Police inspect the seized crystal meth, or “ice,” in Boshe Village in the city of Lufeng, south China’s Guangdong province. (Xinhua-Yonhap News)
In the murky, pre-dawn light early on Dec. 29, more than 3,000 officers, including armed police and frontier guards, embarked on the biggest drug raid in the history of Guangdong province.
Supported by speedboats and helicopters, the raiding party headed for its target ― the small coastal village of Boshe, which has gained nationwide notoriety as a center for the production of methamphetamine, usually known as crystal meth, or ice.
The drug has become increasingly popular among young people in urban areas, with a sharp fall in price in recent years increasing its use.
Shenzhen Evening News reported that suppliers were paying 20,000 yuan ($3,300) to 30,000 yuan per kg in the second half of last year.
Police had to be careful though, because the village had been turned into a fortress by residents armed with machine guns and hand grenades who had been making and distributing the drug for decades.
The raid resulted in the seizure of approximately 3 metric tons of the drug and 23 tons of raw materials. In addition, 182 people were arrested, including 14 local Party officials.
More than a week after the officers moved in, a heavy police presence was still visible and the buildings were draped with bright red banners bearing anti-drug slogans.
Around 20 percent of the families in the village were directly involved in drug-related activities or had a financial interest in the trade, according to Qiu Wei, political commissar of the Narcotics Control Bureau of Guangdong’s Public Security Bureau.
With the Party chief acting as the main drug lord and police cars used for transporting the drug, thereby proving an almost cast-iron guarantee of protection, it’s little wonder that many of the 14,000 residents also wanted a piece of the action.
A further three police officers are under investigation after allegations that they provided protection for the drug ring, while a drug enforcement officer was removed from his post soon after the raid because of his connections with Cai Dongjia, the former Party chief of the village and primary target of the raid. Cai is now in police custody, and the village committee office was empty on Monday.
For the villagers, all of whom carry the surname “Cai,” life has begun to return to normal with shops reopening and construction work resuming.
Few locals were willing to discuss the raid.
“Production of meth polluted the soil and water in the village. That forced many people to abandon farming and to find other kinds of work,” said one local in his 40s, who declined to give his name. “I hope the economy in the village can recover once the drug dealers have all gone.”
Local geography conspired to help the gang make the isolated village a production center and fortress. Covering an area of 0.54 square kilometers, Boshe is surrounded by seemingly endless lychee forests to the north, while vast tracts of open farmland stretch out to the east and west. The South China Sea dominates the area to the south.
Most of the 2,026 houses are bungalows, set close together, and, apart from two roads wide enough for vehicle traffic, the village is crisscrossed by winding, narrow dirt tracks accessible only by foot, tricycle or motorcycle.
“Because of the low agricultural yields, the farmers were eager to find a fast, easy way to make money. In the 1990s, smuggling was a serious problem in the village. Low awareness of the law and the lure of easy profits prompted many villagers to turn to the production and sale of drugs,” Lin Jiachun, director of the Narcotics Office in Lufeng, told Guangdong-based Yangcheng Evening News.
Compared with the huge profits on offer, the penalties for being caught weren’t severe enough to dissuade villagers from entering the drug trade, according to Lin. With the exception of 20 drug traffickers who were executed in 2004, only one other case, three years later, has resulted in the death penalty being handed down.
Besides the special geographic conditions, the fact that the trade was effectively a family business gave the dealers a high level of security, providing a major stumbling block for the authorities, who found it difficult to obtain information or gain access.
A media statement released by the Guangdong police on Thursday said the production and distribution of crystal meth was the pillar industry of the village. There was a clear division of labor, with some villagers responsible for production, while other procured the raw materials or rented ships and other transport for the distribution of the drugs. Families even borrowed drugs from each another when supplies for clients ran low.
The statement also said that lookouts were posted in the village and the surrounding areas, while corrupt local officials provided information about raids. Whenever a raid commenced, the villagers were tipped off via brief, coded messages, such as “Look out ― it’s going to rain!”
“Previous attempts to raid the village were countered by defiant villagers who blocked the roads, intercepted and effectively kidnapped officers, and pelted them and their vehicles with heavy rocks. Sometimes the villagers were armed with replica AK-47s and hand grenades,” said Qiu when asked why the police took so long to raid a village that has long been notorious for the production of illegal drugs.
China Central Television quoted Qiu as saying that conditions in the village were also far more serious than police had realized. He pledged that more raids will be carried out across the region.
Lan Weihong, an official with the Ministry of Public Security’s narcotics division, told CCTV, “after the raid, one of the important things we have to do is work with the local discipline inspection commission and procurator to deal with those who acted as protective umbrellas,” referring to the officials who alerted the villagers to potential action by the authorities.
Village cadres must have been heavily involved with the gang and provided protection, otherwise the situation could never have become so serious. Cai Dongjia, for example, is not only the village Party chief, but also a deputy member of the People’s Congresses of Shanwei and Lufeng, a county-level city under the administration of Shanwei.
The police said Cai’s extensive network of official connections meant he was able to obtain the release of almost every gang member arrested by the authorities.
However, Boshe wasn’t the only meth production centre in the locality, and the drug has gained a reputation as a specialty product of many villages in Lufeng, which in 1999 and 2011 was listed by the Ministry of Public Security,s narcotics control bureau as one of China’s key drug production areas.
After the December 29 raid, the authorities raided a further five villages in Lufeng that were known to be centres of drug production. Two meth labs were destroyed and all the raw materials were impounded, according to Guangdong police.
From the 1980s onward, heroin was the major illegal drug across China, but during the past decade the production and use of ”ice“ has become an increasingly pressing problem.
In 1999, the world,s largest seizure of crystal meth was made in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong. A gang had manufactured 12.36 tons of the drug at an insecticide factory in the northwest of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region from January to October 1998 before transporting
the bulk of it to Guangzhou. The following July, 11.08 tons of crystal meth - equal to the entire amount seized globally in 1998 - were discovered in a warehouse in the city.
By the end of last year, there were more than 2 million registered drug users in China, with 29 per cent of them using amphetamine-type narcotics, according to the National Narcotics Control Commission. In 2008, amphetamine users accounted for 9 per cent.
”Compared with heroin, which has a more direct and obvious impact on health, addiction to meth appears less severe and the body doesn’t show changes as quickly. An increasing number of people, especially among the younger generation, seem to regard it as being akin to smoking or drinking and see it as a way to socialize,“ said Li Wenjun, an associate professor of drug prohibition studies at the People,s Public Security University of China.
However, the social impact of the drug could be far greater than that of heroin, said Chen Shuaifeng, a drug expert and a colleague of Li’s at the university. ”The number of drug-related cases, such as fatal traffic accidents, has risen sharply in the past few years,“ he said.
While most of the heroin found in China originates in the Golden Triangle, the world,s biggest drug producing region which overlaps the mountainous border regions of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, the production of meth is rampant in many areas of China, most notably the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Sichuan, he added.
Li said recent technological upgrades have resulted in a rapid decline in production costs and crystal meth is now a highly profitable business venture.
”I’m not really surprised by this case, though, especially compared with the one in 1999. So far, only a very small part of a nationwide problem has been uncovered,“ she said.
By Cui jia, He Na, Tang Yue and Zheng Caixiong