KATCHO, Myanmar (AFP) - Armed with batons and the bible, church-backed vigilantes are taking the fight against northern Myanmar's heroin epidemic into their own hands -- deepening the fallout from a drugs trade already feeding conflict and corruption in
On the leafy banks of the Irrawaddy river, locals from Katcho village in Kachin state tread carefully among abundant evidence of addiction -- scores of syringes strewn on the pathway and piled under trees.
"Young people have no future here," said a local official whose own 18-year-old grandson is hooked on heroin -- which in Kachin is among the purest available anywhere in the world.
Addiction has rocketed in this frontier region as Myanmar -- which holds a breakthrough general election on November 8 -- gets hooked on its own product.
The country is second largest opium producer in the world, only Afghanistan makes more.
In addition to a narcotics crisis, Katcho locals now live in fear of hardline Christian anti-drug organisation, Pat Jasan, after dozens of men in combat-style uniforms recently stormed into town, wielding batons and rounding up drug suspects.
Members of Pat Jasan, who are largely ethnic Kachin, allegedly beat a woman in the Shan majority town.
The raid raised fears of a new layer of community tension in a state already battered by war between government forces and ethnic Kachin rebels.
- 'Using, injecting and dying' -
Conflict in Kachin flared soon after the military handed power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
Embattled communities believe there is a plot "to kill Kachin youths with drugs" said Tu Raw, chairman of Pat Jasan's office in the state capital Myitkyina.
"People are using, injecting and dying," he told AFP, adding two thirds of his childhood friends had died after becoming hooked on heroin.
The group was founded last year by the powerful Kachin Baptist Church to deliver shock therapy to the drug-addled region.
It now claims 100,000 members and recently began full-scale village raids involving several hundred people wearing camouflage jackets and brandishing bamboo batons.
Tu Raw admitted some Pat Jasan chapters rely on public floggings to punish offenders before taking them to faith-based rehab or the police.
But for Pat Jasan the ends justifies the means.
Their work is fanning out, with YouTube videos doing the rounds of camo-clad men scything down opium plants.
In Hpakant, a six hour drive from the state capital, Pat Jasan member Du Lum says drug suspects have two choices: punishment by the police or the group's "drug destruction team."
"Everyone including government knows they are our rules. We destroy drugs by either dissolving them into water or burning them, and punish men with five lashings," he told AFP.
- Easy prey -
Kachin's heroin crisis centres on Hpakant, a moonscape of environmental destruction which is also at the heart of a multi-billion dollar jade mining industry.
Miners, trapped between hope of finding a valuable slab of jade and despair at the bleak conditions of their perilous work, are easy prey for addiction.
Naw San, who has been in Hpakant for 26 years, shoots heroin three times a day.
"I use it and then go out to work," he told AFP, before dipping a needle into a vein to extract blood, watching it swirl with the heroin in his syringe and pumping it back into his arm.
The drug has a purity of up to 85 per cent here, compared to a maximum 30 per cent on the streets of Europe.
"So you've got the best quality heroin in the world," said Willy De Maere, of Asian Harm Reduction Network, which supports government methadone programmes and runs needle exchanges in Hpakant.
Around a fifth of Myanmar's 80,000 injecting drug users have HIV. In Hpakant that rises to nearly 40 per cent.
Aid workers said "shooting galleries" had started to reduce the infection rate with 97 per cent of used needles exchanged for clean ones.
But pressure from communities fearful that they were encouraging drug use saw many closed, pushing addicts underground.
With only around half of needles now being returned, HIV is on the rise again.
- Taking a cut -
Myanmar's drug trade should be a priority for the government that followings crucial November elections, a Western diplomat told AFP, adding it could "destroy this country from below".
Narcotics production has long funded war in Myanmar, with both ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar army involved in the trade in war-torn Shan state near the "Golden Triangle" frontier with China.
Impoverished farmers in northern Myanmar have few viable alternatives to growing opium.
The drug is valued in local culture, passed around at weddings and used as a painkiller.
Yet the drug crisis was not given prominence when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took her election campaign to Kachin earlier this month.
Myanmar was overtaken by Afghanistan as the world's largest opium producer in the early 2000s.
But poppy cultivation has doubled since 2006, while cartels now also churn out millions of methamphetamine tablets.
Illicit profits flow easily in the graft-soaked nation.
Tom Kramer of advocacy group Transnational Institute said Myanmar's army was "stimulating the drugs trade rather than decreasing it", by backing militia groups in Shan state involved in heroin and amphetamine.
"In Shan State but also in Yangon many new houses are going up. It is likely that this is partly funded by drug money," said Kramer.
It is "impossible to buy these cars and these houses" on official salaries, he added.