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Heroin and prostitution take toll on China's border with Myanmar

RUILI, China—Stand along this border city's Jiegang Road, and it takes only a few minutes to pick out the heroin peddlers making deals amid a sea of prostitutes.

The downside to China's growing trade with neighboring Myanmar is that heroin trafficking has grown rampantly. So have drug addictions, the sex trade and HIV infections.

Myanmar is the world's No. 2 producer of illegal opium, after Afghanistan. It's also the biggest supplier of methamphetamine in Asia, according to the U.S. State Department.

Ruili is an important link between the opium-producing Golden Triangle—in Myanmar, Laos and northern Thailand—and smuggling routes through China and on to Southeast Asia, Australia and North America. Opium can be processed into heroin. A vial of heroin costs 35 Chinese yuan, or barely over $4.

"We arrested 805 drug peddlers last year," Mayor Gong Nengzheng said. "We also confiscated 1,028 kilograms (2,262 pounds) of heroin."

It was only a drop in the bucket.

On a recent night, Chinese police cruisers patrolled the notorious road. But within a minute of their passing, street dealing would begin again.

"The police are trying to arrest those who use drugs, but there are too many of them," said Huo Liyu, an electronics merchant.

The next morning, a disheveled woman squatted, made a pipe from a bottle, then smoked crushed methamphetamine tablets, known locally as "yama."

Dozens of brothels line the central road, and a trick costs less than a cup of premium Starbucks coffee in one of China's larger cities.

Ruili's HIV infection toll is unknown, but appears to be rampant. A man spotted injecting heroin into his arm admitted that he had AIDS. Intravenous injection of heroin, and the re-use of needles, which exacerbates the spread of HIV, is common. The United Nations says Ruili is a locus of HIV infection in China.

The city has attracted a contingent of small-time Muslim drug peddlers from Myanmar's Arakan state and from China's far west Xinjiang region.

Some traffickers have been given long prison terms. A few have been executed. But police corruption remains a problem, and others have gotten off the hook.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-MYANMAR

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060306 MYANMAR

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