The report that the Sinaloa drug cartel is trying to make inroads in Hong Kong by going into a joint venture with the triads in that Chinese city confirms what Philippine anti-narcotics authorities discovered late last year: that the dreaded Mexican drug ring is targeting Asia as its next market.
Last Christmas Day, a stash of methampethamine hydrochloride or shabu worth almost half a billion pesos was discovered by a team led by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) at a game fowl farm in Lipa City. The raiders identified the shabu as a shipment smuggled in by the Sinaloa. Arrests were made but the cartel’s point man in its Philippine operation got away.
PDEA revealed that the cartel was trying to establish a foothold in the Philippines by tying up with Chinese syndicates and African traffickers in producing shabu for local consumption and distribution.
Like any business venture, the cartel is planning to expand to Asia and cash in on the region’s economic boom. America has long been the Mexican cartels’ traditional market but persistent efforts by US counter-narcotics agencies to cut off the drugs pipeline are slowly gaining headway. The Sinaloa must have decided it is time to explore other markets.
Drugs have always been a lucrative business in Asia. It has been so since the British began to trade opium in China in the late 1700s. Grown in India, the opium was shipped by British companies to Chinese ports where it was bartered for silk, porcelain and tea, which were in great demand in the West.
Millions of Chinese got hooked on opium, and China’s rulers slowly realized the growing menace. When Chinese authorities seized 1.21 kilos of opium from British traders in the 1800s, London sent gunboats and marines to attack Canton, sparking the first Opium War.
China capitulated and the opium trade once again flourished.
Three centuries later, opium has been largely replaced by cocaine and its cheaper alternative, shabu, as the drugs of choice in Asia, and the Sinaloa realizes this.
In strategic terms, the Philippines is the ideal transhipment point. It has porous borders, lax enforcement and easily corrupted officials. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is the perfect jumping point for the drugs headed for the Chinese mainland.
Instead of going it alone, the cartel prefers to strike partnerships with local drug groups in producing and distributing the contraband. It has also targeted specific markets, concentrating on shabu for the Philippines and cocaine for Hong Kong.
The PDEA claims that it has spoiled Sinaloa’s plans and that it is going after remnants of the group still in the country.
Hong Kong has launched its own crackdown but its job is more difficult because it is up against the triads, criminal gangs that have thrived in the former British colony for centuries.
An official of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime sees an uphill battle for anti-narcotics agencies who are trying to neutralize drug trafficking groups.
“Asia has the raw materials, the market demand and the organized crime,” the official said.
The scourge of drugs can only be defeated if the region puts up a united front.