In what is described as the biggest success achieved in Europe so far against smugglers of illegal "Thai pills", Swiss police have arrested more than 100 people in a sweeping drug enforcement operation.
Authorities also seized 450,000 Thai pills, which resemble the drug ecstasy, but are cheaper and have an effect that lasts longer - up to eight hours. Police said the high risk of dependence, and the damaging physical and psychological effects make the Thai pills extremely dangerous.
The long-planned international enforcement operation began in 1999, and involved the police forces of 16 cantons as well as two federal agencies - the Federal Office for Police and the Federal Customs Administration. Police in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Thailand also cooperated in the investigation.
At a news conference in Bern on Tuesday, police showed how items such as stuffed animals, clothing, food, musical instruments, cosmetics or soap powder were used to conceal the pills during shipment.
Police said the drug ring was using Switzerland as a test market for the potent Thai pills as well as a distribution point for shipments to neighbouring countries. Switzerland was an ideal test market because of its large Asian community, its location in the middle of Europe and the short distances to its borders, police said.
The operation, codenamed WY, after the two initials printed on Thai pills, resulted in the arrest of 102 people, including about 20 Swiss. Most of those arrested were Asian.
Drug price climbs
Dieter Stüssi of the Federal Criminal Police praised the success of the operation, but said it was far from a deathblow.
"We haven't killed these activities, but we have destroyed a very important branch," he told swissinfo. "We can see this by price developments. First, we had a price of SFr15, SFr20 (per pill). And after our operation the price went up three times higher."
Currently, Thai pills are produced solely in Southeast Asia. The Chinese deliver the basic ingredients, which include methamphetamine, while the Thais organise transport and trafficking is in Vietnamese hands, Stüssi said.
The traffickers brought the pills into Switzerland mainly through the Zurich airport, police said.
Like methamphetamines, the Thai pills concentrate can be smoked, injected, snorted or taken by mouth to produce a stimulating effect, or high. Authorities pointed out that in 1997 alone, nearly 500 people died in the United States after abusing methamphetamines.
By Paul Sufrin