Popularised by the TV series, methamphetamine has insidiously taken hold in Switzerland. Once known as the poor man’s cocaine, the drug now sells for 500 francs. UNIL investigates this phenomenon and the threat it poses.
The TV series Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a small-time chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Suffering from cancer, Walter decides to manufacture crystal meth to ensure his pregnant wife and disabled son are financially secure. The series is a reworking of the American saga of a good daddy – Walt – who is transformed into Heisenberg, king of quality methamphetamine.
Millions of TV viewers became seriously addicted to the five-season series of Breaking Bad, moving from pitying the poor, sick family-man-turned-psychopath to hating him, and anxious to know what fate the screenwriters had reserved for him. Crystal meth, like the series, is extremely addictive. This synthetic drug turns first-time users into addicts and ordinary men and women into aggressive strung-out thieves. It takes a lot of money to consume one 500-franc gram of meth several times a day.
This scourge is now taking hold in Switzerland, not spreading like wildfire but gradually making its presence felt, while the Swiss Confederation remains unruffled. “Methamphetamine is not a matter of interest for Switzerland, as at present only the northeast of the country is affected,” explains Olivier Guéniat, lecturer at the School of Criminal Justice, UNIL Faculty of Law, Criminal Justice and Public Administration, head of the Neuchâtel criminal investigations department and member of the Swiss Federal Commission for Drug Issues. “But I am sounding a warning because, in my view, it’s an obvious ticking time bomb. When the number of addicts recorded by Neuchâtel police increases from 20 to 1200 in a few years and when, of these, 200 to 300 remain severely dependent, there’s reason to worry.” Examining this phenomenon plunges us, like the researchers at UNIL, into a world as discreet as it is devastating.
Methamphetamine is basically a product of war, invented in Japan and used by armies during conflict. Pilots and soldiers take it to remain alert and effective, as it prevents sleep. “Daesh fighters, for example, take methamphetamine, more specifically the amphetamine-derived Captagon” points out Olivier Guéniat. “It’s not high quality but it is a powerful stimulant.”
Meth is currently available in three forms – as crystal, as manufactured by Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad; as powder, distributed mainly via the Darknet, or Tor network, a web supermarket that facilitates the wholly anonymous purchase of arms and false papers or hire of contract killers and where sellers receive scores and comments similar to TripAdvisor; lastly, as pills known as Thai pills. Also called yaba, these orange or green tablets stamped with WY smell of vanilla and comprise between 10 mg and 30 mg of methamphetamine per 100 mg, to which is added caffeine and psychoactive substances. Those most addicted consume up to 20 a day. It is in pill-form that the meth invasion began in northeast Switzerland in the mid 1990s.
“This period marked the introduction of Thai massage parlours to Neuchâtel” explains Olivier Guéniat. “The prostitutes arrived as addicts and meth was distributed only in their circles. Most of these women married Swiss nationals while already married in Asia. They then divorced their Swiss spouses and brought over their Thai drug-addict husbands and families. Sex work enabled them to promote and open new massage parlours with other prostitutes. The meth network was therefore gradually established through the pimps.” In Neuchâtel, Thai pills sell today for between 20 and 40 francs each.
Switzerland has no trigger-happy Mexican godfather, as in the American series, but a discreet and extremely well organised Thai mafia instead. “These organisations have proved an enormous barrier because they were introduced and spread from Asia and were very mistrustful,” notes the criminologist. “Telephone taps produced nothing comprehensible due to the codes used in Thai. The traffickers had acronyms to designate the respect shown in terms of each other’s place in the organisation’s hierarchy.” In the end, in what was known as the Dao case, the police nevertheless managed to arrest a pimp who, over fifteen years, had built up an empire spread across eleven cantons. It was a classic, sad tale: a Swiss national set off to ‘sample’ Thailand, fell in love in a massage parlour and got married in Switzerland. His new wife left him shortly afterwards, began sex work, established a string of massage parlours and brought her Thai husband over to Switzerland. As well as prostitution and renting out properties to her employees, the businesswoman earned three francs per pill. “This woman was bringing over the pills using the prostitutes as go-betweens. Each Thai woman was carrying over a thousand pills in her suitcase. Smelling only of vanilla, the pills remain virtually undetectable. In each of her thirty parlours, the businesswoman was employing four or five prostitutes, who changed over every three months for visa reasons. It’s a highly lucrative, mule-running racket.”
Often the madam owns the ‘SME’ and her second-generation children organise the trafficking. This is nothing like Breaking Bad and its links between a chemistry teacher and his former pupil, Jesse Pinkman (actor Aaron Paul), and his band of junkie mates. Right from the outset, it is a serious family business. Everything within the network remains compartmentalised. Whoever delivers the drugs never meets the person receiving them. The merchandise is deposited in a particular location. An hour later, someone comes to pick it up and places the money somewhere else, and then it is collected by a third person. This relationship of trust has turned out to be a real headache for the police. “Because there’s no connection between them, they don’t have relationships which enable us to trace their contacts. It’s a hyper-sophisticated system.”
Twenty second-generation Thais – that is young Thais born in Switzerland – set up business in Neuchâtel on the techno scene and at Love Zoo in particular. This nightclub was attracting clubbers from across Switzerland at the end of the 1990s. “Basically it was ecstasy that was mostly available there” recounts Olivier Guéniat. “The group seized the opportunity to sell meth and very quickly hooked 40 to 50 people. Today 1200 Neuchâtel residents have been recorded by the police as affected and are uniquely characterised as missing out on the system of prevention, harm reduction and therapy. Those taking the drug do not consult because they are from a particular socioprofessional background, until, that is, they become seriously addicted and lose their job. In addition, unlike methadone for heroin, no substitute for meth exists.”
The high level of addiction among tweakers, or methamphetamine addicts, drives them to prostitution, burglary, general criminality and stealing bikes in particular. Northeast Switzerland, which remains the area most affected by meth, has the highest rate of bicycle theft in the country. As a result of the democratisation of two wheels and their higher cost, the traffic in stolen bikes is highly profitable and has reached epidemic proportions. Olivier Guéniat cites the example of a chemist – a user and not a manufacturer like Walter White – who was earning 10,000 francs per month but was spending 15,000 on Thai pills. Having lost everything, he began to steal bikes, more than 100 of them in a few months.
“The police arrested a team of drug addicts who were selling on bikes over the Internet to those living near the border, making the buyers come to Switzerland to pick them up. The merchandise is offered at 10% of the normal price, which is very attractive and still lucrative. Some bikes cost up to 9,000 francs new and so are sold for 900 francs. As the chassis no longer bears a number and there is no other record, this traffic cannot be controlled at the border. Entire containers of bikes are therefore shipped off around Europe via the Rhine.”
From exploding camper vans to covert labs
In the TV series, the ‘heroes’ Jesse and Walt launch their career producing crystal meth in a camper van in the middle of the desert, until the clumsy young junkie blows up the vehicle. The criminologist describes this as a Dutch-style scenario. “The Dutch actually use camper vans for producing synthetic drugs. And it’s precisely because they blow up that they are found out.”
In Switzerland, some presses that were being used to make inferior quality pills have been discovered in cellars and garages. “Drug-users receive the powdered methamphetamine via the Darknet. As it cannot be smoked, they also order machines to manufacture pills. They mix the powder with lactose so as to press the lot and resell it at 120 francs per gram instead of 500. This enables them to make a bit of money to pay for their own consumption. But this remains anecdotal.” Olivier Guéniat stresses, however, that it is not that simple to make meth. He and his students have tried it out using seized equipment.
“With PhD students, we toiled away to produce ecstasy and methamphetamine. Our aim has been to try several ways of synthesising the drug to pinpoint the impurities. When a particular means of synthesising reveals a particular substance has been used, we can then tell the UN which products should be controlled. In addition, this helps us to pinpoint the source of production, as the profile of the chemical signature of the impurities gives us the identity of the producer.” Even at 99.1% pure – a rare level of excellence – Walter White’s crystal would therefore have enabled us to pick up his trace.
An unequal fight
The majority of meth production is not, however, due to the rigorous work of a chemistry teacher – “very Anglo-American in style” – whether in a camper van or high-tech lab. “Here, access to the products remains complicated, as it is strictly controlled. Everything is weighed, inspected.” Ephedra helvetica, a plant from which ephedrine is extracted and a precursor to the manufacture of meth, is nevertheless to be found growing in Switzerland. “It is protected and used to prepare remedies. In theory the drug could be made from it, but it remains too expensive in Switzerland.”
Thai pills are therefore manufactured in Asia. “Methamphetamine completely replaced heroin in Thailand in the 1990s when addiction peaked, completely reversing the situation that had previously existed for morphine, opium and heroin,” notes Olivier Guéniat. “At that time the major production sites of the Golden Triangle – Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – were replaced by laboratories controlled by armed factions that were much harder for government forces to uncover. It’s impossible to know what’s going on there now and who exactly the manufacturers are. Millions of pills are produced today with no visible evidence.”
As for crystal meth, it comes from the Czech Republic. However it is not being produced by a Walter White (who decides at the end of the series to move his production there). In fact it is the Vietnamese mafia who manufacture it on site using expertise acquired in their home country. “They export 70 tonnes of their output to Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Finland and now Switzerland. Set up in cellars, disused warehouses and garages, their laboratories are extremely dirty. And the precursor products used are not of the quality seen in Breaking Bad. Their profit margins remain lower but they do not care. Methamphetamine production is currently coming dangerously close to Switzerland by invading Germany. This is noticeable in waste-water analysis.”
Olivier Guéniat deplores the fact that there is no organised monitoring system in Switzerland. The reason for this is that it is a matter for the cantons, which are all autonomous. A force of 900 police officers is working in Switzerland to combat drug trafficking. When one organisation is caught, unfortunately “it’s a drop, not in the ocean, but in a bathtub,” remarks Olivier Guéniat ironically. “We are fighting barely 3% of the real market. The remaining 97% is constrained but nonetheless free to carry on. As long as the issue of drugs remains a matter for the cantons, the mafias will continue their work. The tree is bearing up: when a branch is lopped off, the tree feels no pain.”