A major Laos drug lord dubbed 'Mr X' was jailed for life on Tuesday by a Bangkok court, as Thailand battles record meth trafficking through its borders.
Xaysana Keopimpha, a swaggering Laotian who before his arrest paraded his celebrity links and penchant for sports cars on social media, was picked up at Bangkok's main airport in January last year.
He was accused of being a kingpin in a meth smuggling ring that funnelled tonnes of Myanmar made 'yaba' pills and ice (crystal meth) through Communist Laos and into Thailand.
The Laos route south is increasingly used by trafficking gangs keen to reach markets in Thailand, Malaysia and as far as Australia and Japan -- where the price of the drug spikes.
A Bangkok court initially handed Xaysana the death penalty but reduced it to life imprisonment after he admitted several charges of drug smuggling, including over 1.2 million 'yaba' pills in a case dating back to 2016.
"Due to his confession during the investigation process, the court decreases his sentence to life imprisonment," a Criminal Court judge said in his ruling.
Evidence pulled from mobile phones linked Xaysana with a smuggling network that used Nong Khai, the Thai border point with Laos, to move drugs south, the judge added.
Standing handcuffed in his prison uniform, Xaysana did not react as the verdict was delivered. He faces another trial for possession of 3.3 million yaba pills die to start in July.
Details of Xaysana's colourful life unspooled after his arrest last year.
Investigators say he boasted a contacts book stuffed with the rich and powerful, including Thai celebrities, who may have helped shield his narcotics cartel.
Others say he was a middle-man for the shadowy criminals at the apex of the trade who remain unprosecuted.
Xaysana and his networks allegedly helped move drugs manufactured in the "Golden Triangle" -- a lawless border region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet.
Rampant corruption across the zone has allowed the drug trade to flourish.
Record amounts of yaba and the more addictive ice are being seized by Thai police.
But drug experts say the seizures are as much a sign of surging production as improved police work given cartels have easily been able to make up for confiscations and there has been no palpable increase in street prices.
In January a Thai naval patrol seized 11 million meth pills (with an estimated $100 million street value) from traffickers using the Mekong River to move drugs from Laos into Thailand.
Thailand, Vietnam, China and Cambodia are all reporting major meth cases around the border areas with Laos, according to Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific regional representative of the UNODC.
"Lao shares a border with every other country of the Mekong," he told AFP, putting it at the "crossroads... of the regional drug and precursor (chemical) trade."
Laos' opaque authoritarian communist regime has also turned the insular country into a sanctuary for trafficking networks.
"Organized crime take advantage of vulnerabilities, and when they look at Lao they see opportunity," Douglas added.
The highest quality yaba pills (15-20 percent meth purity) come from the factories of the North and South Wa -- armed ethnic groups in a self-governing state on the Myanmar-China border -- and by the Lahu hill tribe.