Photos: High up in Laos’ mountains, opium and meth run rampant

Wedged between five countries, Laos has for decades played a starring role in the "Golden Triangle" drug trade. Its opium became a treasured export in the 1960s and 70s as heroin hit the streets of America and drug money became entwined in the US's anti-communist fight. Opium production in the region has since seen a steady rise over the years with 14,000 acres of land estimated to be under cultivation in 2015. While United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is fighting the trade with coffee plantations as an alternative cash crop, Laos’ also battles methamphetamine — a trade run by global drug lords.

Updated On Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST 7 Photos
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In a hut on the top of mountain in northern Laos, Vo Pali gets high on opium, a sap extracted from poppies grown illegally by the poor hill tribes. “It has damaged my life. I have no income. But I get sick without it,” the 60-year-old ethnic Hmong villager said in a barely audible rasp of his 30-year habit. The Hmong have grown and smoked opium as a medicine -- and as recreation -- for generations. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

In a hut on the top of mountain in northern Laos, Vo Pali gets high on opium, a sap extracted from poppies grown illegally by the poor hill tribes. “It has damaged my life. I have no income. But I get sick without it,” the 60-year-old ethnic Hmong villager said in a barely audible rasp of his 30-year habit. The Hmong have grown and smoked opium as a medicine -- and as recreation -- for generations. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Updated on Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST
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Children belonging to the Hmong tribe pose for a photograph at a coffee plantation. Laos was meant to go opium-free after a 2006 edict by its Communist leadership outlawed the growing of the cash crop. While the campaign made a big dent, hill tribes kept up cultivation in secret for themselves -- and for export, also becoming drug runners for organised crime gangs. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Children belonging to the Hmong tribe pose for a photograph at a coffee plantation. Laos was meant to go opium-free after a 2006 edict by its Communist leadership outlawed the growing of the cash crop. While the campaign made a big dent, hill tribes kept up cultivation in secret for themselves -- and for export, also becoming drug runners for organised crime gangs. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Updated on Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST
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Pieces of opium resin are seen in a plastic bowl. In 2015 around 5,700 hectares of Laos were estimated to be under opium cultivation -- more than triple the amount in 2007. Several major seizures of raw opium and heroin this year in Vietnam couriered by Hmong villagers has renewed scrutiny on the relationship between opium and Laos’ most marginalised people. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Pieces of opium resin are seen in a plastic bowl. In 2015 around 5,700 hectares of Laos were estimated to be under opium cultivation -- more than triple the amount in 2007. Several major seizures of raw opium and heroin this year in Vietnam couriered by Hmong villagers has renewed scrutiny on the relationship between opium and Laos’ most marginalised people. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Updated on Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST
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Onphiuw Khongviengthong, permanent secretary of the LCDC -- the Laos drug control authority told AFP that people living in these remote borders are very poor, and without education or knowledge about the laws, they become easy targets. To change the game, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is leading a coffee cultivation programme across 10 former opium growing villages. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Onphiuw Khongviengthong, permanent secretary of the LCDC -- the Laos drug control authority told AFP that people living in these remote borders are very poor, and without education or knowledge about the laws, they become easy targets. To change the game, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is leading a coffee cultivation programme across 10 former opium growing villages. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Updated on Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST
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Erlend Falch (R) of UNODC said that because these farmers are from poorest areas of the country they only have access to low-value crops and very limited access to markets and technology. The coffee plantation programme is aimed at establishing a “luxury” arabica coffee brand that can reach wealthy markets from the US to Korea and Japan. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Erlend Falch (R) of UNODC said that because these farmers are from poorest areas of the country they only have access to low-value crops and very limited access to markets and technology. The coffee plantation programme is aimed at establishing a “luxury” arabica coffee brand that can reach wealthy markets from the US to Korea and Japan. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Updated on Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST
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Before we had no other option to growing opium,” said Mer Su Vua, a Hmong farmer. The first small commercial crop at his village of Houayyarm is expected at the tail end of this year. Incomes are expected to rise each year as farmers grow, process and sell their crop to the market, cutting out the middlemen who have historically controlled the prices of their produce. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Before we had no other option to growing opium,” said Mer Su Vua, a Hmong farmer. The first small commercial crop at his village of Houayyarm is expected at the tail end of this year. Incomes are expected to rise each year as farmers grow, process and sell their crop to the market, cutting out the middlemen who have historically controlled the prices of their produce. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Updated on Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST
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But Laos’ more urgent drug problem is with methamphetamine. With ungovernable land borders to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Cambodia, Laos is effectively a free run for the meth barons of Myanmar. While there have been successes in taking down some high profile drug gangs, Zhao Wei alleged for running a regional criminal enterprise still remains untouchable. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

But Laos’ more urgent drug problem is with methamphetamine. With ungovernable land borders to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Cambodia, Laos is effectively a free run for the meth barons of Myanmar. While there have been successes in taking down some high profile drug gangs, Zhao Wei alleged for running a regional criminal enterprise still remains untouchable. (Aidan Jones / AFP)

Updated on Sep 10, 2018 10:34 AM IST
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