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China, Neighbors Renew Drug Battle

Trying to stop a booming heroin trade, China and three Southeast Asian neighbors announced an agreement Tuesday to step up cross-border police cooperation.

The pact came after the first meeting of top anti-drug officials of a region where gangs that straddle borders have benefited from lack of coordinated enforcement.

The agreement by China and the countries of the heroin-producing “Golden Triangle” — Myanmar, Laos and Thailand — stops short of letting police from one country operate in another. But it commits them to share information and collaborate in tracking and arresting smugglers.

Trafficking of cheap, abundant Southeast Asian heroin into China -- and to foreign markets beyond -- has boomed in an era of looser Chinese social controls.

Gangs also are branching out into methamphetamines and other manufactured drugs.

The trade has fed growing violence in rugged, hard-to-police border areas. Chinese police say dozens of officers have been killed in gun battles with better-armed smugglers. Health officials say intravenous drug abuse plays a large role in China's spreading AIDS epidemic.

“With this mechanism, we will push drug-control cooperation to a new stage,” said Yang Fengrui, chief anti-drug official of China's police ministry.

The new pact streamlines cross-border action, though police can't simply raid other countries, said Myanmar's representative, Kyaw Thein.

“This agreement will allow law enforcement officials to cross the border on short notice to discuss with their counterparts what they want to do,” said Kyaw Thein, an official of the Defense Ministry of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The pact also promises better cooperation at a political level. Thailand assigned its first anti-narcotics liaison officer to its Beijing embassy this week, according to Rasamee Vistaveth of the country's Narcotics Control Commission.

The officials said they would share information on anti-drug treatment to reduce demand and on switching opium farmers to coffee and other crops.

“We need to have a very comprehensive approach,” said Rasamee. “We should try to introduce programs that we have in Thailand to raise standards of living in drug-producing areas.”

The countries have cooperated on anti-drug efforts on a small scale since the early 1990s.

In border regions between China, Myanmar and Thailand, police in all three countries now use standardized radio equipment, said Kyaw Thein.

Myanmar has carried out arrests at Beijing's request, he said. It has extradited one gang leader back to China and another to Thailand.

Officials said they also would focus on the growing trade in methamphetamines and other manufactured drugs.

China says its police seized 211 tons of imported chemicals meant for drug production in the first half of this year.

“The problem of opium and heroin production ... is shifting to methamphetamine,” said Rasamee.

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