I'm the Asia correspondent for The World, a show that airs on NPR stations. I'm originally from a small town in N.C. but I've lived in Bangkok, Thailand, for more than a decade.

Much of my work focuses on organized crime in Southeast Asia. This region is home to some of the world's fastest-growing black markets — and yet I find that few Americans know much about this underworld. It encompasses the world's largest meth trade. The drug lords' top product is a little pink pill, packed with meth, that smells exactly like cheap vanilla frosting.

I've also spent time with Vietnamese vigilantes, some of whom fought with the Viet Cong. The group of men I met were defending their village against bandits intent on stealing their pet dogs. Near the China-Myanmar border, I've embedded with Baptist vigilantes. They are waging a holy crusade against drugs — and one night, I watched them invade a meth user's home, kidnap him and flog him in a secret detention center on church property.

Other stories I've covered: jihadis attacking red-light zones in Thailand's south, a nearly all-female crime ring in the Philippines and North Korean hostesses who sing in state-run lounges/restaurants across Asia.

One major theme in my reporting is pushing back against the typical "true crime" style of coverage that depicts most criminals as evil or deranged. I've met a lot of criminals. They might not be angels but almost none of them are deranged. They're usually rational actors whose decisions make perfect sense in context. In fact, I've often enjoyed their company.

Much of this is covered in my new book: HELLO, SHADOWLANDS — Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia.

Yes, promoting the book is what nudged me to do the AMA but I'm quite happy to take the conversation any direction.

Here's the book's page on Amazon.

Here's some of my recent reporting: "How North Korea's Hackers Became The World's Greatest Bank Robbers"

Thanks!

PROOF

EDIT: It's getting late here in Bangkok so I'm going to hit pause for the night. Feel free to post questions as I slumber and I'll answer them once I wake up. Really appreciate everyone taking the time to participate. Big shout out to all the lurkers too. Sorry that my responses aren't more pithy. (And I'm surprised no one has asked about North Korea's dodgy criminal operations in Southeast Asia.)

Comments: 101 • Responses: 32  • Date: 

thedaveg9 karma

Hello Patrick, Thanks for taking the time. A few questions for you:

  • What is the general breakdown of revenue for average gang? (maybe compare two differnet types?) e.g. City Gang (90% meth, 5% protection racket, 5% Raffle tickets) Rural Gang (99% meth, 1% eggs).
  • What legit business operations to gangs use to clean their money? Is laundering required as much as other places?
  • How do the gangs interface with their markets overseas? Is it done individually by each local-gang , or is there national level organisation to facilitate international drug running?

patrickwinn7 karma

My pleasure! I'll do my best with these questions but just keep in mind that, when looking at the underworld, stats and specificity are extremely elusive.

— There is no "average" gang and, in my experience, crime syndicates tend to specify in one type of work: drugs, human trafficking, wildlife and even stuff you wouldn't think of — like unlawfully importing old MacBooks to scrape out the gold bits inside.

Within the drug world, you'll have one group (typically a militia composed of singular ethnic group) taking on particular jobs. Maybe this militia is good at scoring drums of pseudoephedrine (meth's key ingredient) from China or India. Maybe this other militia is good at trafficking the finished product into Thailand.

As for protection rackets? Most of the guys collecting monthly protection payments are wearing uniforms and badges.

— Buying real estate is a well-known way to launder profits. This is anecdotal but I remember sitting with the former head of the DEA in Myanmar and him saying something to the effect of, "Hey, you see all those new buildings going up in downtown Yangon? A lot of that is financed by drug profits." In a country like Myanmar, you wouldn't necessarily want to park millions of dollars in a bank. Those institutions just aren't trustworthy enough.

DeviantB7 karma

What's the real story behind the (organized?) crime on Ko Tao, Ko Phi phi and Ko Phangnan?

There have been particularly brutal robberies and murders on these islands that are sleepy tourist destinations... why is that? Any safety tips?

Also, how safe are tourists in Cambodia? Any extreme risks or Islamic terrorism to be aware of?

patrickwinn15 karma

To your question about safety: I would rather walk around the most neglected neighborhood in Bangkok at 3 a.m. than do the same in most major American cities. On the tourist trail, there is not an overwhelming risk of random violent crime. Even in Cambodia. (The best way to get yourself killed in Southeast Asia is to rent a motorbike.)

As for the islands, well, there is a Chinese expression that goes something like "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away." Start heading away from the center of power in Bangkok and up in to the hills and you'll enter a world where provincial political figures can get away with operating their turf as they please and breaking rules. Not to say there isn't plenty of corruption in Bangkok — because, oh, there is — but that far-flung provinces can often run things as they please.

So you can imagine how this effect is magnified on an actual f-ing island. The authorities there start to feel untouchable. It's far easier to pull off cover ups and to botch investigations on an island. That said, if I had a friend who was prepared to go on holiday on any of those islands you mentioned, I wouldn't necessarily discourage them. These violent incidents are horribly tragic yet still rare.

frenchhorngod6 karma

Can you please contact Joe Rogan and do his podcast please?

patrickwinn8 karma

I have the number of a human trafficker and a self-avowed "terrorist" in my phone but, sadly, no Rogan.

Batou20345 karma

Do the hong kong triads still exist, and does their reach still extend to places like London's chinatown? Did they penetrate mainland China or does CCP sponsored "official" organised crime keep them out?

patrickwinn4 karma

This is a fantastic question that I'm kind of unqualified to answer. I've largely devoted my energy to meeting dealers, users, vigilantes and others in Southeast Asia proper. I could keep going for another ten years and still wouldn't have explored the depths of every crime syndicate in this region — and so I've not focused on Hong Kong.

What I do hear is that mafia described as "Chinese" (which encompasses a vast number of groups) will supply the financial acumen and meth synthesis skills that some militia in the hills of Myanmar might lack. Meaning that some syndicate within China will notice that a militia is holding down turf and think, "Hmmm... that's a great place for a meth lab." Then they'll supply the expertise to get it going and, presumably, share profits with the militia. But I don't know about these relationships in great detail.

DutchMan19655 karma

Patrick, African gangs that hang around Sukhumvit 13, just down from the Police Box, how do they get away with openly dealing Cocaine and other drugs? Every day walking back from work I get the "Alright buddy" nod. Can you explain what's going on here please?

patrickwinn4 karma

Good question. I know exactly what you're talking about though there is some specificity here (i.e., naming streets) that makes me reluctant to comment in much detail. I suspect you already know that any dealer giving out head nods to solicit customers are trying to attract English-speaking, non-Thai tourists — people who want to get high but don't have the connections they might have back home.

What I will say is this: open-air, hand-to-hand drug sales are not the norm for people in Thailand. Overwhelmingly, people buy drugs by calling a number and arranging a pickup or a drop off, usually delivered by motorbike. This is really NOT ideal for the buyer because it requires them to have their phone number stored in a dealer's phone — and that can leave you implicated if that dealer gets shaken down by cops. Or if they're forced to work with police to help the cops meet a quota. The laziest way for cops to make drug arrests is to force a dealer to make his or her rounds and then just scoop up all the buyers that come through that day.

FaustTriumphant5 karma

What potential is there for states/governments to utilize gangs and organized crime rings in South East Asia as "hybrid warfare" agents?

For example, Foreign Policy Magazine published an article last year detailing how the Russian government has used the Russian Mafia to carry out espionage in other countries, carry out assassinations, launder money and smuggle weapons, etc...

https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/12/how-the-world-of-spies-became-a-gangsters-paradise-russia-cyberattack-hack/

... And just 2 months ago, a US Congressional committee published a report on China's "United Front Works Department", whose mission is to exploit and lasso ethnic-Chinese in other countries into unwittingly advancing Beijing's interests abroad. The report details attempts by the UFWD to use Triads to undermine Taiwan and to agitate for "Reunification" with China.

(i.e. surrender Taiwan's sovereingty to Chinese rule)

https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/China%27s%20Overseas%20United%20Front%20Work%20-%20Background%20and%20Implications%20for%20US_final_0.pdf

... Is there any history of that sort of thing happening in South East Asia?

patrickwinn6 karma

Interesting question. One loosely related example from Myanmar comes to mind.

One of the largest producers of pink meth pills is the United Wa State Army. This is an armed group with 20,000-plus troops controlling a patch of land the size of Belgium — right on the border with China.

Myanmar's government will say this is officially their territory but everyone knows this is preposterous. It's essentially an independent fiefdom. It's also deeply aligned with China. The leadership speaks Chinese. People there use Chinese money. The mobile phone networks are Chinese. This is basically a little client state of China that few people talk about — and it's also funded by organized crime.

For China, it's nice to have a feisty little node inside their neighboring country. China needs Myanmar to go along with its mega-projects — like building hydro-dams that zap electricity back to China. Or maintaining pipelines that stretch all the way from China to the ocean, where shipping tankers can dock and pipe fuel from the Middle East up through Myanmar into China. Having a very fierce and well armed rebel army provides a lot of leverage when pushing all sorts of policies on their weaker neighbor.

Batou20345 karma

Is Singapore free of organised crime or is it just well hidden?

patrickwinn11 karma

I'll be totally honest. Because Singapore amounts to less than 1 percent of Southeast Asia's population, I don't devote much of my energy chasing stories there. As someone interested in street-level organized crime, it's just not a target-rich environment. If anything, we're talking crimes such as money laundering, which isn't my specialty.

Jukung112 karma

This leads me to a follow up question. Why no chapter devoted to Indonesia? You seem to cover most of South East Asia, but I didn't see any chapters devoted the largest country. Do you plan on doing more research in that area?

patrickwinn4 karma

Really great question. I'll be the first to say that Indonesia gets a shockingly low amount of international media coverage. Way less than it deserves. It's a shame.

I've done a fair amount of reporting there — on polluted oceans, an Islamic vigilante group (FPI) and even the world's most bewitching chicken (ayam cemani) — but, as you can see, this reporting isn't on organized crime per se.

There was no strategy behind this. My sources and story hunting just haven't led me down that path in Indonesia. I just have a better network of contacts in, say, Thailand or Myanmar. Also, my goal wasn't to write a comprehensive study of crime rings in the region — but rather to focus on those that I found most fascinating AND knew how to access. That got me to more than 370 pages. And I'm sure there is a journalist out there who could write another 370 pages on crime rings in Indonesia alone.

victorvictoroneniner3 karma

What's something starkly different about organized crime in the Southeast as compared to the west?

patrickwinn14 karma

Much of my work focuses on documenting the region's meth trade, which is astoundingly huge. Drug lords in this region are whipping up more pink meth pills each year than Starbucks sells cups of coffee worldwide. And yet this trade, for all its volume and complexity, does not seem to whip up the degree of shocking violence that you would see on the U.S.-Mexico border. I'm not saying it's not violent or the cause of great misery. But there just isn't the same level of bloody jostling for turf. I'm not entirely sure why.

I'd also add that it's tragically undercovered by the Western media. Americans know about Italian mafia or Latin cartels or Russian gangsters — and yet Southeast Asian syndicates are largely ignored by the U.S. media.

victorvictoroneniner1 karma

Interesting.

And how similar are the political nexus in comparison?

patrickwinn11 karma

A few similarities that come to mind.

If you want to operate a successful drug lab, you need territory that is mostly immune to drug raids. You will prefer to set up shop in A) an impermeable mountainous area where B) you will be left alone thanks to an alliance with the state. In Myanmar, as in Mexico, the drug lords pay off state security forces to be left alone — and, in Myanmar at least, sometimes become units attached to the army itself.

But if you're thinking like a drug lord, you also want C) proximity to loads of people who can afford your drugs. Mexico is adjacent to the world's largest economy — and loads of Americans who want to buy coke and heroin. Myanmar is adjacent to what will soon be the world's largest economy: China. As well as countries such as Thailand, which has seen its economy boom in recent decades.

This is a vast simplification. But any consortium of drug producers with A, B and C stands a chance of raking in as much income as some Fortune 500 companies.

Batou20343 karma

Who really runs Nana Plaza?

patrickwinn5 karma

I don't have any inside knowledge on that nor have I focused on the flashy red-light trade catering to Western clientele.

The most interesting red-light zone in Thailand is not in Bangkok. It's in Sungai Golok — which I consider one of Asia's strangest party towns. It's a red-light district located right within an area wracked by an Islamic insurgency. The jihadis' main goal is to drive out the Thai Buddhist state — but some cells also have an agenda to rid the land of "impure elements" that you would associate with Thai nightlife. Dodgy nightclubs. Brothels. Karaoke bars.

This red-light district has been repeatedly bombed over the years. It's heavily defended by the Thai army.

In the book, I describe one of the most surreal nights of my life. I was down there reporting and a bomb placed downtown lit up a street corner and killed a random women with metal shrapnel. When I went to see how the presumed targets of that bomb (the women working the bars) were faring, I found that they were severely rattled — and yet the bars stayed open, blasting techno as if nothing was happening. Sex work is not the safest job but the sex workers in this town are subjected to an extra layer of terror.

istareatpeople1 karma

but some cells also have an agenda to rid the land of "impure elements" that you would associate with Thai nightlife. Dodgy nightclubs. Brothels. Karaoke bars.

Is karaoke bars lingo for something else? Or do tehy have something against people singing on popular song negatives?

Very interesting ama btw.

patrickwinn2 karma

In much of Asia, aspects of the karaoke world are entangled with sex work. The karaoke bars that employ women engaged in sex work have a fairly specific look. Often they'll have pastel walls or twinkly Christmas lights out front and blacked-out windows. Men can go in there are drink beer and sing but will be approached by a female hostess who will charge a "sitting fee.' She may also order alcohol and the male customer will be charged. The pseudo-intimacy of singing songs together is sort of an icebreaker — and at some point, the male customer can suggest that they leave together.

To be clear: do NOT assume this is happening in every karaoke joint in Southeast Asia! I often go out singing karaoke with my Thai mother-in-law and aunties and we are obviously going to family-friendly places. Any Thai person would immediately spot the difference. This is why some places have signs that say "FAMILY KARAOKE" in case it's not screamingly obvious.

One of the more interesting characters in the book is a woman named Bam who works in a karaoke bar on the Thai-Malaysia border — an area wracked by an Islamic insurgency. Her instincts and wit are razor sharp. Working at this bar for years on end has basically endowed her with a phD in the darkest corners of the male psyche.

Batou20341 karma

Who are the customers?

patrickwinn6 karma

The customers are almost entirely from Malaysia. Many Chinese-Malaysians and some Muslim Malays as well. Consider that, just across the border in Malaysia, you have a patch of Malaysia that is so orthodox that you can hardly buy a beer. There is no open bar scene there. Even the grocery stores have separate lines for men and women. It's super chaste.

And then right there across the border is Thailand — a straight-up party zone with all the booze you can drink and a very flashy red-light area. So you can imagine what happens. There is a constant stream of guys from Malaysia coming across the border. They're aware of the bombings but the downtown area is patrolled with armed personnel carriers (the same models used in Iraq) plus loads of checkpoints and troops with M-16s on the street. So they feel safe enough to come over for a wild jaunt.

twofishies3 karma

You've spend a lot of time with criminals -- strictly for research purposes it seems... -- but what is the craziest situation that you've found yourself in with them?

patrickwinn9 karma

A few disturbing nights come to mind.

— Witnessing a kidnapping, to which I alluded in the intro. I had embedded with a Baptist vigilante vice squad, which had decided to fight the meth trade by doing home invasions against anyone they suspected of using meth of heroin. (This crew was based in northern Myanmar in town called Myitkyina.) Basically, they stormed this guy's farmhouse, dragged him out and then interrogated him in this bamboo detention center. They flogged the guy over and over — forcing him to repent for using meth — and then forced his feet into these medieval-looking wooden stocks. Strangely, the vigilantes did all this inside a church's auxiliary building, which doubled as a storage shed — and there was a giant Santa Claus mannequin propped up in the corner the whole time.

— I touched on this briefly in another comment but there was the night I witnessed a jihadi bombing in Thailand's deep south — an attack that was meant to strike the nearby red-light district. I was down there on a reporting trip and so, when I heard the bomb erupt a few blocks away, I felt compelled to run towards the flames. By the time I arrived, there were quite a few cops and soldiers trying to set up a perimeter. A woman was struck by shrapnel — and I remember seeing detectives cover her body with a sheet and twist gold rings off her fingers. I was incredibly nervous because the militants will often set up secondary bombs to wipe out first responders. The sheer senselessness of this attack — which struck some woman on a motorbike, not even directly targeting security forces — really gnawed at me. It led me to eventually track down a former leader of an insurgent coalition to better understand the jihadis' justification for targeting random women.

But these are extreme circumstances. They don't reflect the typical encounter with someone tangled up in organized crime. Usually, it's just an extended interview over cups of tea.

Also, compared to many journalists who were born in the countries I cover — such as Myanmar and the Philippines — I am a total lightweight. For example: there are two young journalists from Myanmar named Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who uncovered an army massacre for Reuters. They're in prison right now and may be there for years to come. These are the sort of guys I really look up to.

TTTT272 karma

Any thoughts on human trafficking? It has become the issue de jure for a lot of NGOs and a lot of these groups conflate any kind of sex work with trafficking. At the same time, closed borders and differences in wealth create incentives for people to use less than legal means to go from one place to another.

What are your thoughts?

patrickwinn4 karma

Yes, be wary of charities seeking to blur the line between sex work and forced labor or human trafficking. There are groups that generate donations by selling the fantasy that your $$$ will help "rescue" women from some sort of sex dungeon. I do not in ANY way mean to diminish the very real suffering endured by women and girls who are duped into sex work and held captive. This does happen. But the overwhelmingly majority of sex workers are just that. Workers.

They are, however, an exploited class of worker — one whose jobs are technically illegal in Thailand. Yet they prop up an industry worth upwards of $6 billion. Who benefits from this? Police who get payoffs to let bars and massage parlors stay open. Who else? The owners of those establishments, who get to short change and deny benefits to sex workers — because they're not recognized by the law.

Much of the energy that goes into "saving" these workers should be go towards decriminalizing sex work. They're adults with autonomy. Protect them under labor laws. Give them benefits. Let them unionize. Force the cops to look after their safety instead of just collecting monthly protection payments.

This concept will never get anywhere. It deflates the fantasy of "saving" women. And accepting sex work as legitimate work runs against these 1950s notions of morality projected by the authorities.

Batou20342 karma

Is Duterte just eliminating competition for his own drug cartel?

patrickwinn5 karma

No, I don't think so. What he's done is more subtle than that. He has successfully depicted meth users as the ultimate agents of chaos in the Philippines. They're all junkies. Rapists. Killers. He's channeled all of the population's very legitimate rage with government dysfunction towards "junkies" — and the insinuation is that, once they are purged, the streets will be clean, children will be safe, foreign investment will increase and so on.

It's a very simple narrative. He's not the first to think of it. But it remains quite effective in shoring up political power. American politicians amass political support through "tough on crime" rhetoric as well. And our own domestic drug war has wrecked millions of lives. Duterte is pushing a super-charged version of this campaign — and, by the way, U.S. tax dollars have funded police stations complicit in this gruesome Philippines drug war.

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/meghara/us-aid-dollars-phillipines

YeezyWarrior2 karma

Hi Patrick, talk me through the Burmese / Thai street beggars that populate lower Sukhumvit. What's the deal with them? Are any legit and not part of an organised scam?

patrickwinn1 karma

I'll just be honest and say that I've never investigated this — even though I see them everyday. Organized crime in this region is such a vast and sprawling realm. It would take me another 200 years to have a comprehensive grasp on all of its permutations.

Zacharymexico2 karma

I bought the book but just got home from traveling. Look forward to reading.

Are there any of these crews that have cool logos/graphics/names? Aside from Strawberry Fire, of course.

patrickwinn8 karma

Ha — well, many of the major players in the meth trade actually have terribly boring names. For example, there is a warlord named Ting Ying on the China-Myanmar border. Looks like Kojack. Terribly powerful. Wields great power. Runs a crime family aligned with Myanmar's military.

The name of his syndicate? Border Guard Force unit 1001.

Batou20343 karma

What's the truth behind Aung san suu kyi suddenly joining the "enemy"?

patrickwinn3 karma

For a long while, the charitable explanation offered by Aung San Suu Kyi's diplomatic cheerleaders in the West was that her hands were tied — that she privately sympathized with the Rohingya plight but couldn't control the menacing army. That was always fairly unconvincing, to be honest. As long ago as five years back, I heard from her camp that she thought the Rohingya were a "made-up" ethnicity.

The truth is that A) on some level, she clearly endorses the military's ethnic purge and B) fulfilling some Western fantasy — in which she publicly condemns the purge — would be political suicide. Much of the population supports this genocidal campaign. Many people are convinced that Muslims are plotting a takeover of Myanmar. She would lose massive amounts of public support.

Big caveat: there are loads of wonderful people in Myanmar who are horrified at the army's pogrom against the Rohingya — so never fall into the lazy trap of thinking that ALL of them support this violence.

Batou20341 karma

if Myanmar's making all the meth and its fucking up all the other countries, how long before china moves in to shut it all down?

patrickwinn3 karma

There used to be this notorious river pirate named Naw Kham who ran a militia on the Mekong River. Up where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar converge. Major meth trafficker — and his militia terrorized boats coming down the river.

Then his guys made the fatal mistake of slaughtering more than a dozen Chinese sailors. Long story short: China staged an international manhunt — and at one point considered killing him with TNT strapped to a drone. Instead, they caught him, dragged him up to China and put him to death.

My point is that it seems to take truly outrageous transgression to force China to cross borders and bust heads. China has incredibly complex relationships with all of the armed groups in Myanmar — and their diplomats are very savvy when it comes to playing them against the central government. China has heavy interests in that mountainous drug-producing region of Myanmar and, depending on the circumstances, they can use this chaos to their advantage.

Batou20341 karma

Dilbert author Scott Adams thinks America's Opioid crisis is fed by chinese fentanyl factories, is he right?

patrickwinn6 karma

Yes, this is actually a fairly uncontroversial thing to say. A good deal of the fentanyl on American streets is synthesized in China. It might come to America via Mexico. Or get shipped directly. I'm totally unfamiliar with his line of thinking, however. In general, I would be wary of anyone trying to tell you there is a vast Chinese government conspiracy to weaken the United States through fentanyl.

anothernameis1 karma

Can you talk about your experience becoming an investigative journalist/ having the means and opportunities to do this kind of work in the first place? And how did you make connections to meet these people, how do they respond to your presence?

And if you don't mind: do you feel like you do deal with trauma because of witnessing intense events and how do you cope?

patrickwinn3 karma

This is a great place to point out that I'd be useless without a network of producers in countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, etc. with whom I share mutual trust. I work together with these journalists to navigate access to people and groups who would normally refuse to speak with a journalist.

Any time you watch or read a report that makes it seem like some Western reporter just beamed down to a country that is not their own and suddenly they're chatting with a rebel or crime ring, well, you are essentially being lied to.

That journalist will always have had someone from that country lining up access. These local producers are called "fixers" in journalist circles but I am increasingly uncomfortable with that word. Many of these so-called "fixers" are far better field reporters than the faces you see on TV — and they get a sliver of the money and little recognition. In the book, I actually include these fellow journalists in the narrative so you can see how we're trying to navigate the criminal underworld as a team. (One country in which I do have a bit more autonomy is Thailand because I speak Thai — but I often work with Thai producer friends because they're just so damn good.)

You asked about trauma. Keep in mind that 99 percent of the work is nothing remotely traumatizing — making calls, waiting around for people to show up, drinking too much tea, long car rides on bumpy roads, figuring out how to present the narrative and so on.

However, sure, I could share details about gut-wrenching encounters with shootings or bombings or getting followed by police or any number of stories that would shore up some image of a swashbuckling journalist. And I will if people ask. But it can feel a bit fraudulent to make myself the center of the story. Especially when I know there are real-deal war correspondents out there actually risking their lives routinely — or guys such as Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Burmese journalists who exposed an army massacre and STILL refused to apologize, even as they sit in prison. I've never been tested like that and, deep down, I feel that they are more virtuous and brave than me.

My actual purpose is to use my position to find people who've led way more interesting lives than me and share their humanity with a wider audience — so that we can all learn something from their experiences. Beware of any journalist who think they're more interesting than their sources.

wdelius1 karma

Is the pink pill youre talking about "yaba"? Are there competing cartels in BKK? If so, is there much violence between them? Also how does corruption factor into the drug trade there?

patrickwinn5 karma

That's right.

Ya meaning medicine in Thai. Ba meaning crazy. So crazy pills. This is THE go-to drug in mainland Southeast Asia. In Bangkok, there isn't an extraordinary level of violence between dealers — and certainly far less than you would see in turf wars in some American cities. The violence is more likely to occur near the actual meth labs in Myanmar's Shan or Kachin states. That's like the distance from NYC to Houston.

Corruption? Oh, absolutely. For starters, many of the big players in the meth trafficking/production are, in fact, militias under the umbrella of Myanmar's army. This is the same army that is violently purging the Rohingya from their coastal homeland — one of the worst atrocities this century.

In other countries, you'll have police actively receiving payments from drug syndicates to NOT arrest them — as is typical in much of the world. In fact, I'd argue that no crime syndicate can thrive for years on years without some relationship with the state.

10jsnead1 karma

What small town in NC are you from?

patrickwinn3 karma

Eden, N.C. Small mill town. When I was growing up, the factories churned out Miller beer and Oriental rugs. To my utter astonishment, Eden was recently depicted on a Bojack Horseman episode.

odieman441 karma

I'm from Eden as well. Small world. Your book is on my reading list, and I've been a longtime The World listener. Congratulations on the great work!

And I had no idea about the Bojack Horseman episode - I will have to catch that one.

patrickwinn1 karma

So get this: much of the episode takes place in a restaurant called "Phuzzy's" BBQ as in Fuzzy's BBQ. There is an extended sequence in the Eden Flea Market as well. I was blown away.

You know how Hollywood always gets the accent wrong — like how Frank Underwood in "House of Cards" sounds like a Civil War-era general or Foghorn Leghorn? The show actually relied on voice actors from NC so they sound authentic.

Overall, the show uses Eden as a plot device: the depressing backwater from which a central character has to escape to achieve her dreams. I don't mind the insult just as long as we're insulted with accuracy.

vertical_letterbox1 karma

I listened to you recently on Bangkok Podcast (link for anyone interested https://www.bangkokpodcast.com/author-patrick-winn-on-organized-crime-in-southeast-asia-season-3-episode-24/).

I comment frequently about yaba being found in truckloads coming over the border in Mae Sai, with headlines saying something like “Man with 3.2 million yaba pills arrested fleeing highway checkpoint” like once a week or something. With this much money getting stopped and busted at the border, how much is getting through to make the operation worthwhile? It must be staggering...

patrickwinn2 karma

Every year, across mainland Southeast Asia, meth confiscations by police go up. And up. And up. They've gone up by more than a factor of ten in the last decade. This doesn't mean cops are winning the war on drugs. It is generally assumed among officials that they're only catching roughly 5 to 15 percent in any given year — and that the crazy high number of seizures is still just a smidgen from the roaring avalanche of meth coming out of Myanmar.

If pink meth pills (ya ba) were traded like commodity, the investment forecast would be very bright.

gyges941 karma

Hello! Have you come across cases where refugee populations like the Rohingya are lured/exploited into becoming drug mules? Also, have you been to the Kings Romans Casino area? Place sounds wild

patrickwinn3 karma

I was told by high-ranking border guard officers in Bangladesh — the country where Rohingya have fled — that, yes, local syndicates have been peeling off Rohingya men from the refugee camps and hiring them as drug mules or "muscle men." In other words, people driven from their homes by ethnic cleansing are easy to exploit. Life in the refugee camps is tedious and bleak. If I were a young Rohingya guy, I might be tempted to do this as well.

There is a reason I have not written about this. We are talking about probably less than one percent of all refugees getting mixed up in organized crime. I am conscious of the power of words — and I don't want to give those who revile the Rohingya an opportunity to say, "Look, they're terrorists AND narco-criminals!"

sportcrypt1 karma

[deleted]

patrickwinn2 karma

Too many questions here to hit all of them. So I'll go with the one I know most about — legalization/decriminalization in Thailand.

Yes, proposals to decriminalize pot or allow medical marijuana in Thailand are actually being taken seriously. Almost any facet of the drug trade will generate protection cash for police but consider that marijuana is actually a fairly small piece of the pie — much, much smaller than you'd find in, say, the US. When Thai police arrest people for possession, stats show that 90+ percent of the time, we're talking meth.

So bringing cannabis into the legal fold wouldn't be as disruptive as you might assume.

Here's where it gets interesting. I have spoken to some high-ranking police — real veterans of the drug war — who are now vociferously pushing behind the scenes for decriminalizing meth. They've been influenced by pot legalization in certain US states. So now they're thinking, hey, our patrons in the DEA are letting US states legalized THEIR go-to drug, marijuana, so why can't we do the same here with OUR go-to drug? This US-style drug war is clearly a failure.

This quiet insurgency within the conservative police/army establishment has some very, very influential supporters. It flies under the banner of fixing the prison system — which has cells so crowded inmates are forced to spoon on the floor to save space. It's been recognized as an embarrassing problem and not locking up meth users in droves is the most obvious cure.

Will they succeed in decriminalizing meth? No idea — but they've made more internal progress than I ever would have predicted.

twofishies1 karma

Do you have experience/knowledge of the links between Thailand's mafia and its motorbike taxi drivers?

patrickwinn2 karma

To get ice (crystal meth) or meth pills, it's extremely common for buyers to ring a dealer and have them sent to their house via motorbike — an underground delivery service of sorts. That's way more common than copping on the street like you'd see in The Wire.

But if you mean the guys and women in the (usually bright orange) vests then, no, I don't think those taxi networks are enmeshed in organized crime in any serious way. Not that I've seen anyways. Clearly those networks are hierarchical and organized have been tapped by political factions to bring more people out on the street during protests. I'm sure some of them are mixed up in moving illegal stuff from A to B — but for the most part, I think motorbike taxi drivers are just out there grinding out an honest living.

I've got loads of respect for those motorbike taxi crews. I actually think they often bring more order to the neighborhoods — as the eyes and ears of the street.

frodonk1 karma

You mentioned meth labs near the Myanmar-China border, and how these are set up to cater to the growing market in China, but would you know if the goods from the Indochina peninsula are for "local" consumption only? Or are they sophisticated enough to export these to the islands in the Philippines or Indonesia or even the western hemisphere?

patrickwinn5 karma

Great question. From the meth heartland in Myanmar, you do see some of it reaching Australia and New Zealand but no serious quantities making it all the way to the United States. Much of what swirls around the Philippines is actually produced in mainland China — or by labs operated by Chinese-led syndicates in the Philippines.

But the hottest growth market right now is actually ... Bangladesh. This will surprise some because, well, it's a rather orthodox Islamic country. But if you think like a drug lord, you'll see a country that's almost half the size of the U.S. with a very young population and corrupt police. It's a meth dealer's dream.

That's why seizures of meth pills in Bangladesh have gone up more than 80,000 PERCENT in the last decade. It's astounding.

I was with a Bangladesh border guard commander once and I asked him how they get rid of all the pink meth pills they capture. He told me that his men dig big pits behind the station, dump vats of meth inside, pour booze on top (because alcohol is also confiscated there) and whip it into this weird, bright pink narcotic slurry.

And then they just fill in the pit with dirt again. They barely know what to do with all the meth that they seize. So they sometimes get creative.

patrickwinn6 karma

In case anyone is interested, here's a video I made of Bangladeshi border guards dumping vats of meth in a giant pit — and stirring it all into a pink goop.

https://youtu.be/1TZqhbhuCso?t=21

Sapphire_dust1 karma

What are you working on now?

patrickwinn1 karma

Writing the book and going on tour (I just did a ten-city run in the U.S.) has taken me out of the field for a while. So I'm sitting on a big list of story ideas that I really want to attack. Sorry to deflect your question — and really I'm not trying to be mysterious — but I do try to stay vague about my work while I'm in the reporting phase.

Right now, there are a few former criminals/rebels whom I'd like to profile via in-depth podcasts. As with all of my work, the goal is to bring out the humanity in people who've been mixed up in crime. I don't intend to deify them or make them seem cool. But I do like to show all of the factors and forces the prodded someone into taking a radical leap outside the law.