rightly terrifies governments.

It gets worse: the Golden Triangle is also producing more opium. In 2007, after six years of decline, poppy cultivation in Burma began increasing again. The country produced an estimated 580 metric tons of opium last year, a whopping 76% increase over 2009. Cultivation is also creeping up again in Laos and Thailand. “We are worried about the prospects of a further expansion in 2011,” says Gary Lewis, UNODC representative for East Asia and the Pacific. “The international community has taken its eye off the ball on drug production and trafficking in Southeast Asia.”

A New Hub
Golden Triangle traffickers began favoring Laos after the Thai government’s brutal “war on drugs” in 2003 killed thousands of people and disrupted smuggling routes between Burma and Thailand. An alternative route lay through northern Laos, where a network of roads was being constructed to link the booming economies of Thailand and China. Roads once impassable in the rainy season are now plied year-round by hundreds of vehicles carrying untold millions of pills. In February 2010, police there arrested four men with 21 million yaba tablets – the largest-ever seizure of the drug in Laos.

Wherever you go – Laotian villages, Thai construction sites, nightclubs in Shanghai, Tokyo or Dhaka – methamphetamine is as easy to buy as a bowl of noodles. Amphetamine-type stimulants, which include yaba and Ecstasy-group substances such as MDMA and ketamine, are becoming first-choice drugs in mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and Southeast Asia, reported the UNODC in December 2010. In Thailand, 4 out of 5 drug users who received treatment in 2009 were treated for yaba. Asia’s appetite for narcotics is now so prodigious that it attracts criminal organizations from across the planet. Iranian and West African drug mules are now routinely arrested at Asian airports. (See pictures of cocaine country: Guinea-Bissau and Liberia.)

Methamphetamine is cheap and easy to make. Unlike opium fields in highland Southeast Asia, meth labs can’t be detected by satellite. “You can target something that grows out of the ground much more easily than a laboratory that can be dismantled and moved within a couple of hours,” says Thomas Pasquarello, who until December was regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “And these laboratories are capable of producing huge amounts of methamphetamine.”

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. (Read about the Thailand-Cambodia border clashes.)

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. (Read about a new HBO documentary on life under the Burmese junta.)

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.

Despite the sharp increase in opium-poppy cultivation, Pasquarello says that booming methamphetamine production remains the DEA’s first priority in Southeast Asia. “It’s not just methamphetamine,” he says. “We’re also gearing up for a tremendous increase of South America cocaine coming into the region.” Two or three years ago, says Pasquarello, a seizure of 20 kg of cocaine in Asia would be considered huge. In 2009, after coming under the scrutiny of the U.S. Coast Guard, the crew of a Chinese fishing boat bound for Hong Kong threw overboard a multimillion-dollar cargo: about 2 metric tons of South American cocaine.

Experts disagree on whether sharp increases in seizures are a sign of better law enforcement. “If the total volume of seized goods is increasing, more product is coming out,” says the UNODC’s Lewis. And while tens of millions of pills are impounded, the factories that produce them go largely undetected. Authorities in Burma seized almost 24 million methamphetamine pills in 2009, yet only discovered 39 manufacturing facilities – in the past decade. (See pictures of the submarines used to smuggle drugs in Colombia.)

Pasquarello is more upbeat. “We’ve been much more effective with our enforcement,” he says. “The bigger seizures are a sign of better intelligence, better coordination, and better knowledge of what the traffickers are doing.” He also praises Thailand and the DEA’s other partner nations for “basically dismantling the Golden Triangle. Sure, there are ups and downs, there are different spikes in activity. But it’s nowhere near where it was in its heyday.” Suchai of Thailand’s NSB, which works closely with the DEA, remains gloomy. “Even though we’re pushing forward we’re falling behind,” he says. “We’re seizing smaller amounts of yaba, but we’re seizing them more frequently. Sometimes the drug is transported in powder form and made into tablets here. The patterns keep changing.”

Losing the Fight
In 1998 the U.N. General Assembly held a special session on narcotics under the slogan “A drug-free world – We can do it!” It was later dropped. “I don’t believe that degree of utopia is obtainable,” says Lewis. “What we’re trying to do is minimize the risk of expansion [of the drug trade].”

So why are politicians still vowing that the 10 countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Laos, Burma and Thailand, will be drug-free by 2015? “They probably know it won’t happen, but that’s the message they want to convey to their populations,” says Tom Blickman of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. People are sick of drug dealers and the havoc they wreak on families and communities. They want a quick fix, and politicians are always happy to promise them one. (Read about battles in Southeast Asia over the Mekong River.)

Such unrealistic goals lead to repressive and usually counterproductive measures against drug users, who are often jailed rather than treated – just look at any of Asia’s desperately overcrowded prisons. “Bringing demand down by repression has been tried for a couple of decades now,” says Blickman. “It doesn’t work.”

Nor do drug-treatment facilities in many Asia-Pacific countries, which are underfunded and – although overwhelmed by increasing numbers of methamphetamine users – geared toward heroin and opium addicts. In Asia, most drug users are sent for compulsory treatment at military-style boot camps. Some are hellholes. Detainees at Cambodian facilities are subjected to torture and forced labor, said Human Rights Watch in 2010. The New York City – based group also found “inhumane treatment” at similar centers in China, where half a million users are confined at any given time, according to the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS.

These boot camps are not just inhumane, but also ineffective. A 2009 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) put the relapse rates at compulsory treatment centers in China, Malaysia and Vietnam at between 60% and 95%. In Cambodia, the relapse rate was 100%.

The alternative? Focus on mitigating the health, social and economic impacts of narcotics with harm-reduction policies – for example, psychological counseling for methamphetamine addicts or needle-exchange programs for drug users in order to prevent the transmission of blood-borne diseases like HIV. Proponents, who include WHO and the UNODC, acknowledge that societies will always have drugs and drug users, something politicians are reluctant to publicly admit. Dependence is not a crime but a chronic illness, they argue. Harm reduction is safe and cost-effective – treating users is cheaper than jailing them – and based on evidence rather than wishful thinking. (Does the Scientology-based Narconon addicition rehab program really work?)

And the main beneficiaries of this failure to properly address Asia’s demand for drugs? The drug lords of the Golden Triangle. At the tiny tourist village of Sop Ruak, there are not one but two museums celebrating the eradication of opium in Thailand. One is a multimillion-dollar structure built into a nearby hillside. At the other – an old two-story building with displays of pipes, pillows and other opium-smoking paraphernalia – I ask the woman selling entrance tickets if Thailand will ever build a museum to celebrate the eradication of yaba. She chuckles and replies: “That’s a good one.”