Drug cartels look at Indian operatives for bulk supply

In January, the Customs Department received a ‘vague information’ that a New Delhi-based racket would use ‘citizens from Africa’ to smuggle narcotics out of the country through the international airport here.

Since then, its Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) doggedly profiled ‘high risk’ passengers and observed them covertly for behavioural clues, including signs of anxiety, which, it hoped, would indicate concealment of contraband.

Enforcers said the accuracy of using remote and hasty analysis of body language to detect drug smugglers in a crowded airport environment was questionable.

But the method bore fruit for Assistant Commissioner Sanjay Bangartale and his team on Wednesday when they intercepted a Zimbabwean student studying Law in New Delhi and seized 30 kg ephedrine hydrochloride, a controlled substance, from her baggage. She was bound to Johannesburg, via Qatar.

On Thursday, the New Delhi Customs arrested an air-passenger, a Nigerian citizen, with 9 kg of ephedrine concealed in his baggage, officials here said.

Investigators said the two back-to-back seizures pointed to the increasing production and rising abuse, at home, of methamphetamine (meth). (Its street names included meth, crystal meth, ice, crack, and speed).

Ephedrine, commonly used in nasal decongestants and cough syrups, is a vital ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine, along with red phosphorous and hydriodic acid.

With meth steadily becoming the ‘recreational drug of choice’ in the country, because it was easier, faster, and cheaper to produce than heroin or marijuana, the demand for and availability of its main component, ephedrine, in the black market had increased, investigators said. In March, the Hyderabad police had arrested two Chemistry students on the charge of purifying ephedrine in a makeshift backyard laboratory allegedly to make meth.

The ‘ragingly addictive narcotic’ was also referred to as ‘poor man’s cocaine’ in tourist destinations because its narcotic effects were stated to be similar to that of the premium drug.

Officials said ephedrine had become scarce, and consequently highly priced, in African and Latin American countries where the widespread abuse of meth had caused authorities to reduce the domestic availability of the substance.

They said the drug mafia in these regions were now partnering with their counterparts in India to obtain bulk quantities of ephedrine sourced from rogue chemical companies, which do little legitimate business.

Investigators said ephedrine, which costs an estimated Rs.35,000 a kg here, accrued nearly 10 times its value once it reached foreign destinations, the reason why its smuggling was on the increase. Additional Commissioner Sophia M. Joy supervised the operation.

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