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Moderator: Good morning everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States. Today, we are pleased to be joined by the Department of State’s Jorgan K. Andrews who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary, or the DAS, for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, also known as INL.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from the Deputy Assistant Secretary, then we will turn to your questions. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.
Please note that we’d ask you to please try to limit your questions to just one question if possible so that others are able to participate. Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Andrews. Please go ahead.
DAS Andrews: Thank you very much, Zia, and thanks to everyone else for joining us today. I know it’s very early there, and we appreciate your interest.
For those of you who are not familiar with my part of the U.S. State Department, I am one of the Deputy Assistant Secretaries of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. It’s called INL.
On behalf of the United States, INL works around the globe to counter transnational crime, illegal drugs, and instability. We do this by helping countries deliver justice and fight crime through strengthening police capacity and court systems and corrections systems. So, through diplomatic engagement and on-the-ground programs, we encourage reform, promote effective governance, improve the rule of law, and help strengthen the fight against modern crime.
Of particular relevance to all of you, our work is one important element of the overall U.S. relationship to the Indo-Pacific.
The three interlocking pillars of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, if you’ll recall, are economic, security, and governance. INL’s work in East Asia and the Pacific supports all three of those pillars with a particular focus on building our partners’ ability to respond in a regionally focused way to transnational criminal threats.
The United States partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, is very central to these efforts, as evidenced by our Secretary’s current presence in your region for ministerial-level meetings.
INL concentrates on working with ASEAN member states, but is also supporting non-ASEAN countries throughout the region to enhance regional security.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit your region twice in the past several months. And just last week, I led the U.S. delegation to the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime – it’s called the SOMTC – in Rangoon, Myanmar, and that’s where I presented the U.S. government’s transnational crime priorities for the region. Actually, the meetings were in Nay Pyi Taw.
I also met with Myanmar officials and civil society to discuss areas of mutual concern such as the dramatic growth of synthetic drugs production. INL’s program in Myanmar focuses on building counternarcotics capacity, including enhancing drug interdiction, and supporting efforts to reduce the surging demand for drugs and treat people with substance abuse disorders.
I also had the opportunity to visit our world-class International Law Enforcement Academy, or ILEA, in Bangkok, Thailand. The ILEA recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and is run jointly with the Royal Thai Police. We’ve trained together over 20,000 law enforcement officials from across Southeast Asia, Mongolia, and Hong Kong on a broad range of topics including counternarcotics and financial crime investigations.
As one of the six ILEA Academies around the world, ILEA Bangkok fosters not only countries’ ability to fight crime and pursue justice, but also regional law enforcement cooperation to jointly address transnational threats.
Beyond Myanmar and Thailand, INL runs programs in 12 other Asian nations, and works sub-regionally and regionally to combat transnational crime.
One of the biggest challenges we face, not just in Asia but around the world, is illicit synthetic drug trafficking. In fact, illicit synthetic drugs pose the most significant global drug threat of the next decade in our view.
Methamphetamine production, as you all know, is one of Southeast Asia’s biggest challenges, and the United States is focused on helping your nations better protect their citizens from meth production, trafficking, and consumption. Meanwhile, the emergence of dangerous illicit synthetic opioids such as fentanyl has certainly transformed America’s opioid crisis into a deadly phenomenon with complex transnational and criminal linkages. As many of you have seen, the United States is losing tens of thousands of its citizens to opioid overdoses each year.
These issues that I’ve just gone through are quite connected. That’s essentially the linkage between opioids and stimulants like methamphetamine and here’s how they’re connected. On potency, just three milligrams of fentanyl, which looks like about three grains of salt, can kill you. And some of the newer forms of meth are purer and stronger, and can produce very violent behavior or mental health problems.
These drugs are also similar in terms of profits because of synthetic drugs’ higher potency, a very little bit can go a long way. Criminals can easily turn a modest $5,000 investment into several million dollars of profit.
The synthetic drugs are also similar in terms of technology and ease of shipment. Because anyone sitting anywhere, from here in Washington, DC to Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh, can go on the internet or the Dark Web or WhatsApp or any number of places and place an order on-line for illicit narcotics, pay for it using an anonymous virtual currency, and get it shipped directly to him or her in an envelope through the mail.
Finally, the synthetics are similar in terms of production. All of the synthetics including not just the opioids like fentanyl but also methamphetamine, can be produced anywhere with much lower overhead than that needed for production of agriculture-based narcotics. So criminals are developing new substances in laboratories and in their back rooms of their houses at a faster rate than our national and international drug control frameworks can respond.
To address these complex emerging issues, the U.S. Department of State has developed a five-year counter-synthetic drug strategy that aims to dismantle each link of this global supply chain. We would do that by the following five things: first, reducing synthetic drug production; second, strengthening capacity for our partners to detect and to interdict and share information on synthetic drug threats; third, building capacity to target on-line synthetic drug sales and financing; fourth, removing incentives to traffic drugs by reducing global drug demand; and finally, fifth, forging partnerships with governments, industry, and international organizations.
As part of that strategy, we’re beginning a project on precursor chemical control in Southeast Asia. That project aims to reduce the risk of illegitimate production and diversion and trafficking of precursor chemicals by developing a regional policy and strategy. And all this is being done in close coordination with international partners and the private sector there in the region.
My boss, INL Assistant Secretary Kirsten Madison, recently traveled to Australia to advance implementation of our synthetics strategy. Australia is a valued partner to the United States in helping address shared global and regional challenges. Australia also faces a tremendous threat from methamphetamines, and some reports indicate rising opioid use as well.
I’d like to just mention a few things about wildlife trafficking and then I’ll stop with my initial remarks. Wildlife poaching and trafficking represents another escalating international security and conservation crisis. As you have all seen, operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated industrial-scale slaughter that’s commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates. These crime networks are proliferating, striking new and powerful alliances, and engaging in a range of illicit activities.
INL’s partnerships in Asia are crucial in our global efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. While the region is an incredible source of biodiversity, it’s also among those most threatened by wildlife trafficking as a poaching hotspot, as well as a major transit route and destination for illegal wildlife products.
INL’s programs in the region combat wildlife trafficking by [one], increasing interdiction of the illicit wildlife trade; two, building investigative and enforcement functions; three, enhancing prosecutorial and judicial capacity; and four, developing cross-border regional cooperation.
In conclusion, for us, engaging in the Indo-Pacific region will remain a key priority. In fact, Secretary of State Pompeo is traveling to Bangkok, Thailand; Sydney, Australia; and the Federated States of Micronesia this week. You’ve seen his travel in his announcement. In each of those stops, he’ll be deepening our long-standing alliances with these countries, and reaffirming our commitment to ASEAN, which is central to our vision for the Indo-Pacific region.
With that as an introduction, thank you all again for being on the call today, and I’ll look forward to your questions. Over to you, Zia.
Moderator: Thank you, DAS Andrews. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Let’s go ahead and start the questions with Mr. Nirmal Ghosh from The Straits Times.
Question: Thank you very much. Hi from DC. Thank you very much. Nirmal Ghosh with The Straits Times.
Now we know that in April this year China announced it would ban all variants of fentanyl, and today the President tweeted about this. He said, ‘additionally, my friend President Xi said he would stop the sale of fentanyl to the United States. This never happened.’
I wonder if you could give us a bit of a sense of what is going on with fentanyl coming out of China to the United States in the last few months.
DAS Andrews: Thank you for your question, Mr. Ghosh. So, it’s true that we have very little information thus far indicating that the government of China is following through on its May 1st decision to control fentanyl and all of the fentanyl variants in the class. We are looking forward to seeing more enforcement actions in China and a decrease in the flow of deadly fentanyl substances from China into the United States.
As I mentioned, part of the mission, certainly here at the State Department and for my bureau in particular, is to try and save more American lives. So, we will continue to press China to follow through on the promise it made to keep fentanyl out of our communities.
In the past, I would note that China’s control of individual substances has reportedly reduced the availability of those individual substances on U.S. streets. But unfortunately, illicit manufacturers altered their formulas quickly to other uncontrolled fentanyl-like substances. The new controls, the class-wide controls, would make it illegal to do that if they’re properly enforced.
The other thing I would say is that the production and distribution of fentanyl occurs in small quantities that are very different from the trafficking models used for organic opioids. So, therefore it will require strong Chinese enforcement and cooperation with the United States and other global partners to detect and interdict those smaller shipments.
So, basically with our interagency partners, the State Department intends to continue to support technical exchanges and law enforcement partnerships with our Chinese counterparts to make this move by China on the class-wide scheduling of fentanyl as effective as possible.
Moderator: Thank you DAS Andrews. Next, we’ll go to Pearl Matibe from NewsDay Zimbabwe.
Question: My name is Pearl Matibe from NewsDay Zimbabwe, based out of Washington, DC. Thank you so much. I really appreciate this availability.
Zimbabwe’s President said the country had an elephant population of 84,000, but could only cater for 50,000 last May and made $2.7 million from sales of about 90 elephants to China and Dubai. Details of these sales lacked transparency and are always shrouded in mystery. Has INL come across any concerning information on the buyers, numbers, specific destinations, and selling prices over in China and Asia? And considering right now that Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia are looking to make fresh appeals to lift ivory trade restrictions — is INL seeing any illicit manifestations, any threats in Asia, Europe, Middle East and the USA of any of these — the transnational path that originated from these countries? Thank you so much.
DAS Andrews: Thank you for that question, Ms. Matibe. The short answer is yes. We are very focused on this set of challenges, this set of threats, and in fact the U.S. Congress has every year increasingly earmarked funds specifically for us to use to try to combat wildlife trafficking. We’re very committed to working with our partners in Southeast Asia as well as in Africa to counter all the forms of wildlife trafficking including the illicit ivory trade. We know that wildlife trafficking, like narcotics trafficking, brings tremendous profit to criminal organizations and fuels instability throughout these regions.
INL is not an investigative agency. We’re not law enforcement. But we do combat these crimes by helping foreign governments develop more effective law enforcement institutions and can detect and counter wildlife trafficking using training, capacity building, equipment purchases, dog units, all that kind of thing.
Our efforts have included standing up some wildlife detection dog units to help interdiction in Africa and Asia, and as you know, there’s extensive international reporting conducted by intergovernmental organizations like the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime, through their World Wildlife [inaudible] Board, and there’s also extensive NGO reporting that has mapped the flow of illegally taken ivory from Africa to Asia.
Also on ivory, I should say that during my meetings at the ASEAN SOMTC, I discussed the need to enact and fully implement, ivory bans with all of our ASEAN partners during those meetings.
With regard to the sale of live specimens, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] regulates the sale and movement of endangered species, including elephants. So, your question regarding those specific sales are best put to the U.S. CITES authority which is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Another note there, I had a chance to essentially view a training being offered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service colleagues in the Philippines, I want to say, when I was there that last week. So I know that our official wildlife service colleagues are out and about in the region trying to help their counterparts in all the countries that are affected by wildlife trafficking. Thanks again for your question.
Moderator: Thank you, DAS Andrews. Next we have Giff Johnson from the Marshall Islands Journal.
Question: Hi, this is Giff Johnson, Editor of the Marshall Islands Journal in Majuro. Thanks for your briefing.
My question is to do with the fact that we regularly see large, professionally packaged, cocaine wash up in the Marshall Islands on various islands. There’s been one as recently as late last year that had about 100 pounds worth.
Do you see these North Pacific islands as an actual point of transfer in the drug trade? And secondly, which direction do you think drugs are mostly moving in? Are they going from South America into Asia and Australia? Or vice versa?
DAS Andrews: Thank you, Mr. Johnson. Actually that’s one of the better questions that can be asked right now. I think the answer is drugs are moving in all directions, everywhere. One of the things that we are detecting is that as the world has become increasingly globalized and continues to shrink with the availability of truly international logistics hubs and shipping services and things, we’re seeing a proliferation of the routes and the trafficking patterns and the directions in which drugs of all types are flowing.
When I was in the region last week and the week before, I had a chance to discuss the new trends with counterparts in the Philippines and elsewhere, and in terms of shipments of cocaine being found in the region, particularly washing up on beaches and floating in the ocean, there are some differing opinions. At least one expert maintains that if you look at the prevailing tides or the currents, that many of the Pacific islands are in the path of the prevailing east to west currents, so that drugs lost off the shore of South America could conceivably end up eventually in the waters and on the beaches of some of the Pacific islands. Others maintain that islands and other maritime countries in Southeast Asia are becoming transit points that drug traffickers are bringing shipments by boat across. And that some of that product ends up in the sea either because they’re being detected or because that’s how they hand off to someone using a satellite transponder beacon or something.
So, the short answer is we don’t yet fully know, don’t have the cocaine traffic mapped. That’s a more recent phenomenon. But it would be surprising if those who produce and traffic cocaine were not looking to find new markets for their product, just as those who traffic heroin or fentanyl or meth are doing the same in all directions.
So one of the challenges we face as a government is we have to close all these gaps and seams and catch up to the traffickers’ exploitation of all these tools of a globalized world. And it requires that we, the governments, coordinate and share information faster than ever so that we can stop this trafficking activity. But it’s a challenge because it’s proliferating, kind of, in all directions simultaneously.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Thuan Nguyen from Zing News in Vietnam.
Question: Hi, Mr. Andrews. I’d just like to get a quick thought on some aspects of the issues that you have mentioned before. First, with the fentanyl. Do you think that Southeast Asia might be moving toward fentanyl, like how the U.S. has suffered from the opioid epidemic mostly caused by fentanyl?
Second, the trafficking is still partly by the huge demand in Japan and Australia and New Zealand, those countries — so what’s your thought on how you can tackle the demand there?
Finally, do you think that cocaine organized crime groups and wildlife trafficking groups, do they intermingle? Like do they [inaudible] money [inaudible] investing in other products to make more money? What’s your thought on that? Thank you.
DAS Andrews: Thank you for those questions, Mr. Nguyen. Each one of those questions could probably merit an hour discussion or more, but basically what I would say to you is that fentanyl, like a lot of the other synthetic opioids is so cheap and easy to produce, and the profit margins are so tremendous for the traffickers, that it’s hard to imagine that there’s a country anywhere that won’t eventually be affected by these powerful new synthetic opiates and other synthetic drugs, non-opiates. The most worrisome thing is that they are so potent and so lethal that they get cut with other substances and other drugs and users don’t realize what they’re taking, and they can’t control the dosage and it’s easy to die from overdose.
So our message to all of our friends and partners in all of the countries with whom we work is that we all collectively need to watch out. We need to share best practices, share information, and help each other with interdiction, but also help each other with drug demand reduction. The more that we can do to help our citizens get the medical treatment they need, to leave their addictions behind, the more we can put in place programs that encourage particularly young people not to start taking drugs. These are important programs that I know are engaged throughout the Asian region as well as other parts of the world, with over 90 countries where we were. So yes, we should all be watching for the pattern of synthetic drugs like fentanyl to be moving.
On trafficking being fueled by demand in Japan, Australia, New Zealand. It’s true, the countries that are relatively more affluent tend to be the most desirable markets because the prices tend to be higher. So the drug traffickers try to get their product to their market that will pay the most. That’s why we work very closely with our colleagues and our allies in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, to help them understand and manage the flows of the narcotics to protect their citizens. Because we face very similar threats with the drugs that are being trafficked to the United States.
And your final question on cocaine groups expanding to other areas, other drugs — I think the common denominator for all of the transnational organized crime groups and narcotics trafficking groups, drug trafficking groups is that they’re very opportunistic. If they can make money, they will. A group that has figured out how to traffic drugs can use the same trafficking network to traffic humans, to traffic people as well as wildlife products and wildlife, or any other illicit substance.
So, we try to encourage all of our partners to build the institutional capability to investigate and take down the criminal networks because that’s the best way to solve all the forms of trafficking and to stop all the harm and damage that they do to our societies. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, DAS Andrews. We’ll have time for two more questions. We’ll go to Andreo Calonzo next, from Bloomberg News; and after that we’ll go to Rachel Thompson.
Question: Hi, I’m from Manila. I’m Andreo from Bloomberg. I just wanted to ask what is your assessment so far of our President, President Duterte’s efforts against illegal drugs, particularly meth? Has it made any impact at all in the global supply chain?
Also, you mentioned discussions with Philippines officials a while ago. What have you conveyed to them in terms of suppressing the flow of illegal drugs from our part of the world? Thank you very much.
DAS Andrews: I’m sorry. Can you repeat your questions? I’m sorry.
Question: Okay. So first, your assessment of the Philippine effort against drugs, particularly [inaudible] by President Duterte.
And then what have you conveyed to your Philippines counterparts? You mentioned discussions awhile ago, so what were your suggestions to them regarding their efforts against illegal drugs, particularly meth? Thank you.
DAS Andrews: Thank you. Essentially I know the [INL] program in the Philippines focuses on building maritime law enforcement capacity as well as improving drug prevention and treatment services and justice sector reform, professional development of law enforcement and justice sector personnel, and strengthening the rule of law, including respect for human rights.
The United States has discussed its concerns about the way in which the Philippines is prosecuting its drug war, and we’ve raised those concerns on multiple occasions directly with our Philippine government counterparts, including at the recent bilateral strategic dialogue in the Philippines in which I participated. And we will continue to raise our concerns.
The United States remains committed to advancing the cause of human rights. We desire to work with all of our allies and partners on this critical objective that reflects America’s values and our commitment to freedoms.
As to your question about what we conveyed to our Philippine counterparts, our opportunity to meet with them — first of all, I chaired within that bilateral strategic dialogue, I chaired the working group on rule of law and law enforcement reform. So we spent some time talking about our criminal justice sector engagement. We talked about criminal law reform. Reforms in how criminal law enforcement happens. Investigation methods, prosecution. We talked about our criminal justice sector programs together, enhancing the training of prosecutors, improving methods for case management and development and promoting interagency cooperation. We talked a little bit about legal aid. How can we do more capacity building and enhancement of legal aid services provided by law schools and law students so that more Filipino citizens have better access to justice. And then we talked about some law enforcement professionalization issues, like capacity building and skills enhancement for some of the law enforcement agencies in the Philippines.
On counternarcotics, our conversation was limited to three topics. We talked about transnational interdiction – basically, how the Philippines works with its neighbors and other international partners to interdict drugs transnationally. We talked about demand reduction efforts, how to reduce drug demand. And we explored avenues for U.S. support.
On maritime security cooperation, we talked about how the Philippines can better counter illegal and unreported and unregulated fishing, or IUU fishing. We talked about how we can work together to counter maritime trafficking. And we focused quite a bit on institutional development. INL sponsors collaboration between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Philippine Coast Guard, so we have a robust cooperation program to strengthen the capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard.
Finally, we talked about combating transnational crime including counterterrorism, cyber crime, anti-money laundering, trafficking of persons and wildlife trafficking.
That’s kind of a rundown of what the bilateral strategic dialogue covered, particularly the rule of law and law enforcement working group that I chaired. And I think that kind of covers the breadth of our collaboration with the Philippines. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, DAS Andrews. We’ll have time for just one more. It will be Rachel Thompson from Sky News based in Bangkok.
Question: Hello, good morning, good evening. A quick question about the Myanmar, specifically, meth production. It’s long been accused that China and Myanmar are collaborating to turn a blind eye to the amount of meth that’s being produced and then coming into the Golden Triangle area. How confident are you that China and Myanmar are on board with your strategy?
DAS Andrews: That’s a great question. Part of my recent trip, I had a chance while I was in Myanmar to go up to a town called Lashio in Shan State which is in that northeastern part of Myanmar, up toward the Chinese border. So I got to talk with [inaudible] and others first-hand about the challenges of this booming meth production in that region.
I think all parties recognize that that kind of industrial scale production of methamphetamine requires a lot of precursor chemicals. Tons and tons of precursor chemicals. So I don’t think anybody is under illusions about where those chemicals come from. China certainly has a massive chemical pharmaceutical industry and so the regulatory controls almost certainly must be very challenging when the industry is that large. But all the same, there are lots of things, I think, that the Chinese could be doing and that Myanmar could be doing.
We are actively working with our Myanmar counterparts to help them build their capacity to detect those precursors and finished drugs that might come across the border and to interdict precursors and meth that’s produced on Myanmar’s territory.
So it’s a terribly challenging thing. Borders in that region are notoriously porous and resources are scarce. So, the police and other law enforcement entities and custom and border authorities have many, many needs. We are actively working with our Myanmar counterparts and colleagues to try to address some of those needs and get them some of the tools so that they can better defend their sovereignty, their independence, and their borders, and put a dent in some of that trafficking.
It’s a thorny challenge, though. It’s one of the larger production areas right now of drugs in the world.
Moderator: Thank you, DAS Andrews. We’re going to wrap up the call. Do you have any closing remarks?
DAS Andrews: I’ll just say to the group that the topics we’ve been talking about today are part of an interlocking set of challenges. I think that globally, we’re finding transnational criminal organizations and insurgent groups and terrorist groups that are all taking advantage of places that are relatively less governed. They look for places where the governance is weak, or they exploit gaps and seams in governance, either within states or among states. And, wherever they can find a welcome environment, they establish themselves and they engage in multiple lines of business to make as much profit as they can.
And so, as I alluded to earlier, the job of the governments and for myself, coming from a security assistance provider, our job is to help as many of our partners as possible develop stronger, more effective, more trustworthy institutions — both in law enforcement and the justice sector, to counteract what these criminal groups are doing. It’s a massive challenge, it requires a lot of coordination, and eventually, the governments must adapt the tools of a globalized world to close the spaces where the criminals operate. So, thanks again to everybody for participating, and thank you for your excellent questions.