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Drugs: Running high on dhows and drones

The seizure on May 13 was the biggest haul for the agencies fighting drug trafficking in India
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 02:33 IST

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It has been five years since Zubair Derakhshandeh started sailing from the ports in Iran and Pakistan in vessels loaded with drugs to be delivered to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia as well as several countries in Africa. Each trip lasted about three weeks and earned him about Pakistani Rupees 1.5 lakh. He had his luck run out when the “mother-ship” he sailed in from the Chabahar Port in Iran was waiting in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kerala for the dhows to deliver 2525 Kgs of best quality methamphetamine drugs to India. A joint operation by the Narcotics Control Bureau and the Indian Coast Guard on May 13 last led to the seizure of the entire consignment – neatly packed in 134 bags of different Basmati Rice brands – worth about Rs 25000 crore and, of course, arrest of Zubair.

Credit: DH Graphic
Credit: DH Graphic

The seizure on May 13 was the biggest haul for the agencies fighting drug trafficking in India and it underscored the need for them to focus on dealing with the increasing use of sea-routes to smuggle narcotics into the country. The NCB estimated that nearly 70% of the drugs were being smuggled into the country through the sea-routes.

Zubair hails from Balochistan in Pakistan. The 29-year-old worked for the international cartel run by Haji Salim, who over the past few years emerged as the “Pablo Escobar” of “Golden Crescent” – the infamous heroin-producing areas straddling Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Salim grew up in Afghanistan but shifted his base to Pakistan. He now controls the ‘Southern Route’ that starts from the Makran Coast of Iran and Pakistan and runs across the Arabian Sea, not only up to the southern coast of India but also to Sri Lanka, Maldives and even some countries in Africa.

Like Zubair, Murtaza Yamin was also a foot soldier of a drug cartel operating in the “Golden Crescent” region. He lived in Ibrahim Haidari village in the Malir district of Karachi and was offered a fishing boat on loan by an acquaintance in February 2021. He was later lured into drug trafficking and was asked to deliver 30 Kg of heroin to another operative of the cartel near the Pakistan-India maritime border. He was offered Rs 9 lakh for the job with Rs 2 lakh as advance.

But Yamin and his associates were caught by a joint team of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) of the Gujarat Police. The seizure was worth about Rs 300 crore.

Over the past five years, 58 Pakistanis, 21 Iranians and four Afghans have been arrested by the Gujarat ATS, the ICG and other agencies with 1,200 kgs of heroin.

Drug trafficking in containers

Two years ago, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) intercepted at the Mundra Port in Gujarat a heroin shipment of about 2,990 kgs, which was valued at over Rs 21,000 crore in the international market. The officials said that it was shipped by a cartel, which had expertise in smuggling through containers.

The investigation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) revealed that an Afghan father-son duo – Mohammad Hussain Daad and Mohammad Hassam Daad – along with others were behind the smuggling of the two containers of heroin concealed in talc.

The seizure at the Mundra Port was the biggest for the agencies of India, of course till the May 13 haul off the coast of Kerala surpassed it in terms of monetary value.

The NIA revealed that a similar consignment had already made its way to Delhi from the Mundra Port, processed at a bungalow in Sainik Farm in Delhi and was sold off at various places, including Punjab.

Credit: DH Graphic
Credit: DH Graphic

The probe by the agency revealed that the heroin consignment had been smuggled by an "international racket”, which had been trafficking narcotic substances to India through the sea-routes as “part of an international conspiracy” to raise funds for the purpose of "terror activities against India and destroying the health of its youth”. The NIA chargesheeted 42 accused in this case.

The Taliban’s return to power in Kabul in August 2021 was followed by a spurt in poppy cultivation across Afghanistan. Besides, the easy availability of the native plant, ephedra, which grows on the foothills of Afghanistan and Iran and is a natural ingredient for making meth, has boosted the production of the drug.

For long, Kodiyakarai and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, due to their geographical proximity to Sri Lanka, were used by the now-defunct LTTE and other Tamil militant groups to smuggle arms and drugs into Sri Lanka. Kodiyakarai was also a major landing point for smuggling gold from the Gulf region through Sri Lanka. But, now the same route is being used to smuggle drugs, whose consumption has increased exponentially in Tamil Nadu over the years.

Some Sri Lankan refugees, currently lodged at a special camp in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, were in 2022 booked for their links to the Haji Salim cartel. They were arrested in a case related to drug smuggling from Pakistan to Sri Lanka through the sea-route. The NIA also suspected that they could be involved in narcotics trafficking to revive the LTTE.

Officials said most of the drugs are smuggled to Sri Lanka through India and from the island nation it is supplied to several other countries including those in the Indian Ocean Region.

The fishermen from Tamil Nadu are also used as couriers to smuggle drugs from India to Sri Lanka. “The boats carry drugs to Sri Lanka and, on the return journey, bring back gold smuggled in from the Gulf to the neighbouring island nation,” said a police officer.

“Old handlers of LTTE who were smuggling arms might now be doing the drug business,” a Sri Lanka watcher, based out of TN, told DH.

The consumption of drugs in TN has also increased with the state police launching four operations to seize ganja. As many as 47,248 kg of ganja were seized, and 20,014 cases have been registered since 2021.

While most seizures of synthetic drugs were earlier limited to comparatively small quantities, recently a series of seizures of synthetic drugs in large quantities through the sea were effected by various Indian agencies as well as by Sri Lanka agencies based on inputs given by Indian agencies.

An enforcement official told DH that this trend seems to be the outcome of the political turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan region.

Kerala has been witnessing a spurt in narcotic cases since 2015, which is considered to be a fallout of the Congress government's decision to shut all bars in the state. Even as bars were reopened in due course, the synthetic drug rackets made firm roots by then. While the number of cases registered by the police under the NDPS Act in 2016 was 5924, it reached 26,629 in 2022.

E N Suresh, Additional Excise Commissioner (Enforcement) of Kerala, said there were instances of drugs being sent by parcels to the state from places like Andaman. It was suspected that drugs from Pakistan and Afghanistan were smuggled to Andaman through the sea-routes.

According to the latest report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), South Asia remains an important transit route for traffickers smuggling illicitly produced opiates from Afghanistan to Europe and North America.

“In addition, the five coastal countries in South Asia, namely Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are exposed to trafficking because of maritime trafficking routes that cross the Indian Ocean. India, in particular, has noted an intensification of trafficking in opiates originating in Afghanistan and trafficked eastward, along the southern route,” the 2022 report released in March 2023, notes and exposes the vulnerability of the ports of India.

The Indian Coast Guard officials said the vast seas with overlapping jurisdiction provide avenues for anti- nationals to exploit the sea routes by posing themselves as mariners at work at sea.

“The Maritime Law Enforcement has been strengthened multifold and the hawk-eye vigil by the ICG in our near coast and blue waters has resulted in the seizure of weapons, contraband and narcotics worth Rs. 2924 crores. The recent cases of apprehension of Pakistani boat ‘Al Sohili’ with about 40 kg of narcotics along with six pistols, 12 magazines and120 live rounds are telling examples of ICG’s robust detection and response mechanism against such inimical designs,” ICG officials said.

The Narcotics Control Bureau along with state police is trying to plug loopholes to stop contraband being smuggled in from the ports. “India's proximity to the Golden Crescent and Golden Triangle has made it vulnerable to the trafficking of drugs,” police officials said.

As India enhanced surveillance along its border with Pakistan after the February 14, 2019 terror attack in Pulwama, the drug traffickers started using drones to smuggle narcotics across the border. The data revealed that the BSF and other agencies shot down 28 drones carrying drugs and weapons.

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Published 02 June 2023, 23:27 IST

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