Tuesday, March 19, 2019 6:31 am IST

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India’s Golden Triangle

Sandwiched between the heroin producing states of Pakistan and Afghanistan on the west and Myanmar (Burma) on its east, India continues to be a vital link in the drug smuggling pipeline to the West. Federal Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) officials claim nearly 10 tonnes of heroin and at least twice that amount of Ganja found its way across India’s porous borders, past conniving border guards and along well ‘oiled’ paths to Europe and the United States via air and sea routes.

“For every 1 kg seized at least 10 to 15 gets across,” said a senior Narcotics Bureau official in New Delhi. He said the Bureau had seized around 1120 kgs of heroin, mostly from its western borders in 1997 and that merely a handful of officials and smugglers had been charged. But he admitted that such was their financial and political clout that few prosecutions were expected.

Security officials, meanwhile, said more recently that insurgent groups fighting for independence in India’s north-eastern states and Sri Lanka‘s Tamil Tiger rebels waging war since 1983 for a homeland in the north and east of the island in which over 50,000 people have died, had jointly opened up another, newer front to smuggle drugs to the West and buy weapons from the proceeds.

They said drug syndicates loaded heroin ferried in from Pakistan and Burma onto simple fishing boats in the southern Indian towns of Tuticorn, Ramnad and Chennai (formerly Madras) that were unloaded on Sri Lanka’s western coastline less than 20 miles away en route to the West. Recently, however, officials said there had been an increase in smuggling large quantities of Methaqualone or Mandrax – more popularly known as ‘speed’ – manufactured in India – to Sri Lanka, from where it found its way to South Africa which has emerged as a major user.

Meanwhile, ‘Number Four’ in India’s north-eastern states of Manipur, neighboring Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam is more than just a numeral, even to school children. It is the colloquial name for heroin, processed to the lethal fourth stage of purification and one that has a debilitating hold over countless numbers of youth in this region bordering Burma from where the narcotic comes. Using makeshift injections – a syringe needle attached to an eyedropper – addicts in this area shoot themselves up with heroin bought in 10mg packets for around 80 rupees ($2) each. Others, unable to rig up even this crude injecting kit, sniff heroin fumes by roasting the narcotic in tinfoil.

Officials said the age of initiation into heroin use in Manipur is around 12 years while the addicts’ collective daily requirement averages between 5 – 6 kgs. Estimates of amounts of heroin moved annually through the region vary from a few kilos with a local street value of a few thousand rupees, to scores of kilograms worth millions of dollars.

A sample survey by a team of doctors of Manipur’s Churachandpur district, bordering Burma, recently revealed alarming figures of addiction – around 67 per cent of regular heroin users were school children who, in many cases, also doubled as couriers. But failing to grasp the intensity of the problem, the local government has shown token concern at best by holding a handful of seminars to discuss the problem and holding a few de-addiction camps with an appallingly low rate of cure. A devastating corollary to the drug menace is the incidence of AIDS amongst Manipur’s 17 million people, the highest in the country.

Over the past 15 years, Manipur, Nagaland and to a lesser extent Assam has become a transit link for drug smugglers operating from the Golden Triangle states of Laos, Thailand and Burma. Their contiguity to the thickly forested Somra Tract in Burma, the northern end of which is ruled by private armies running drug-manufacturing units, makes it childishly simple to nudge huge quantities of heroin into the area en route to other parts of western and northern India. From here the heroin is sent overseas via air and sea routes. Six drug refineries have also been reported along the Chindwin trail in Burma with their nerve centre at Kalemyo that operate under the patronage of the Burmese army.

Kalemyo is developing as a major communications centre with roads from India and China converging here. Narcotics officials said at least three drug corridors from Kalemyo towards neighboring Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh were emerging as major transit points for drugs coming into India across jungle tracts and innumerable estuaries and waterways impossible to police.

In its raw form of morphine the heroin originates from Thailand and Laos before being shipped for chemical processing to Burma. Enormous Jerry cans of Acetic Anhydride, the chemical used to refine heroin from morphine to the fatal fourth level, are smuggled from India into Burma, giving the drug its local nomenclature in the region.

Once the white powder is ready, couriers, including women familiar with the forested terrain, safely ferry the drug to India, often with help from Border Security Force personnel (BSF) manning India’s borders. Sometimes, herds of cattle and goats grazing freely around the lush border areas are made to swallow heroin-filled condoms that are then recovered from their excreta once they have made the crossing. Another safer but lesser used method of getting ” Number Four ” across is by secreting it in shipments of rice and teak imported legitimately from Burma via the border town of Moreh (see side-bar) in Manipur. But the risks of interception are relatively high and only resorted to once the ‘ bandobust’ or arrangement with the BSF and Narcotics officials is guaranteed.

Narcotics Bureau officials said local Mahajans (traders); operating under political patronage, control the region’s drug trafficking, their connections making it difficult to run them to ground. And though armed militant groups that have been fighting for independence for several decades wrack the entire region, officials claim that unlike in the western sector bordering Pakistan, there are few signs of a drug-weapon link. Many insurgent groups like the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur and the highly organized and disciplined National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac – Muivah) are intolerant of drug smugglers and users and have been known to execute traders and carriers.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, remains one of the world’s largest illicit opium producers. According to the United Nations International Drug Control Program it had 55,000- 58,000 hectares under opium cultivation in 1996 with an estimated yield of around 2,300 metric tonnes. More than 200,000 Afghan families were dependent on opium cultivation the levels growing due to social and economic factors exacerbated by the country’s continuing 20-year old civil war.

By 1980, however, the Islamic revolution in Iran, a crackdown on drugs in Turkey and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan pushed the drug trade into Pakistan and its eight Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These Agencies strung along the 700-mile long border with Afghanistan and contiguous to Pakistan’s North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces were specially demarcated by the colonial government in the early 1900s, as they were unable to quell the quarrelsome, belligerent and war-loving tribals. A British civil servant, designated an Agent, was posted in each of the Agencies to liaise between the government and the tribal Maliks or chieftains.

For centuries, these tribes have been governed according to Pukhtunwali or the code of Pathan by which friendship is sacred and an enemy shown no sympathy. To some extent the British managed to arrive at a workable arrangement with the Maliks and maintained an uneasy peace in the area and after India was partitioned in 1947, Pakistan continued to follow the colonial system with regard to the tribal Agencies. Pakistani law, like British law earlier, is not applicable in these Agencies where rough and ready justice often bordering on the barbaric is meted out by the Jirgah or tribal council comprising Maliks.

This in turn spawned hundreds of opium refining laboratories in this region. By 1984 nearly 90 drug cartels were operating in Pakistan, having penetrated all corridors of power including the army’s powerful National Logistic cell and the omnipotent Inter Services Intelligence which collaborated with America’s Central Intelligence Agency in arming and running the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet army.

By this time Pakistan had become the provider of 70 per cent of the world’s illicit heroin, a majority of it being sent to Europe and the United States through the Indian states of Punjab and Kashmir in the north and Rajasthan and the neighboring Gujarat state in the West. Through the 1980s the ISI pumped in large quantities of heroin through Sikh separatists fighting for an independent homeland in Punjab State, providing them with arms in exchange. Once militancy was eliminated in Punjab around 1992, neighboring Kashmir where armed separatists continue their civil war against India became the main heroin inlet into India.

According to the 1993-94 Narcotics Control Board annual report heroin seizures had increased 150 per cent from the Jammu region on the India-Pakistan border over the previous year while hashish registered a 139 per cent increase over the same period. Acetic Anhydride had also more than doubled from 19,758 liters to 43,270 liters.

Security officials said there is a growing nexus between drugs and weapons in South Asia, in which the volume and profits involved were enough to classify it as an ‘established industry’ obeying its own rules and making a mockery of all laws. And, when it operates, as it increasingly does in connivance with security agencies and powerful political connections, it acquires a frightening dimension taking upon itself the functions of the State itself- finance, power and the most deadly of all, its own private, often invisible army.

*The article is written by Rahul Bedi.

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