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Narcotics Kingpin Backs New River Port in Laos' Golden Triangle

zhao wei
New construction at Zhao Wei's Kings Romans Casino, Laos (Jeremy Douglas ./ UNODC)

By Ankur Kundu 12-13-2020 08:03:00

Far away in Laos, October 6 marked a new beginning for the country’s port sector. The Vientiane Times, a prominent state-run newspaper, published news of a $50 million investment to build a port in the Laotian town of Ban Mom. According to the outlet, a businessman named Zhao Wei participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the project.

Zhao Wei is one of the world's most notorious narcotics traffickers. The U.S. Treasury Department accuses Zhao of running a global criminal organization involved in child prostitution, the illicit trade of wildlife and drug trafficking. The entirety of these illicit activities are carried out from Laos by Zhao himself.

Kings Romans, a Hong-Kong based company owned by Zhao that is primarily involved in gambling in Macau, owns a 100-square-kilometer swathe of land in the country's northwest, called the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ). The area takes its name from the historical lawless border region where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. Before Afghanistan managed to topple its pole position, the Golden Triangle was the world's largest source of heroin. Today, this region pumps out tens of billions of dollars worth of synthetic drugs annually, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Both Zhao and Kings Romans were sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for their purported role in the narcotics trade and other alleged crimes.

As of now, the GTSEZ's main attraction is a grand casino owned by Zhao. But there are plans for massive expansion for the region already into place.

Zhao's exact role in the new port, which is about 12 miles upriver from the casino, isn't known. But the fact that he attended the groundbreaking ceremony alongside a Laotian deputy prime minister and the provincial government has caught the attention of law enforcement and government officials outside the country.

Jeremy Douglas, the Southeast Asia representative for UNODC, worries that any involvement by the alleged drug kingpin could increase the output and export of synthetic narcotics from the Golden Triangle. That's especially worrying, considering that drug smugglers appear to be increasingly using Laos as a synthetic narcotics trafficking corridor.