Rangers Combat Traffickers in the Jungle


“Now this is the Law of the Jungle…be silent and wake not the woods.” Rudyard Kipling

Precursor control is at the heart of the international effort to control drug abuse. Plant based safrole oil is a primary precursor for the production of MDMA, a recreational drug market that has grown in popularity since the 1990s. Safrole is prime material for precursors isosafrole, piperonal, and piperonyl acetone. Safrole derives from the majestic Cinnamon tree species of Asia. Criminal gangs and trafficking networks in turn target these 20-30 meter tall trees which reside in nationally protected forests.


The 2014 UNODC World Drug Report indicates that “ATS, excluding “ecstasy”, constitute the second most commonly used group of illicit substances worldwide, with13.9 million to 54.8 million estimated users”(49).  In June 2008, the Australian Federal Police and Thai Forest Rangers acted jointly to interdict some 1278 drums of sassafras or safrole oil. Authorities estimated that this large seizure prevented the production of 245 million MDMA pills.


One large cinnamon tree in a rain forest produces a drum of oil. But the forest destruction does not stop here: The oil extraction process is by steam distillation which requires the cutting of an additional 5-10 large growth trees to fire the stills. The danger to protected forests is real. And the protection of vulnerable lands is an everyday task for law enforcement rangers in Asia.


Among the many tools used to protect these natural resources from criminal attack is manned airborne surveillance. Manned airborne surveillance (MAS) is very effective for detecting illegal distilleries in rainforests and monsoon jungles. Fixed-wing manned airborne assets provide stand-off surveillance and enable us to hold triggers and reduce team exposure on the ground. MAS may allow for long surveillance follows and further reduce ground team exposure.  The MAS officer can also act as control station or rebroadcast platform in poor communication as with the Golden Triangle region.


Low-level source operations which rely on the local knowledge and expertise of indigenous law enforcement can be exceedingly effective. Their familiarity with local farmers, drug users, and drug traders cannot be underestimated. Source operations can reveal trafficker identities, pattern-of-life, tactics and techniques, jungle craft and cultural factors important to mission success.

The use and emplacement of technical surveillance options from ground sensors to the intercept, geolocation, and exploitation of trafficker command & control communications at the lowest level of a smuggling operation are also key to successful interdiction.


Patrolling and tracking operations used to identify and interdict smuggling networks are the bread and butter of Ranger units throughout Asia . Many of the smuggling networks, routes, and rat-lines used for safrole smuggling were developed over decades for opiates and other contraband. These routes are not easily discovered and the task is difficult but not insurmountable. Stop and listen often.


Searching for and finding the adversary here can be exhausting. Trees in tropical canopied rainforests and monsoon jungles severely reduce visibility to twilight like conditions in daytime. When working against a hardened adversary in tropical areas, movement to contact is slow, stealthy and silent to preserve security. Be patient.


Specialized training for tropical environments is a requirement as everything is affected by jungle terrain and climate to include your tactics. Remember that the interdiction of armed traffickers has often turned violent. In Thailand alone, over 40 rangers have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty since 2009.

About the Author: Aaron Cunningham is the acting President of ITTA

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