Thailand and Malaysia are top markets for "yaba" tablets, or methamphetamine mixed with caffeine
Thai police swooped on the home of a popular actress as part of a series of Bangkok raids Thursday, in a widening probe into the celebrity and business links of an alleged Laos drug lord.
Investigators say elite contacts may have helped shield the narcotics cartel of Laotian Xaysana Keopimpha, dubbed by police as an "international drug kingpin", who was nabbed last month in a dramatic arrest at Bangkok's main airport.
Squads of officers staged more than a dozen raids in the capital Bangkok Thursday, including on the apartment of TV actress and talk show host Napapa Thantrakul.
She is not currently being treated as a suspect but police believe her husband had accepted several cars from one of Xaysana's drug couriers, including a Lamborghini.
Thai authorities say 42-year-old Xaysana's sprawling drug empire funnelled meth produced in Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia, two top markets for the popular caffeine-laced meth tablets known as "yaba" -- a name that translates to crazy medicine.
According to Thai police, Bangkok and its surrounding suburbs offered crucial hideaways and protection for the drug syndicate, with high-end car dealers and celebrities helping to launder Xaysana's profits.
- High society -
"Xaysana's network includes several groups, particularly hi-so figures, entertainment operators and luxury car dealers," said Sommai Kongvisaisuk, commander of Thailand's Narcotic Suppression Bureau.
The term 'hi-so', from the English phrase high society, is routinely used by Thais to describe wealthy people, including some celebrities, with powerful links who are often seen as untouchable.
Authorities said Napapa's husband Akkarakit Worrarojcharoendej, known as "Benz", fled town early this morning before police arrived at his home and motorcycle repair shop.
"We are searching to compile evidence and links and also scrutinise their assets, bank accounts, cars," Pornchai Charoenwong, deputy commander of the Narcotic Suppression Bureau, told reporters of Thursday's raids.
Thai police have already arrested six suspects accused of working for the crime boss, including three ethnic Hmong men in northeastern Thailand.
They allegedly helped move drugs manufactured in the "Golden Triangle" -- a lawless border region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet.
Rampant corruption across all three countries has allowed the lucrative drug trade to flourish, with Thai police staging frequent drug seizures but rarely catching cartel leaders.
Laos' opaque authoritarian communist regime has also turned the insular country into a sanctuary for both drug and wildlife traffickers fleeing more aggressive policing in Thailand.
The head of Thailand's Narcotics Control Board said Xaysana lived an extravagant lifestyle in Laos -- one of the Asia's poorest nations.
"He is a celebrity in Laos and used businesses such as hotels and luxury car sales as a cover up," explained Sirinya Sitdhichai.
A photo of the suspected crime boss posing with relatives of a former Lao prime minister raised eyebrows after it surfaced shortly after his arrest.
The ex-premier's daughter-in-law later told Radio Free Asia the photo was taken "by accident" and that Xaysana was only a casual acquaintance seen "occasionally at parties or at weddings".
Thai police say Xaysana also threw parties in Bangkok to cultivate his ties with celebrities and other bigwigs.
Officers remain tight-lipped on which other high-profile Thais may be involved, but suggest more drama is yet to come.
"The next operation may be 100 times more exciting than this," Sommai told reporters after Thursday's raids.