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Seizure of Afghan meth on high seas triggers concern

Sri Lankan police personnel standing next to drugs seized by the Navy.

Sri Lankan police personnel standing next to drugs seized by the Navy.   | Photo Credit: AFP

It indicates trend of the contraband being smuggled out through well-established heroin trafficking route, says official

Tipped off by national drug-enforcement counterparts, the Sri Lankan Navy set out for the high seas in the last week of February and intercepted two trawlers in international waters, more than 1,000 km off the country’s coast. While the operation resulted in the country’s biggest ever drug bust at sea, with the seizure of 400 kg of heroin, what was far more worrying for the region’s drug fighters was that the seized contraband included 100 kg of crystal methamphetamine.

The drug haul was valued at $33.50 million and 16 crewmen, including eight Pakistani nationals, were detained. Initial investigations suggested that the boats came from Pakistan’s Makran coast, with the drugs presumed to have originated in Afghanistan.

Several seizures

Several seizures of Afghan-origin heroin in the high seas of the region have been made in the recent past. Since April 2015, more than 3,700 kg of heroin have been intercepted in India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Also, 430 kg was intercepted in Mozambique on December 29, 2019, with the detention of 13 Pakistani nationals.

“Heroin seizures are common,” said a senior Indian Customs official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “However, it is the seizure of 100 kg of the methamphetamine that has alarmed the drug enforcement agencies in India and other countries. It is the indication of an emerging trend of meth produced in Afghanistan being smuggled out through an already well-established route for heroin trafficking to different parts of the world,” the official added.

Party drug

Also known as meth, crystal, glass, ice, speed and shards, methamphetamine is a psychostimulant “party” drug. It is much cheaper and highly addictive compared to cocaine. Its effect may last for over 12 hours. In contrast, heroin is a depressant.

In Afghanistan, meth is known to locals as “shisha (glass).” About a decade ago, there were barely any indicators of it being in widespread use in the war-torn country. In May 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)-Kabul and the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan had confirmed a minuscule four-gram seizure in the Helmand province on January 31 that year.

“Nevertheless, with this first seizure, Afghanistan has crossed a worrying threshold,” the UNODC observed in a report. “The manifold challenges of the opium economy have placed a heavy burden on Afghanistan and the rise of methamphetamine consumption/production would be an unwelcome addition,” it added.

Late reaction

Noting that the history of the Golden Triangle (the opium-producing area where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet) demonstrated that meth production could have significant impacts on an opium economy, rapidly transforming a plant-based narcotics challenge into a challenge of tracking large synthetic laboratories, the UNODC said many countries had reacted too late to the development of meth markets.

About eight years later, the UNODC’s first Afghanistan Synthetic Drugs Assessment Report (2017) said meth was available in the country in “small quantities and at relatively high prices.” The usual wholesale price for 1 kg of meth was said to be between $10,000 and $15,000, against the $5,000-$7,000 range for heroin. Prices of “shisha” in Herat, Kabul, Mazar, Nangarhar and other areas were also recorded.

The local user base of meth was on the rise, but there was no data-driven indication of the substance being smuggled overseas. For long it was suspected that synthetic meth was coming from neighbouring Iran, where the drug was introduced from southeast Asia and later produced domestically.

Things changed dramatically after air raids by the United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces on May 6, 2019, when they claimed to have targeted 68 drug laboratories in south-western Afghanistan. Subsequent ground studies unearthed meth labs.

Bulk production

A startling revelation was that the meth in the country was being produced in bulk using ephedrine extracted from a shrub locally known as Oman (Ephedra) growing in the wild in the Afghan mountains, including in Helmand, Ghazni and Wardak.

The shift from use of chemical to plant-based ephedrine for making meth was very recent, in 2018. Proof of the shrub being harvested and transported in huge quantities started emerging. In the third quarter of 2019, more than 900 kg of meth was seized in Afghanistan. However, still there was no clarity on where all the meth being produced in the country was going.

“The huge seizure in Sri Lanka has perhaps cleared the air,” the Customs official observed. “This shift is suspected to have been triggered by the 2018 drought in Afghanistan, in which large tracts of opium [used in heroin production] crops were destroyed. The UNODC report (29 January, 2019) stated that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan peaked in 2017, after which it declined,” the official added, explaining the move to meth.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 1:51:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/seizure-of-afghan-meth-on-high-seas-triggers-concern/article31136531.ece

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